Laying claim to technological futures

At the recent Association of American Geographers annual conference in Boston I was lucky enough to take part in an interesting session: “Governing Technologies(I) – Representation, participation and governance in the ‘digital age'”, organised by Matt Wilson and Kevin Ramsey of U Washington.

I particularly enjoyed talks by Jeremy Crampton on ‘progressive’ political blogs as cartographies of left-leaning American politics, Richard Donahue on critical cartography, digital mapping and how participatory GIS might be usefully engaged with, and Matt Wilson on cyborg subjectivation (via Harraway) in relation to GIS technologies.

My own talk was an attempt to articulate one of the specific questions that is arising in my research, and how we might look to answering: Do anticipatory practices of technology development condition expectations for those technologies? What follows is an edited and tidied version of my notes.

I am interested in exploring the development of ubiquitous computing as a varied research agenda that has to a significant extent been driven by anticipation of technological arrangements set in a proximal future. I’d like to highlight some of the influential stories told about ubiquitous computing and examples of how particular companies have constructed future visions during technical development.

I feel it is important to reflect upon the practices of anticipation being employed in ubiquitous computing development. What I suggest is demonstrated are anticipatory logics, as underlying frameworks, and techniques, as particular methods. These anticipatory logics and techniques suggest forms of future-oriented agency, which is played out amongst the arrangements of actors that make up ubiquitous computing research and development.

In the case of ubiquitous computing, attempts to channel and direct agendas have not necessarily been implemented from traditional positions of authority. Rather they have coalesced from diffuse angles into moments of coherence that some argue implement ‘regimes of hope’. I will discuss the ambiguity of these so-called ‘regimes’ as sites or moments of contestation between alternate motivations of technically enabled freedoms and control. I think, in my research, I can accordingly signal how we might go about further investigating anticipatory practices in ubiquitous computing development. I believe this will open opportunities to examine future-oriented practices.

I’d like to begin by framing what is to come in the presentation with a question:

Do anticipatory practices of technology development condition expectations for those technologies?

To unpack what I am asking here, I could break the question down as:

How do the developers of ubiquitous computing envision and anticipate what they are working on?

  • How are such practices rationalised – what are the underlying logics?
  • How are these practices performed – what are the techniques?

Unpacking ubiquitous (pervasive, public & urban) computing

To begin with the case study of ubiquitous computing, I’d like to reflect on the stories of the development of ubiquitous computing. These narratives speak directly to the visions that have been imagined throughout their ongoing development. I have already written a little about the emergence of ubiquitous computing from a geographical persepctive. Suffice it to say that, in an influential Scientific American article in 1991, Mark Weiser, a very prominent computer scientist, coined the term ‘ubiquitous computing’ to describe the diffusion of computers throughout the everyday lived environment. Weiser spear-headed this research agenda at the Palo Alto Research Center, then owned by Xerox.

In the first sentence of Weiser’s now oft-quoted article he sums up the ethos of the research and development he anticipated for ubiquitous computing:

“The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it”

The story of ubiquitous computing might be told as an inter-related set of agendas that arose from the impetus of the growth of the personal computer and the slightly fantastical visions, at the time. One way of framing this story is the different ways in which very similar near-futures have been imagined.

Diagram charting the growth of ubiquitous computing research agendas

I’d like to caveat this diagram by saying it is, of course, a post rationalisation of the agendas that have emerged from different institutions and organisations. I have sketched four agendas that sit prominently in the discussion and publications about ‘ubiquitous computing’ style research and development. Starting with:

Ubiquitous computing – is an ongoing anticipation and imagining of a range of technologies that have been in perpetual development. For approximately 20 years it has been the promise of technologies yet to come. In that time several other inter-related agendas have emerged to describe similar and focussed project and research strategies –

Pervasive computing – described as “largely applied either in relatively homogeneous rural areas, or in small-scale well-defined patches of the built environment such as smart houses or rooms” (Paulos et al. 2004). The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers specialist journal on Pervasive Computing explicitly ties it back to Weiser’s work. The journal blurb explains that:

“The essence of this vision is the creation of environments saturated with computing and wireless communication, yet gracefully integrated with human users.”

