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ISSN number: 1746-4757


The Mundane Computer: Non-Technical Design Challenges Facing Ubiquitous Computing and Ambient Intelligence

Allan Parsons

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Interdisciplinary collaboration, to include those who are not natural scientists, engineers and computer scientists, is inherent in the idea of ubiquitous computing, as formulated by Mark Weiser in the late 1980s and early 1990s. However, ubiquitous computing has remained largely a computer science and engineering concept, and its non-technical side remains relatively underdeveloped.

The aim of the following is, first, to clarify the kind of interdisciplinary collaboration envisaged by Weiser. Second, the difficulties of understanding the everyday and weaving ubiquitous technologies into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it, as conceived by Weiser, are explored. The contributions of Anne Galloway, Paul Dourish and Philip Agre to creating an understanding of everyday life relevant to the development of ubiquitous computing are discussed, focusing on the notions of performative practice, embodied interaction and contextualisation. Third, it is argued that with the shift to the notion of ambient intelligence, the larger scale socio-economic and socio-political dimensions of context become more explicit, in contrast to the focus on the smaller scale anthropological study of social (mainly workplace) practices inherent in the concept of ubiquitous computing. This can be seen in the adoption of the concept of ambient intelligence within the European Union and in the focus on rebalancing (personal) privacy protection and (state) security in the wake of 11 September 2001. Fourth, the importance of adopting a futures-oriented approach to discussing the issues arising from the notions of ubiquitous computing and ambient intelligence is stressed, while the difficulty of trying to achieve societal foresight is acknowledged.

Allan Parsons is a member of the Environment as Interface research project at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, University of the Arts, London.

1. The otherwise invisible: interdisciplinary collaboration

The late Mark Weiser described ubiquitous computing, now often called pervasive computing, as "the method of enhancing computer use by making many computers available throughout the physical environment, but making them effectively invisible to the user". [1] The notion of invisibility is crucial to Weiser’s formulation. For example, elsewhere he asserts, the "most profound technologies are those that disappear." [2] The manner of this invisibility or disappearance is not primarily that of concealment, although many of the workings of ubiquitous computing may indeed be hidden from view, but familiarity. Such technologies are so familiar, so much a part of everyday life, that they are no longer a focus of conscious attention. In other words, they "weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it". [3].

The notion of invisibility suggests to Weiser a possible role for disciplines beyond the natural sciences, engineering, and computer science in the development of ubiquitous computing:

"To understand invisibility the humanities and social sciences are especially valuable, because they specialise in exposing the otherwise invisible. For instance, ethnography can teach us something of the importance of the details of context and setting and cultural background; feminist deconstructionism can teach us a little of the necessity of different, deeply lived, points of view to real understanding". [4]

This is not the only role that Weiser envisages for disciplines outside of computer science in the development of ubiquitous computing, however. He also envisages an evaluative role. This arises from Weiser’s view of how ubiquitous computing can be developed in practice. For Weiser, Phase I of ubiquitous computing is "to construct, deploy, and learn from a computing environment consisting of tabs, pads and boards". [5]

Tabs, pads and boards represent three different scales of ubiquitous computing device. The board is a wall-sized interactive surface, analogous to the office whiteboard or the home magnet-covered refrigerator or bulletin board. The pad is analogous to scrap paper to be grabbed and used easily, with many in use by a person at once. The tab is a tiny computer, analogous to Post-It notes, but also like the displays of words found on book spines, light switches and hallways. For each person in an office, the location discussed by Weiser, he conceives that there would be hundreds of tabs, tens of pads and one or two boards.

Weiser sees tabs, pads and boards as forming a substrate, or infrastructure. When it is in place, progress can be made both in evaluating these technologies and in determining the next steps to be taken. Phase I, Weiser asserts, "is unlikely to achieve optimal invisibility", but, "it starts down the radical direction, for computer science, away from attention on the machine and back on the person and his or her life in the world of work, play, and home." [6]

It is in this context that the evaluative role for other disciplines lies. For Weiser,

"A key part of this evaluation is using the analyses of psychologists, anthropologists, application writers, artists, marketers, and customers. We believe they will find some things right; we know they will find some things wrong. Thus we will begin again the cycle of cross-disciplinary fertilization and learning. Ubicomp seems likely to provide a framework for interesting and productive work for many more years or decades, but we have much to learn about the details" [7]

Thus, Weiser conceives two distinct roles for disciplines outside of the natural sciences, engineering and computer science in the development of ubiquitous computing:

  • evaluation of the designed technological device, the physical technology, and its deployment in practice; and
  • understanding everyday practices, particularly the play between the visible and the invisible (or taken-for-granted), in bringing certain phenomena to conscious attention.

