Summer 2013

Divining a Digital Future

Rachel M. Coleman Download Article

Paul Dourish and Genevieve Bell, Divining a Digital Future: Mess and Mythology in Ubiquitous Computing (MIT Press, 2011, 248 pages).

When dealing with questions of and about technology, it is always difficult to know where to start. How can we separate ourselves from such a pervasive reality enough to ask questions about it? There is also the issue of progress: the advancement of technology seems to happen so fast that it is difficult to think any one phenomenon before it becomes obsolete and something else takes it place. These two obstacles have conditioned us such that it is difficult to see technology and the set of principles behind its development and advancement. We are “enframed” in technology, to use Martin Heidegger’s neologism –so thoroughly drenched in its logic that we do not know here we begin and the water ends, and we almost cannot help but advance the technological with every action we take.

The issue of “enframing” may sound ominous to some, simply obvious to others. In Divining a Digital Future, Paul Dourish and Genevieve Bell argue that ubiquitous computing, or “ubicomp,” is a good thing. Of course, this is a disputed thesis: ubicomp, according to its principal articulator Mark Weiser, was supposed to bring an age of “calm technology, when technology recedes into the background of our lives” (cited p.1). But “calm” never seems to be the appropriate word to describe our relationship with and relation to technology – “frenetic” comes to mind more readily.

This is where Dourish and Bell’s book comes in – specifically the “mess and mythology” subtitle. It is more or less a myth, say they, that technology will ever go unnoticed; rather, its reality will always be a little “messy.” There will always be gaps in our infrastructure, problems with our coding language, and an inexact calculation here and there. If we wait until man machine are perfectly and seamlessly operating with and within each other, we will not recognize the technological possibilities open to us here and now.

“Mess” is an interesting term in this book, and it seems to cover any element of the ubicomp system that is not already precisely integrated. The implication is that a complete and seamless integration into the ubicomp system is the standard of perfection. For example: across the United States we find a patchwork of wi-fi networks run mostly by individuals, all with different passwords and varying signal strengths; would not it be more helpful to have one continental system, giving every person equal access at any time? This is what Dourish and Bell would call the less messy version of ubicomp, though it is also, they claim, the utopian vision, and thus not really possible.

Which leads us to ask, “why not?” The implicit answer: man. Ubicomp will always be messy because humans are involved. If sterile, calculating, and perfectly integrated into a system is our standard for “clean,” then man will always bring a messy element to the equation. Organic life simply will not be pushed perfectly into a system that does not have the capacity to contain it. The logic of technology has no capacity for surprises, whereas life is always surprising.

Dourish and Bell do not make the connection between the mess of ubicomp and humanity. They do, however, grope their way towards it. The latter half of their book is dedicated to understanding the “sociocultural” implications, causes and effects of ubicomp. The authors turn to primitive cultures and traditions like those of the aboriginals in Australia to demonstrate human interaction, and then speculate about what role technology might have played in changing these interactions into what we observe in modern westernized cultures today. At first this approach seems haphazard and a bit confusing, until one realizes that Dourish and Bell have no way to speak about human life without, or before, technology. Thus, an interesting meta-question arises out ofDivining a Digital Future. How do we study a whole in which we are already enframed?

Dourish and Bell take technology to be the measure of reality, but technology is only a part, and we cannot evaluate the whole of the world by a part within it. Only a whole can judge a whole: the questions Dourish and Bell are asking concern the full measure of humanity. When the human element is reduced to mess and disorder, the framework, however implicitly or silently, becomes the technological, rather than the organic. And if that is the case, we will never be able to think about humanity, let alone the effects this peculiar and pervasive part we have named technology will have on man.