Practising tomorrows? PhD Thesis online

I’ve uploaded a PDF of my PhD thesis for people to download [2.1Mb PDF ] should anyone feel so inclined. I have had a finalised version for a little while and have been meaning to make it available but just haven’t got round to it before now.

This work was conducted between 2006 and 2009, with the substantive fieldwork conducted in the summer of 2008 in Silicon Valley. It principally focusses on the ways in which those involved in ubiquitous computing research development, in a corporate context, anticipate particular kinds of future. This work remains interesting and, I would argue, important because “the future” continues to figure as a significant frame of reference in the ways in which we discuss and relate to/through technologies. I have reproduced the abstract, with the inclusion of a key quote, below. Please do get in touch to discuss this work! [ sam (dot) kinsley (at) uwe (dot) ac (dot) uk]

Practising Tomorrows? Ubiquitous computing and the politics of anticipation

Ubiquitous computing (ubicomp) research is characterized primarily by a concern with potential future computational worlds. This notion of research by future envisionment has been a feature of ubicomp discourse and reasoning since it earliest days… Such visions, however, are interesting not just for what they say about the future but also for what they say
about the present. This seems to be particularly the case when it comes to normative social relationships.

Bell & Dourish Yesterday’s tomorrows: notes on ubiquitous computing’s dominant vision

The thesis describes the ways in which technological futurity is a complex array of performative and proactive dispositions towards the future that are irreducible to normative and deterministic understandings of ‘progress’. It takes ubiquitous computing as a significant case study because the future orientation practised in ubiquitous computing research and development is emblematic of the perpetual technological forecasting in which humanity engages. While ubiquitous computing has existed as an agenda for nearly 20 years it is still largely concerned with a future that has not (yet) been realised. In the context of ubiquitous computing the thesis argues that it is necessary to make the politics of anticipation, as the particular discursive and performative ways in which future-orientation is codified and conditioned, explicit in technology development. The thesis therefore enacts a critical framework that charts a discourse of anticipation, as the multiple means for articulating proactive future orientation, internal to which are anticipatory logics that structure and rationalise how such forms of futurity are practised.

The motivation and ambit of the research is to thereby describe a politics of anticipation as the ways in which the anticipation of technological futures is codified and contested, whilst performative and multiple. Empirically, the argument is made through the discussion of interviews conducted with a range of internationally significant practitioners of ubiquitous computing research and development, which were carried out in Silicon Valley, California, in 2008. Attending to discourse, logics and emergent politics of anticipation provides a means of making explicit how our ‘knowledge’ of technological futures is produced. It is therefore argued that we should attend to socio-technical futurity as inherently situated in the living present, with all of its associated concerns, and allow for the indeterminacy of the future.

Practising tomorrows? – Sam Kinsley’s PhD Thesis [2.1Mb PDF ].

Addressing ubicomp: Computing people, places and things

The following is an edited excerpt from my PhD thesis, which articulates the various ways we might understand what we mean by ‘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’ (Weiser, 1991).

‘The goal is to achieve the most effective kind of technology, that which is essentially invisible to the user”¦ I call this future world “Ubiquitous Computing” (Ubicomp) ‘ (Weiser, 1993).

In the last 20 years the idea of ubiquitous computing has been reiterated, revised and extraordinarily expanded. Starting from the premise that computing might be un-tethered from the grey boxes that sit on desks and become ’embedded in the woodwork’ of everyday life, ‘ubicomp’ has come to signify research agendas, an eponymous conference, technical goals, an ethos and a legacy. This thesis focuses upon the future orientation inherent to all of the threads that weave together to form ubicomp. From the outset the details of ubicomp have been positioned in the future. Weiser’s ‘Computer for the 21st Century‘ popularised a research agenda in the guise of a vision that many subsequently adopted. Yet the article was doubly influential because, as Bell and Dourish observe, ‘it also set a rhetorical tone that many have adopted’. Therefore the same concern for near futures is present in contemporary ubicomp agendas, the papers presented in conferences, and the ways in which ‘advances’ in the field are measured.

