Divining a Digital Future

Divining a Digital Future: Mess and Mythology in Ubiquitous Computing

Paul Dourish and Genevieve Bell

From the Introduction

Our goal is to understand the mythology of ubicomp. When we talk in terms of myths, we do not mean to suggest that ubicomp is somehow false or mistaken. We instead want to direct attention toward the ideas that animate and drive ubicomp forward, in much the same way that myths provide human cultures with ways of understanding the world and celebrating their values. As Vincent Mosco (2004, 3) notes: Useful as it is to recognize the lie in the myth, it is important to state at the outset that myths mean more than falsehoods or cons; indeed, they matter greatly. Myths are stories that animate individuals and societies by providing paths to transcendence that lift people out of the banality of everyday life. They offer an entrance to another reality; a reality once characterized by the promise of the sublime.

The myths we want to examine, then, are the stories that motivate and celebrate the development of the ubicomp agenda. They are the ideas that give it shape and meaning. They are ideas about what technology can do for people, the places it will go, and the needs it will address. While we might not often see technology in mythical terms, it is a useful strategy to uncover the ideas that shape our technological world -- the ideas about human action that spurred early researchers in cybernetics and artificial intelligence (Hayles 1999; Pickering 2010), the cold war rhetoric that drove the development of digital computing (Williams 1996), the notions of politics and community that inflected the discourse of contemporary web technologies (Coyne 1999; Mosco 2004), or the visions of life and death at work in the artificial life community (Helmreich 1998).

Alongside the myth, there is the mess -- the practical reality of ubicomp day to day. We do not use the term "mess" pejoratively; we rather like the mess (as anyone would be able to see who glanced at the space where we sit writing these words). When we talk of the mess, we want to suggest that the practice of any technology in the world is never quite as simple, straightforward, or idealized as it is imagined to be. For any of the infrastructures of daily life -- the electricity system, the water system, telephony, digital networking, or the rest -- the mess is never far away. Lift the cover, peer behind the panels, or look underneath the floor, and you will find a maze of cables, connectors, and infrastructural components, clips, clamps, and duct tape. Push further, and you will also encounter the regulatory authorities who authorize interventions and certify qualified individuals, committees that resolve conflicting demands in the process of setting standards, governments that set policy, bureaucrats who implement it, marketers who shape our views of the role of the infrastructure in our lives, and more. Mess is always nearby.

"Mess" refers, too, to the way that technological realities are always contested. No single idea holds about what technologies are and what they do. Though many have tried, attempts to reduce this complexity to a single reading are at best unsatisfactory; as Andrew Pickering (2010, 33) observes, "Ontological monotheism is not turning out to be a pretty sight." So partly our concerns with mess highlight not just an interest in "how things could have been different" but rather how they already are different among the different groups, places, contexts, and circuits that characterize contemporary ubicomp.