Weiser establishes that if ubiquitous computing is to be further developed it will require interdisciplinary collaboration, and that that collaboration involves cyclical or iterative cross-disciplinary fertilisation and learning.

The first major challenge in designing and developing ubiquitous computing, then, lies in establishing a cycle of learning and collaboration, which can accommodate and integrate a range of differing and divergent design and research practices, and consolidating that learning. These practices range from the specificity of device-led computer science and engineering experiment; through the design of the built environments which house and situate the human practices to which technological devices could contribute; to the open-ended, philosophical-anthropological study of context and social practice of which technologies are important elements, including practices of reflexive self-awareness whereby people examine their engagement in instrumental action and social and symbolic interaction.

The difficulty, partly due to differences in focus or emphasis and to different understandings of the material and social worlds and how to act upon and through them, also reflects different understandings of purpose and motivation in relation to the development of computer technology, for example as an end in itself (engineering research), as an element in work practice (instrumental, applied or economic research) or as an aspect of communicative social practices more generally (research on media, communication and society).

Such collaboration will not be easy. Furthermore, the institutional location of such collaboration, for example the university laboratory, the research and development department of a multinational enterprise or the workshops of a medium-sized design company, will influence the balance among research directions. For example, the research may be technology-led, focusing on technical feasibility. It may be commerce-led, in pursuit of business goals such as efficiency and profitability. It may be government-led, focusing on national macroeconomic objectives such as productivity growth. It may be design-led, in pursuit of human-computer interaction goals evaluated in terms of utility or aesthetics. It may be information-led, in seeking to understand the processes of learning and human knowledge creation. Finally, it may be society-led, in pursuit of such overarching values as sustainable development, social equity or social mobility.

The institutional location will also impact on the degree to which the arts, humanities and social sciences, including the many emergent fields of design practice such as design of narrative environments, interaction design and design of smart textiles, contribute creatively to the development of ubiquitous computing, beyond having a secondary evaluative role in relation to technology development or a role as supplier of data which technology creators may take into account. From Weiser’s perspective, the natural sciences, engineering and computer science provide the creative impetus, while the arts, humanities and social sciences provide secondary inputs, such as evaluation and data. Effective collaboration would aim, to paraphrase Weiser, to integrate the natural sciences, engineering, computer science, the arts, design, humanities and social sciences until they are inseparable from one another.

Such collaboration is beginning to emerge, for example Phoebe Sengers et al. [8], at the Cornell University Information Science programme, use interdisciplinary groups to develop what they call culturally embedded computing. Sengers' group includes researchers from computer science, user interface design, social science, cultural studies, architecture and product design.

While the issue of cyclical, interdisciplinary collaboration is beginning to receive the attention it deserves, the issue of how to consolidate the interdisciplinary learning arising from that collaboration is yet to receive its due attention. It will involve issues of information management, such as establishing interdisciplinary knowledge architectures, and knowledge management, for example sophisticated systems which integrate dynamically abstract knowledge and embodied, personalised competences.

2. Ubiquitous?

For Weiser, the common metaphors of human-computer interaction prevalent in the early 1990s led away from the invisible tool and towards making the tool the centre of attention [9]. The first metaphor he discusses is 'multimedia'. He defines this as the idea that since computer interfaces should be attractive, and television is attractive, television-like multimedia functions should be put into computers. Such attractiveness, Weiser argues, is the opposite of invisibility, distracting the user from any task they may be seeking to accomplish.

