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Everyware and Ubiquitous Computing

“computers will die. They’re dying in their present form. They’re just about dead as distinct units. A box, a screen, a keyboard. They’re melting into the texture of everyday life…even the word ‘computer’ sounds backward and dumb” (Greenfield 2006: 93).
I recently finished reading Adam Greenfield’s Everyware: The dawning age of ubiquitous computing. This collection of 81 brief theses outlines how ubiquitous computing has changed and will change society, and explores the ways in which its emergence can be shaped. The term everyware refers to a paradigm of “invisible computing” that is coming into being: computing that is not linked to specific personal devices, but is everywhere, not just in all places, but also in all things.

In everyware, broad networks will link together a variety of embedded systems: “what we’re contemplating here is the extension of information –sensing, -processing, and –networking capabilities to entire classes of things we’ve never before thought of as “technology.” At least , we haven’t thought of them that way in a long, long time: I’m talking about artifacts such as clothing, furniture, walls and doorways.”

A related, and extremely useful, concept introduced by Greenfield is the idea of ambient informatics. The term signifies the “state in which information is freely available at the point in space and time someone requires it, generally to support a specific decision.” In other words, information is no longer tied to physical things or places. Information instead becomes infinitely accessible from anywhere, using any tool or device. Everyware is therefore not limited to the “woodwork” of a given, bounded place. It is rather circumambient in the world.

These are far-reaching and powerful predications, and Greenfield devotes much of the book to carefully outlining the specific ways in which everyware will be brought into being. He proclaims “it is coming – and as yet, the people who will be most affected by it, the overwhelming majority of whom are nontechnical, nonspecialist, ordinary citizens of the developed world, barely know it even exists.” One reason why a state of everyware seems inevitable to Greenfield is the logic of convergence. Everything can and will connect because all things will share the common language of “on and off, yes or no, one and zero.” “Everything that can be digital, will be” and everything that is digital can be meshed, mashed, and connected. Greenfield further argues that everyware is structurally latent in several emerging technologies, and that these necessary technologies are becoming cheap and accessible.

Interestingly, the book devotes some space to a discussion of bridges between atoms and bits. Greenfield argues that ”the significance of technologies like RFID and 2D bar-coding is that they offer a low-impact way to “import” physical objects into the datasphere, to endow them with an informational shadow. An avocado, on its own, is just a piece of fleshy green fruit – but an avocado whose skin has been laser-etched with a machine-readable 2D code can tell you how and under what circumstances it was grown, when it was picked, how it was shipped, who sold it to you, and when it’ll need to be used by (or thrown out). This avocado, that RFID-tagged pallet – each is now relational, searchable, availableto any suitable purpose or application a robust everyware can devise for it.”

A number of worrying points are also made in the book:
  • “…everyware functions as an extension of power into public space” Thus, our notions of what counts as public cannot help but be changed.
  • “The passive nature of our exposure to the networked sensor grids and other methods of data collection implied by everyware implicates us whether we know it or not, want it or not.”
  • Everyware is problematic because it is difficult to see. We thus cease to see some tools as technology and their effects can become naturalised. This shields us from a fuller understand of the power-relations embedded into each situation and action.
  • The design of ubiquitous systems and everyware shapes the choices available to us in our everyday interactions with the world.
  • “Where everyware is concerned, we can no longer expect anything to exist in isolation from anything else.” Facts acquire immortality, but we traditionally we have relied on exformation (information leaving the world).
  • “With everyware, all that information about you or me going into the network implies that it comes out again somewhere else – a “somewhere” that is difficult or impossible to specify ahead of time – and this has real consequences for how we go about constructing a social self”

The book concludes with some suggestions for ways that everyware should be designed and structured in order to avoid some of the most worrying aspects of ubiquitous computing. The prescriptions are all well thought out, but it is hard not to get the sense that many of these ideas will never actually be implements by the engineers who knowingly or unknowingly are designing systems that will fundamentally alter the human experience. For example, we are told that “everyware must be deniable.” Few would disagree with this statement, but one struggles to imagine just how feasible this idea is. Isn’t the whole idea behind everyware that it is everywhere? This is perhaps then the most concerning aspect of this book. Although a clearly deterministic argument is being made, it is difficult to see how the logics of convergence and cheap and accessible information technologies, for better or worse, will not bring about some form of ubiquitous computing in the future.