Ubiquitous Computing Revisited


I ran across an interesting article the other day by Genevieve Bell and Paul Dourish, entitled “Yesterday’s tomorrows: Notes on ubiquitous computing’s dominant vision“, published in Personal and Ubiquitous Computing (vol. 11, no. 2, 133-143). The article revisits Mark Weiser’s vision of ubiquitous computing as he described it in his seminal article in 1991.

In a nutshell, the authors argue that Weiser’s vision is old and American, and that many ubiquitous computing researchers have framed their work around this vision. As a result, ubiquitous computing has become something that is continuously at our fingertips but not quite within reach, absolving researchers and technologists “for responsibilities for the present“. In addition, Bell and Dourish state that a vision of a “seamlessly interconnected world of future” is misleading if not downright dangerous, as they tend to focus on homogeneity as opposed to the “messiness of everyday life” (p. 134).

The authors continue by providing two interesting examples of ubiquitous computing environments: Singapore and Korea, and propose “a ubicomp not of the future but of the present,” with technology as a “site of social and cultural [and educational] production” (p. 141). This version of ubiquitous computing is characterized by power-geometries (the ways in which spatial arrangements, access, and mobility reflect hierarchies of power and control; heterogeneity (as opposed to standardization and consistency in technology, use, and regulation); and management of ubicomp that is messy.

I like this characterization of ubiquitous computing. I agree with Bell and Dourish that notwithstanding the importance of Weiser’s work, his is becoming an outdated vision (and I think if Weiser were still alive today, he would probably agree). Ubiquitous computing is here, and it is here to stay; it is no longer a utopian vision. However, for purposes of teaching and learning, this new definition of ubiquitous computing has some important implications (and this is definitely not a comprehensive list):

  1. the “new” ubiquitous computing is extremely difficult to implement in a formal learning environment. Whereas ubicomp is characterized as heterogenous, messy, and spontaneous, current formal learning environments are homogeneous, clean, planned, and standardized (think standards, high stakes testing, locked down networks, Internet filters, etc.);
  2. learning has to be more self-directed if it is to involved ubiquitous computing technology, as users choose from an amalgam of devices and applications, form ad hoc networks, and repurpose digital tools for their own needs;
  3. teaching and learning have to be more active, open-ended, creative, and flexible to take advantage of the affordances that technology in the “new” ubiquitous computing world has to offer.
  4. digital literacy has to be a key element of education, as technology users have to have a firm grip on not only the tools, but also how to combine them on the fly for purposes of learning, either individually or collaboratively.

As Bell and Dourish write: “The ubicomp world was meant to be clean and orderly; it turns out instead to be a messy one.” Can’t the same be said for education??

Image credit: “My mobile production gear”, jonrawlinson’s photostream:


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