Some thoughts on Mark Weiser’s ubiquitous computing/disappearing technology, and the move to a more cultural approach to user experience and user interfaces. In my PhD work, I draw upon cultural studies and other ‘humanities’ disciplines to approach human-computer interaction. Therefore, I often think about the role of technology within culture, and how everyday use of technology actually becomes part of that culture.
In 1991, Weiser wrote that “the most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.” In the years after, he continued to elaborate on that idea by introducing concepts like ‘ubiquitous computing’, ‘embodied virtuality’ and ‘calm technology’ to describe a new computing paradigm in which computing tools are not in the center of attention – unlike most technologies that share the ‘basic flaw’ of making the computer visible.
Weiser originally envisioned three – interacting – types of devices: tabs, pads and boards. While this was a future vision in 1991, in 2013, some of Weiser’s predictions have materialized – to some extent. Roughly, the concept of small tabs can be compared to today’s smartphones, and the paper-sized pads to tablets. Currently, only boards are not part of today’s consumer technology (yet). However, all this technology has not pushed computers into the background. According to Paul Dourish, Weiser envisioned a world in which computers would be nowhere to be seen, but computation would be everywhere. However, this is clearly not the case today. What, then, has gone wrong? How has the evolution of technology turned out different from Weiser’s vision?
While Weiser’s vision around invisible and calm technology has been taken up as a praiseworthy goal by several researchers, Dourish does point out some difficulties with the concept. Invisibility is at odds with current HCI practice, in which design has taken up a more prominent role. The concept of ‘design’ is opposed to invisibility, as design is essentially about the expression of values, and about communication. Obviously, one cannot engage with something that is invisible.
Dourish points out these difficulties, and describes the idea of invisible interfaces as ‘conceptually misleading’. He proposes embodied interaction as an alternative, stressing the shifting relationship between user, technology and context, between technology and social settings, and stressing the physicality of interaction. The concept of the invisible interface is too simplistic: it ‘demonizes the interface, and abandons altogether the idea that the interface might mediate user action’. He argues that this mediation is central to interfaces, and that most proponents of invisibility actually argue against the inflexibility and rigidity of user interfaces. However, solving this problem by doing away with interfaces altogether is a step too far.
A Different Take on Invisibility: Interfaces as Cultural Expression
While true invisibility is not the solution to inflexible interaction with technology, technology is becoming invisible in another, more metaphorical sense. As technology becomes more ubiquitous and embedded in daily life and culture, the interfaces themselves become a part of that culture. Steven Johnson already wrote about this shift as early as 1997, in his book Interface Culture: ‘We will come to think of interface design as a kind of art form – perhaps the art form of the next century.’
Since the 2000s, the gap between technology on the one hand and art and culture on the other has become narrower. Innovative musical instruments such as Tenori-On, digital artistic installations such as Maeve, and even consumer technology such as the iPhone no longer draw attention to the technology itself. Instead, through their (interaction) design, they communicate values to their users that go beyond efficiency or ease of use. Smartphones are as much about fashion as about technology (see, e.g. the latest iPhone 5c commercial), and interacting with the Maeve installation is clearly a cultural activity, embedded in the 2008 art biennale in Venice.
As technology and interaction design increasingly moves towards art and culture, it becomes relevant to treat interaction design as a cultural form in itself. This awareness of interaction design as a cultural form has caught on in recent years. Whereas Johnson complained in 1997 about a lack of an appropriate language to describe interaction as a cultural form, interaction criticism has filled this gap, drawing on the humanities, cultural studies and philosophy.
On the one hand, technology has become invisible to some extent, as foregrounding cultural aspects backgrounds the technology. On the other hand, interaction criticism foregrounds the interaction design through in-depth analyses of the design’s implicit values and implications. While Mark Weiser’s vision of invisible technology hasn’t caught on as he anticipated, the closing gap between technology and culture has created something of a paradox: it makes technology more invisible, but makes the interaction design itself, as a cultural form, more visible.