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Wednesday, December 15, 2004
Ubicomp, or ubiquitous computing, is the inevitable result the convergence I described yesterday in "The Business Singularity." Inevitable? Consider:
...the new schema for Internet Protocol addressing, IPv6, which, with its 128-bit address space, provides some 6.5 x 10²³ addresses for every square meter on the surface of our planet, and therefore quite abundantly enough for every pen and stamp and book and door in the world to talk to each other. And of course it is a future economically latent in the need of manufacturers and marketers for continuous growth, and the identification of vast new markets beyond the desktop, laptop, personal audio player and mobile phone.
All watched over by machines of loving grace: Some ethical guidelines for user experience in ubiquitous-computing settingsby Adam Greenfield in the current Boxes and Arrows makes the case for ethical guidelines in user-interface design in the ubicomp, always-on environment. The theme will be familiar if you heard me speak at TechLearn this year: like atomic energy, the new computing environment has the potential for wonderful rewards or utter catastrophe. Says Greenfield,

With all due respect, we have seen that products designed by engineers, or whose design is permitted to default to the tastes, preferences and predilections of engineers, almost always fail end users (unless those end users are themselves engineers).

This is not an indictment of engineers.* They are given a narrow technical brief, and within the envelope available to them they return solutions. It is not in their mandate to consider the social and environmental impact of their work.
What could happen? Greenfield envisions this:
Imagine the feeling of being stuck in voice-mail limbo, or fighting unwanted auto-formatting in a word processing program, or trying to quickly silence an unexpectedly ringing phone by touch, amid the hissing of fellow moviegoers - except all the time, and everywhere, and in the most intimate circumstances of our lives. Levels of discomfort we accept as routine (even, despite everything we know, inevitable!) in the reasonably delimited scenarios presented by our other artifacts will have redoubled impact in a ubicomp world.
I am more fearful of how Dilbert's pointy-haired boss and his HR Director Catbert will use continuous surveillance to ruin people's lives. And don't get me going on the TSA that frisks me at airports or its parent, the Department of Homeland Security.

Greenfield proposes a starter set of principles for user-experience professionals.
  • Default to harmlessness. Ubiquitous systems must default to a mode that ensures their users’ (physical, psychic and financial) safety.

  • Be self-disclosing. Ubiquitous systems must contain provisions for immediate and transparent querying of their ownership, use, capabilities, etc., such that human beings encountering them are empowered to make informed decisions regarding exposure to same.

  • Be conservative of face. Ubiquitous systems are always already social systems, and must contain provisions such that wherever possible they not unnecessarily embarrass, humiliate, or shame their users.

  • Be conservative of time. Ubiquitous systems must not introduce undue complications into ordinary operations.

  • Be deniable. Ubiquitous systems must offer users the ability to opt out, always and at any point.
These guidelines are a step in the right direction, but implementing them takes a commitment to humanism that's hardly a defining characteristic of engineers and geeks. Instructional designers and developers, courses are dying; please get involved in user interface design, where you're badly needed.

*Especially not you, Philip.


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