A second metaphor he discusses is intelligent agents, in which the ideal computer is like a human being, only more obedient. Weiser notes that,

"A computer I need to talk to, give commands to, have a relationship with (much less be intimate with), is a computer that is too much the center of attention." [10]

A third metaphor Weiser discusses is virtual reality, the idea that by moving to full-body-sensing and interaction, the user interface problem will be solved by maximally utilising all of our body’s input and output channels. For Weiser, the problem here is that virtual reality,

"by taking the gluttonous approach to user interface design, continues to put the interface at the center of attention, leaving the real world behind" [11]

The general problem with such lines of research, Weiser asserts, is that "they are all in the domain of the conscious interaction". Instead, he would rather pursue "techniques of invisibility" to create "the mundane computer". [12]

On the basis of these reflections on research in computer science, Weiser set out a number of goals for ubiquitous computing. These are, as paraphrased by Anne Galloway: [13]

  • to liberate people from the constraints of desktop computing;
  • to free people from isolating immersive and simulated virtual reality environments;
  • to build computers that do not interfere with people’s everyday activities; and
  • to weave information and computing technologies into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.

Galloway interprets Weiser’s texts as saying that,

"ubiquitous computing was meant to go beyond the machine - render it invisible - and privilege the social and material worlds. In this sense, ubiquitous computing was positioned to bring computers to 'our world' (domesticating them), rather than us having to adapt to the 'computer world' (domesticating us)." [14]

In other words, the implicit goal is to assist everyday tasks, not overwhelm them or deform them into patterns more suited to the computer than to people, by shifting the site and the style of the interaction between people and computers beyond the desktop and into the larger real world where people live and act.

In the view articulated by Galloway, derived from Weiser's texts, the context for ubiquitous computing has widened from the workspace to the everyday/everywhere. In his practical experiments, Weiser sought to disperse computing facilities around the workspace, using the notions of the 'everyday' and the 'real world' to stand for 'work' and the 'workspace', on the basis that work is an everyday practice for most people and that work, for most people, takes place in a specific work location. He also mentions the domains of 'play' and 'the home', but the main focus is the task and the workplace. The ambiguities of the language and metaphors used by Weiser to describe the vision of ubiquitous computing mean that it could operate both as a computing paradigm, in the context of rearticulating work practices, and a social paradigm, in the context of rearticulating everyday life. [15]

Galloway's characterisation is, therefore, a valid interpretation of Weiser and there is sufficient ambiguity in Weiser's texts for it to be unclear whether his ultimate goal was a technological revolution or a technology-led social revolution, or whether he believed that the former leads to the latter in some inevitable way.

This slippage, from 'the workplace' to 'the world' and from the tasks of the workplace to everyday social practices, partly accounts for the vagueness and inadequacy of ubiquitous computing as a social paradigm. Its initial scope was to transform some of the tasks undertaken at work, to make tasks simpler by making the workplace smarter. Weiser has little to say about the actual processes by means of which workplace change effects wider societal changes.

In the meantime, since Weiser wrote his texts, continued technological advances, for example in miniaturisation, processing power and wireless connectivity, mean that the overextended metaphor of ubiquitous computing as a sociotechnical paradigm, with all its weaknesses, is being taken more seriously, as Jurgen Bohn et al. indicate. [16]

The second major challenge for the design and development of ubiquitous computing concerns its vision: the spatio-temporal extent of the 'where'-abouts and 'when'-abouts of its 'everywhere'; and the extent of its ambition concerning technological change and social change. Distributing processing and networking power about the workplace, the home and in some traffic systems in some countries does not constitute 'everywhere'. The 'ubiquity' of ubiquitous computing has limits. The vagueness of the vision of ubiquitous computing leaves it open to being interpreted as a variety of technology-led absolutism, totalitarianism or authoritarianism [17]. Part of the reason that its vision is unclear may be that immediate objectives, for example to make tasks simpler, are not distinguished from ultimate objectives, such as creating a fairer society by spreading particular competences, previously exclusive, to wider societal groupings. Its vision raises issues pertaining to the relationship between the control of technological systems and systems of social control, another area in which the ambiguity of the language used to explore the idea of ubiquitous computing encourages slippage. In other words, design and development of ubiquitous computing needs to address explicitly both its technical vision, and questions of technical feasibility and control, and its social vision, with its implications for social control and societal development, both its immediate aims and its ultimate objectives. [18]

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1. Weiser, M. (1993). Some Computer Science Issues in Ubiquitous Computing. Available online at Accessed 31 March 2005. return.

2. Weiser, M. (1991). The Computer for the 21st Century, Scientific American 265/3, pp. 94-104. Available online at Accessed 31 March 2005. return.