Urban computing – described as “the integration of computing, sensing, and actuation technologies into everyday urban settings and lifestyles.” Following projections from UN urbanisations reports a number of researchers have taken urban environments as a specific arena of development. This research is frequently articulated as looking at new methods of navigating and viewing cities, communities and neighbourhoods.

Public computing – is perhaps the most different from the PARC vision of ubiquitous computing and perhaps more radical in its outlook. Drawing on the examples of distributed computing projects such as the SETI@home screensaver, some espouse a shift towards thinking about all of the devices that contain microprocessors as general computational devices. According to such a standpoint we would be surrounded by a computational capacity to implement a vision not unlike Weiser’s, of computing embedded into the woodwork of everyday life.

A significant amount of the research in these arenas is conducted in corporate R&D labs, often in concert with university research groups, and particular groups and projects subscribe to different mixes of these agendas. Moving on from these over-arching future-oriented narratives to the examples of specific projects we can see how general concepts have been translated into quite specific and lucid visions.

Visions in-practice: CoolTown

“There’s this place called CoolTown, today it’s a vision of scientists, engineers and other researchers at HP Labs”¦ It’s a vision of a world where everybody and everything is connected wirelessly through the world wide web, where people, places and even objects have websites.”

These are the words that introduced Hewlett Packard’s “CoolTown” research agenda in a corporate promotional video. In the early part of this decade HP launched a high profile research project exploring the implications of the ubiquitous computing agenda. According to a senior engineer for the project Tim Kindberg, CoolTown was centred upon the simple question: what happens when people, places and things have web addresses?

A collection of projects was carried out to explore various aspects of this proposition. Some of these spawned further projects, which have been opened to the public such as the ‘m-scape‘ project led by HP Labs Bristol. One of the significant outputs, both in reach and in cost, was the production of highly crafted videos visualising a future in which CoolTown technologies are commonplace. To quote again from the main CoolTown video:

“CoolTown technology will find its way into [many] parts of our lives – in stores, at home, or at play”¦ CoolTown: its just down the road.”

Visons in-practice: Future personal health

At last month’s “Mix 08” corporate conference, Microsoft played a video created by its Office Labs to share their vision of the future of personal health. The clip you can see here is taken from a leaked version of this video found on YouTube. It is apparently the third so-called ‘future vision’ video created by Microsoft’s Industry Innovations Group, and was first shown last summer.

What we are presented with is an astonishingly polished vision of a world of seamlessly integrated computing technologies, literally built into the woodwork. Every surface seems to potentially be an interactive screen. The clinics and hospitals presented are white, clean and sterile. The transaction shown is apparently American. One might say that it almost evokes an image of Huxely’s ‘Brave New World’. The full version of this video on YouTube has been viewed more than 100,000 times since being uploaded in March and has attracted widespread comment. Reaction has been mixed, some welcome the attention to health care, others criticise the absence of illness and frailty. The lack of relation to existing experiences of health epitomises the sterility of this essentially corporate vision.

Expert prediction

There are two experiences to which I would like to relate these ways of envisioning: The first is that, when I tell people I am researching the ways in which technology developers, such as HP and Microsoft, anticipate how we will use technologies they often say:

“So, you can tell me which new [computer/ laptop/ mobile phone] to buy”

The second is that, there are frequent articles and TV programmes that cite those involved in apparently ‘predicting’ the future. These ‘futurologists’ often make very definite statements, when speaking about the future it is fashionable to say:

In the future we will all be”¦” doing/ using x,y or z.

Anticipatory logics and techniques.

It was recently highlighted in a special edition of the journal ‘technology analysis and strategic management‘ on the ‘sociology of expectation‘ (Borup et al. 2006) that:

‘By definition, innovation in contemporary science and technology is an intensely future-oriented business with an emphasis on the creation of new opportunities and capabilities’

This future-orientation is certainly clear in ubiquitous computing research.