There are a number of common threads to the various applications of ‘ubicomp’ as a descriptor for research activity. These themes all somewhat branch from the first and most obvious implication of calling it ‘ubiquitous’. It is worth situating the concept in its initial time-space, for when Weiser and his colleagues were experimentally developing the projects that came to make up the ubicomp project there were few affordable personal computers, no ‘World Wide Web’ and mobile telephones could barely fit into a handbag let alone a pocket. The initial experimental systems created as ‘ubi-comp’ at Xerox PARC under Weiser’s leadership were fixed at three scales of device, called ‘tabs’, ‘pads’ and ‘boards’. As Dourish observes, ubicomp proceeded on three tracks, which ‘were known as computation by the inch, the foot and the yard’ (Dourish, 2004), referring to the three types of device. Inch-scale ‘tabs’ were something akin to ‘computationally enhanced Post-It Notes’, foot-scale ‘pads’ were designed as what might now be recognised as ‘tablet PCs’, and yard-scale boards were epitomised by ‘LiveBoard’: ‘a large-scale display”¦ supporting multiple pens, a sort of computationally enhanced whiteboard’. Of course these things were not supposed to exist in isolation, tabs, pads and boards were supposed to be prolific in number and scattered throughout the everyday environment:

‘In the everyday environment, information continually undergoes transformations and translations, and we should expect the same in a computationally enhanced version of that environment such as might be delivered to us by ubiquitous computing’ (Dourish, 2004).

Continue reading “Addressing ubicomp: Computing people, places and things”

Ubiquitous Computing: Mark Weiser’s vision and legacy

This is a sub-section of the first chapter of my PhD thesis, its my attempt to reflect on Mark Weiser’s legacy in the field of ubiquitous computing.

2009 marked the tenth anniversary of the death of Mark Weiser, a man that many believe earned the title ‘visionary’. As a Principal Scientist and subsequently Chief Technology Officer at Xerox PARC, Weiser has been identified as the ‘godfather’ of ubiquitous computing (ubicomp). In the years since his demise many of the ideas that Weiser championed have come to greater prominence. As Yvonne Rogers points out this influence has been felt across industry, government and commercial research, from the European Union’s ‘disappearing computer’ initiative to MIT’s ‘Oxygen’, HP’s ‘CoolTown’ and Philips ‘Vision of the Future’. All of these projects aspired to Weiser’s tenet of the everyday environment and the objects within being embedded with computational capacities such that they might bend to our (human) will. Within the research community, as Genevieve Bell and Paul Dourish remark ‘almost one quarter of all the papers published in the ‘Ubicomp’ conference between 2001 and 2005 cite Weiser’s foundational articles’.

Continue reading “Ubiquitous Computing: Mark Weiser’s vision and legacy”

PhD: “Practising tomorrows? Ubiquitous computing and the politics of anticipation”

On Friday 26th February I submitted my PhD thesis, entitled “Practising tomorrows? Ubiquitous computing and the politics of anticipation“. I am now working as a Research Fellow in Digital Cultures, as part of the newly founded Digital Cultures Research Centre and the University of the West of England. [UPDATE: You can read the whole thesis here.]

Here is the abstract for the thesis:

This thesis describes the ways in which technological futurity is a complex array of performative and proactive dispositions towards the future that are irreducible to normative and deterministic understandings of ‘progress’. It takes ubiquitous computing as a significant case study because the future orientation practised in ubiquitous computing research and development is emblematic of the perpetual technological forecasting in which humanity engages. While ubiquitous computing has existed as an agenda for nearly 20 years it is still largely concerned with a future that has not (yet) been realised. In the context of ubiquitous computing this thesis argues that it is necessary to make the politics of anticipation, as the particular discursive and performative ways in which future-orientation is codified and conditioned, explicit in technology development. This thesis therefore enacts a critical framework that charts a discourse of anticipation, as the multiple means for articulating proactive future orientation, internal to which are anticipatory logics that structure and rationalise how such forms of futurity are practised.

