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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.

The Tesco API: A Link Between the Physical and Virtual Worlds

Today the Guardian reported that Tesco has launched a beta API for its online shopping service. This may seem rather unremarkable given how many other websites already have fully funtional APIs. However, apparently this is the first ever API offered by a supermarket.


What this means in practice is that all sorts of applications andwidgets can be written to order groceries from tesco.com. You could be reading a recipe book on your kindle and click on a link so that all the ingredients you need are ordered from the online store. If integrated with a smart fridge and smart cupboards (via RFID tags), your account might even automatically know not to order milk because your fridge knows that you already have enough.

So here we see the first step in creating a hybrid virtual/physical kitchen, and for better or worse an idea that will surely speed up the development of the Internet of Things.


Web Squared and the Internet of Things

Tim O'Reilly and John Battelle recently wrote a provoking white paper for the forthcoming Web 2.0 summit in San Francisco. They expand on the idea of Web Squared being a successor to Web 2.0.


Web Squared is about the Internet becoming smarter as an exponentially increasing amount of content is being created and uploaded. O'Reilly and Battelle state that the Internet is:

…no longer a collection of static pages of HTML that describe something in the world. Increasingly, the Web is the world – everything and everyone in the world casts an “information shadow,” an aura of data which, when captured and processed intelligently, offers extraordinary opportunity and mind bending implications. Web Squared is our way of exploring this phenomenon and giving it a name.
The main idea here being that the Web can learn inferentially with a large enough body of data. The Web is thus beginning to understand things that we do not have to explicitly explain to it.

The exponential growth in the amount of uploaded data, and the ability of intelligent systems to learn is especially important within the context of the “Internet of Things.” The Internet of Things refers to the networking of everyday objects and things (e.g. coke cans, razor blades, toasters etc.). Much existing content in the Internet of Things has been created through coded RFid tags and IP addresses linked into an electronic product code (EPC) network.

A movement is underway to add any imaginable physical object into the Internet of Things. In Japan, for example, many cows have IP addresses embedded onto RFID chips implanted into their skin, enabling farmers to track each animal through the entire production and distribution process. In the words of journalist Sean Dodson, we are facing a future “where pretty much everything is online,” or according to O'Reilly and Battelle, “the web is now the world.”

Moving back to O'Reilly and Battelle’s white paper, one of the most interesting parts of the essay is the argument that while it initially makes sense to assume that for the Internet of Things to work, every object needs to have a unique identifier (through a combination of cheap RFID and IP addresses), what Web 2.0/Web Squared tells us is that it is not necessary to physically tag every single physical thing.

…we’ll get to the Internet of Things via a hodgepodge of sensor data contributing, bottom-up, to machine-learning applications that gradually make more and more sense of the data that is handed to them. A bottle of wine on your supermarket shelf (or any other object) needn’t have an RFID tag to join the “Internet of Things,” it simply needs you to take a picture of its label. Your mobile phone, image recognition, search, and the sentient web will do the rest. We don’t have to wait until each item in the supermarket has a unique machine-readable ID. Instead, we can make do with bar codes, tags on photos, and other “hacks” that are simply ways of brute-forcing identity out of reality.
So, Web Squared will help to bring about a true Internet of Things: a world where very little can exist outside the network. Myriad frightening surveillance and privacy issues are imaginable, but these have been discussed extensively elsewhere. Putting these issues to the side for the moment, I also see one important (potential) positive outcome of the Internet of Things: an issue that myself and my co-author (Havard Haarstad) will discuss in our paper at the 2009 Royal Geographical Society meeting.

If all things become networked, then all steps in the prodiction, distribution, and transformation of all things become potentially visible. This, in turn, implies a new form of globalisation: we have already experienced a globalisation of things, but we could potentially witness a globalisation of information about things. Poor production practices (e.g. environmental harm, child labour, racial/gender/sexual discrimination) can no longer be hidden behind the veils of distance. Consumers of things would be able to base their purchasing decisions on a combination of their personal policital, cultural, religious, and ethical positionalities and a relatively accurate base of information. Purchasing decisions, of course, quickly influence production practices. If consumers no longer have any interest in buying Nike shoes produced in Indonesian sweatshops (no matter how inexpensive they are), Nike will ultimately stop producing shoes in Indonesian sweatshops. I firmly believe that many of the harmful and poor production practices taking place in the world today only exist because they are essentially hidden from most of us. We rely on highly controlled information (advertising, product packaging etc.) instead of open and networked information.

This vision of the Internet of Things naturally relies on an abscence of controls on flows of information. It is all to easy to imagine an Internet of Things in which information is controlled, restricted, and censored by companies and governments that have no interest in a new form of globalisation being brought into being.

As stated above, these issues will all be discussed in more detail in a forthcoming paper, which I will upload here as soon as it is publication-ready.