3. Weiser, The Computer for the 21st Century. return

4. Weiser, M. (1993). The World is not a Desktop. Available online at Accessed 31 March 2005. return

5. Weiser, Some Computer Science Issues. return

6. Weiser, Some Computer Science Issues. return

7. Weiser, Some Computer Science Issues. return

8. Sengers, P. et al. (2004). Culturally embedded computing, Pervasive Computing, 3/1, pp.14-21. return

9. Weiser, The World is not a Desktop. return

10. Weiser, The World is not a Desktop. return

11. Weiser, The World is not a Desktop. return

12. Weiser, The World is not a Desktop. return

13. Galloway, A. (2004). Intimations of everyday life: ubiquitous computing and the city. Cultural Studies, 18/2-3, pp. 384-408. return

14. Galloway, Intimations of everyday life. return

15. Saha, D. and Mukherjee, A. (2003). Pervasive computing: a paradigm for the 21st century, Computer, 36/3, pp.25-31. return

16. Bohn, J. et al. (2003). Social, economic, and ethical implications of ambient intelligence and ubiquitous computing. Zurich: Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. Available online at Accessed 31 March 2005. return

17. Langheinrich, M. et al. (2002). As we may live – real-world implications of ubiquitous computing. Zurich: Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. Available online at Accessed 17 March 2005. return

18. It would be all too easy for ubiquitous/pervasive computing and ambient intelligence to be seen as "an attempt at a violent technological penetration of everyday life", for "how else", argues Araya ("Questioning ubiquitous computing", available online at,

"could we characterise a proposal that advocates the pervasive transformation of things into surveillable objects, the substitution of 'real world' situations by digital surrogates, and the transformation of our surroundings into responsive artefacts by massively populating them with micro-processors and related devices - all of these transformations being mainly driven by technology itself."

One of Araya’s central complaints is that,

"Ubiquitous Computing is conceived as being primarily... driven by technology, and its main sources of inspiration are other technologies that have successfully penetrated everyday life."

For Araya, the development of ubiquitous computing gives precedence to technology over human needs. Indeed, he argues that further development of ubiquitous computing could not be justified on the basis of its anticipation and satisfaction of human needs. He remarks acerbically,

"What is striking about most of these scenarios [in which an everyday activity is unobtrusively enhanced by forms of ubiquitous computing] is the marginal character of the needs referred to in them and of the envisioned enhancements of the activities."

He cites as examples such marginal enhancements as elevators stopping at the right floor, rooms greeting people by name, and secretaries knowing instantly the location of employees.

"Even more striking", Araya continues,

"is the stark contrast between the marginality of the enhancements and the complexity of the computing infrastructure required to achieve them".

For Araya, implementation of ubiquitous computing would render the world more uniform and homogeneous, obliterating what is distinct about the places in which we live and eradicating the otherness of certain aspects of the world, the differences which make the world come alive for us in our senses. In this view, it is extremely doubtful that ubiquitous computing could thereby enhance the world, as is often claimed.

Araya points to the self-serving nature of some of the justifications being used as reasons for developing ubiquitous computing. For example, the Chief Technology Officer of the Intel, Patrick Gelsinger, has outlined a grand vision for the company. He is quoted as saying that,

"Before I retire from Intel, I want a piece of Intel technology touching every human on earth, every minute of the day, in every aspect of their lifestyle."

The motivation is not primarily concern for enhancing the environment of "every human on earth", although some unspecified benefit for them is assumed, but the need to move into markets other than the personal computer arena, where growth rates have slowed and markets, at least in the most developed countries, may be saturated. Intel will have to look elsewhere if it is to continue to grow and expand, for example by moving towards wireless communications technology and by designing products for the digital home.

However, as the example of electricity a century before shows, while it is important to be conscious of potential negative consequences, it is equally important not to prejudge the issues involved. At the end of the 19th century, the electrification of private life and the mechanisation of the household were important issues. Electricity was being represented as the fuel of the future, as a liberating technology promising a clear, clean, healthy and efficient way of life. Such discourse served the purposes of an industry that was looking for ways to use the electricity network outside working hours, in the home environment. Although self-serving at the time, and perhaps not capable of delivering all that was promised, electrification of the home has proved of immense benefit in the long run. Similar discourses surrounded the introduction of the telegraph, the telephone, radio, television and videotext. (Punie, Y. (2003). A social and technological view of ambient intelligence in everyday life: what bends the trend? Available online at

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