The motivation and ambit of this research is to thereby describe a politics of anticipation as the ways in which the anticipation of technological futures is codified and contested, whilst performative and multiple. Empirically, the argument is made through the discussion of interviews conducted with a range of internationally significant practitioners of ubiquitous computing research and development, which were carried out in Silicon Valley, California, in 2008. Attending to discourse, logics and emergent politics of anticipation provides a means of making explicit how our ‘knowledge’ of technological futures is produced. It is therefore argued that we should attend to socio-technical futurity as inherently situated in the living present, with all of its associated concerns, and allow for the indeterminacy of the future.

Hiatus = writing PhD

I’m not going to flatter myself that many people actually follow this blog but, nevertheless, I thought I ought to briefly post to say I’m knee-deep in writing what has become known as the ‘bloody thesis’ and so can’t come to the web as much as I might like. I hope to get back to posting a little more regularly in 2010, once I’ve handed in the aforementioned loathsome pile of paper sandwiched between two sheets of card.

In the meantime I spout sporadic inanities on twitter, cos it can be done quickly(!), which can be found here: twitter.com/samkinsley.

Productive reductive computing

Google's first production server

Towards the end of a recent meeting with my supervisors I was asked a question that went something along the lines of: “do you buy the argument that if something is computational, that it is then necessarily reductive?” An excellent question I think. I suggested at the time, and still believe, there are two answers to this question that go together. First, by virtue of what computing ‘is’, as a machine-enabled set of processes that rely by and large on languages based in a formal logic, we must answer ‘yes’. Second, ‘computing’ as an activity and ‘computers’ as devices do not exist in a vacuum they are a part of our lives. I am writing a blog post using my laptop, connected to a network of other computers, run and maintained by people, allowing me to ‘publish’ my thoughts on a web site held on yet another computer, and hopefully some other people are reading this! Therefore, computing is definitely a part of the ‘politics of things‘, as suggested by Latour, with and by which we and others socialise.

My two answers are not mutually exclusive, “either/or”, they go together such that, I argue, we must increasingly see ‘computing’ as a connective capacity. Computing connects people with other people, people with ideas, information with things, etc etc. In this way, I have some sympathy for those, like Adam Greenfield, that suggest that “ubiquitous computing”, or something like it, was somewhat inevitable. However, I think hindsight definitely smoothes out the errors and stumblings along the way. If we think about ubiquitous computing as “the application of computational tools to human activity regardless of the shape and form of those tools”, following Scott Carter (whom I interviewed this summer), I think we can see computing as an ‘affordance’, the capacity to enable possible actions, which is innately connective. Here we might start looking to Gregory Bateson or Deleuze and Guattari to theorise such a connective capacity.

Why do I blog this? It is useful to keep probing concepts central to, and perhaps assumed, in one’s arguments, and I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that the idea of ‘computing’ is not neccesarily fixed.

Image: Google’s first server, held in the Computer History Museum, CA, taken by me.

Yesterday’s tomorrows

F. Leger's Mechanical Elements - From the cover of the Penguin edition of Brave New World

Last week I attended the RGS-IBG annual international conference, for which I convened a session and presented a paper.

Shamelessly borrowing a title from a paper by Genevieve Bell and Paul Dourish, my presentation entitled “Yesterday’s tomorrows” was concerned with the manner in which Ubiquitous Computing has been envisioned. I largely focussed upon the example of HP Labs’ ‘CoolTown’ agenda/project. This largely stemmed from some of the fascinating conversations I had with various engineers, researchers and scientists during recent fieldwork in and around Silicon Valley.

Continue reading “Yesterday’s tomorrows”

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.

Continue reading “Laying claim to technological futures”