I’d like to unpack this future orientation as a range of anticipatory logics, underlying rationales for relating to technological futures. In my broader research project I have identified a range of logics that can be described as: expectation, forecasting, foresight, hope, promise, precaution & preparedness. I would like to focus on one particular logic of anticipation here: hope.

As Ben Anderson (2006: 733-4) has said: ‘there is an intuitive understanding that hope matters because it discloses the creation of potentiality or possibility and thus involves the postulate that reality overflows all possible reckonings’. In a sense hope can be identified as a pre-personal force, a rationale that stretches beyond the bare facts of the moment, it is an atunement not only to a future that one has divined but to a collective sense of futurity. Hope is thus something of a collective experience, which is not to say that each person feels it identically but that hope, following the work of Gilles Deleuze, is an affective resonance between embodied beings. Understood in this way I’d like to draw upon recent sociological research into experimental surgery by Moreira and Palladino (2005) who identify ‘regimes of hope’ (ibid. 67):

“the view that better treatments are always about to come, being tested, in the pipeline. More specifically, research and development is justified by the promise of finding miraculous cures for debilitating diseases.”

We can accordingly identify different iterations of inter-related regimes of hope that make up the broader ubiquitous computing agenda.

Firstly – one might suggest that each of the over-arching narratives of pervasive, public, urban and ubiquitous computing are regimes of hope, I showed earlier how each has a particular take on proximate technological futures.

Secondly – we can see how each of the two examples I have explored might be, in and of themselves, regimes of hope. They instil an expectation for quite particular future scenarios in everyday life.

The continued production of these visions, through new videos ensures that such futures remain futures – they are not actualised. We can also see how such expectations are articulated in the ways in which people relate to apparent experts. An aspect of their hope is that they can provide a certainty for what is to-come – consumers can thus be confident in their commitment to a product or service. Hopes situated as affective dispositions draw upon tacit knowledges, participation is less a considered opinion than a feeling of optimism or sense of a positive outcome.

Governments play little part in the hopes surrounding ubiquitous computing – they largely follow the lead of private sector initiatives. Technologies are supported for kudos. Regimes of Hope are thus not directed by traditional seats of authority, rather they can be seen as the entanglement and temporary coherence of perspectives. One might say that this resonates with Negri’s conceptualisation of ‘constitutive power’ (cf. Read 1999). Accordingly, and to tie this back to the theme of the AAG ’08 session ‘governing technologies’, we can think of governance, especially ‘anticipatory governance’, not as solely institutional concern but following David Guston (2007) as:

“A broad-based capacity extended through society that can act on a variety of inputs to manage emerging knowledge-based technologies while [the] management [of visions] is still possible.”

Thus Regimes of Hope are a form of ground-up anticipatory governance, they are emergent and diffuse yet have potential to become conditioning and perhaps regulatory.

What I believe can be identified in this mix, is a sense in which certain actors have more influence than others and particular visions of the future are perhaps given more ground than others. By producing corporate visions companies like HP and Microsoft have a significant influence on the manner in which regimes of hope cohere. There is accordingly a potential for the conditioning of expectations.


In summary, ubiquitous computing can be understood as an array of agendas that centre on imaginative practices of anticipation. Through suggestions of how different future-orientations might be seen as ‘regimes of hope’, we can begin to answer: Whether practices condition, deliberately or otherwise, broader expectations for ubiquitous computing?

Building on the work around emerging technologies, such as Ben Anderson’s on hope and nanotechnology, science studies literature on ‘regimes of hope’ and the sociological literature on expectation I believe there is an interesting space opening for social sciences enquiry into the practices of anticipation as a form of diffuse technological governance.

In my own PhD research I am conducting empirical investigations into how scientists and engineers anticipate and imagine within the development process for particular projects. I intend to investigate how broader narratives or ‘regimes of hope’ inter-relate with the specific practices of development. It is in the development and deployment that the affects of hope come into direct contact with the pragmatic concerns of technology development. My aim is to investigate how and in what ways research into emerging technologies attempts to script and contest futures, as peculiar arrangements of people, places and things.

N.B. I am indebted to Anne Galloway for her useful discussion of expectation and hope with regard to urban computing, which has greatly informed this presentation.

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