[iDC] Towards designerly agency in a ubicomp world

Rob van Kranenburg kranenbu at xs4all.nl
Mon Jul 3 15:32:24 EDT 2006

Hi Trebor,

I take the liberty to post my text

Towards Designerly Agency in a Ubicomp World, In: Tales of the  
Disappearing Computer, Kameas A., Streitz, N. (eds), CTI Press, 2003,  
pp. 119-127.

Greetings from tropical Ghent (heatwave! and loving every minute of it)

Towards designerly agency in a ubicomp world

Rob van Kranenburg

Antwerp Performance Theatricality/ Education Dep, Ghent University/  
Resonance Design /

Lucas Munichstraat 13 , 9000 Gent, Belgium


In A future world of supersenses, Martin Rantzer of Ericsson  
Foresight claims: "Newcommunication senses will be needed in the  
future to enable people to absorb the enormous mass of information  
with which they are confronted." According to him the user interfaces  
we use today to transmit information to our brains threaten to create  
a real bottleneck for new broadband services. The bottleneck is thus  
our embodied brain, not our capacity to boost cable or wireless  
connectivity. The design challenge in implementing digital  
connecitivity in an analogue environment lies in creating a working  
concept of corporal literacy that will inform a design for all the  
senses. In a ubiquitous computing environment the new intelligence is  
extelligence, "knowledge and tools that are outside people's  
heads" (Stewart and Cohen, 1997) In such an environment the user  
needs textual, visual and corporal literacy, that is an awareness of  
extelligence and a working knowledge of all the senses. How can we  
create educational scenarios that allow for these multi-literacies to  
be recognized, facilitated, documented, and shaped into working  
methodologies for designers?

Keywords:  Design Education Multi-literacies Performance Ubicomp  
applications, Radio Frequency Tags Extelligence

When Captain Cook sailed into an Australian shore for the first time,  
on April 22 1770 the Aborigines who sat fishing in their boats, did  
not look up. The Haitians and Maori had responded immediately. Only  
until Cook lowered a small boat did the Aborigines react. Cook’s ship  
the Endeavour was too unlike a boat, too big to be seen as a ship.  
The Aborigines thought it was an island, and when you see an island  
you do not have to look up. It will pass.

We find ourselves today in a similar situation. Our Endeauvour is the  
merging of digital and analogue connectivity as described by Mark  
Weiser and Eberhardt’s and Gershenfeld’s announcement in Febuary 1999  
that the Radio Frequency Tag had dropped under the pennycost. For  
most common users the ubicomp revolution will be too fundamental to  
be perceived as such. Some professional users believe in smooth  
transitions, as Tesco's UK IT director Colin Cobain, who says that  
RFID tags will be used on 'lots of products' within five years - and  
perhaps sooner for higher value goods;  'RFID will help us understand  
more about our products, he claims.[i]  Some professionals believe  
“that what we call ubiquitous computing will gradually emerge as the  
dominant mode of computer access over the next twenty years.  Like  
the personal computer, ubiquitous computing will enable nothing  
fundamentally new, but by making everything faster and easier to do,  
with less strain and mental gymnastics, it will transform what is  
apparently possible.”[ii] Intriguingly it is Mark Weiser himself who  
claims that “ubiquitous computing will enable nothing fundamentally  
new”. In this Weiser will be proven wrong: ubiquitous computing will  
enable something fundamentally new, and the main question is : to  
what extent does it have designerly agency? In places where  
computational processes have disappeared into the background, into  
everyday objects - both the real and the subject become contested in  
concrete daily situations and activities. The environment becomes the  
interface.  What is the role and place of design in these information  
spaces that are mediated with computational processes that generate  
not data (linked to other data) – the kind of communicative process  
that we are familiar with - but information (linked to other  
information)? The main challenge in design education lies in  
confronting this move from interaction as a key term to resonance.  
That refers most aptly to the way we relate to things, people, ideas  
in a connected environment. Interaction presupposes an ideal setting,  
agency and response. But mediation (the core business of interaction)  
is no longer a relationship. It has become the default position.

Architecture again as the core of design education

The ultimate aim of all creativity is the building! And the italics  
are original to Walter Gropius Manifesto of the Bahaus (April 1919):  
“Let us together desire, conceive and create the new building of the  
future, which will combine everything – architecture and sculpture  
and painting – in  a single form….” Building will become once again  
the core unit of design. For something has fundamentally changed; the  
very nature of information itself, no longer analogue, no longer  
digital, and not hybrid neither: buildings, cars and people can now  
be defined as information spaces. Anthony Townsend, from Taub Urban  
Research Center, has been asked by the South Korean government to  
“turn an undeveloped parcel of land on the outskirts of Seoul into a  
city whose raison d'etre will be to produce and consume products and  
services based on new digital technologies. “ The main challenge lies  
in the realization that “half of designing a city is going to be  
information spaces that accompany it because lots of people will use  
this to navigate around.”  Waiting rooms, he claims,  become  
something of an anachronism because no one really waits anymore.  
Townsend claims that telecommunications in a city in 2012 is going to  
be a lot more complex: “The most interesting thing about it will be  
that you won't be able to see it all at once because all these data  
structures, computational devices, digital networks and cyberspaces  
that are built upon those components will be invisible unless you  
have the password or unless you are a member of the group that is  
permitted to see them”.[iii] In such an environment, - a truly magic  
one - people themselves  become information spaces.
Building, cars and people become information spaces

In an attempt to achieve a harmony between a town center and a  
distribution network, officials of the Wal-Mart Corporation announced  
in March 2003 the opening of Walton Township, guaranteeing its  
residents a literally bottomless supply of consumer goods, for a flat  
all-in monthly fee.  According to Valerie Femble-Grieg, who designed  
it, the key to Walton is “a literal superimposition of municipal and  
retail channels."  In an effort to control 'leakage,' the export of  
flat-fee goods outside the Township by community subscribers, Wal- 
Mart plans to institute a pervasive inventory control system  
consisting of miniature radio-frequency tags broadcasting unique  
product and batch ID numbers.”[iv] The tree major U.S. car  
manufacturers plan to install rfd tags in “ every tire sold in the  
nation”. The tags can be read on vehicles going as fast as 160  
kilometers per hour from a distance of 4.5 meters.[v] In January  
2003, Gillette began attaching rfd tags to 500 million of its Mach 3  
Turbo razors. Smart shelves at Wal-Mart stores “will record the  
removal of razors by shoppers, thereby alerting stock clerks whenever  
shelves need to be refilled—and effectively transforming Gillette  
customers into walking radio beacons.”[vi] London Underground will in  
all probality have about 10.000 CCTV’s  by 2004 (it now has 5000).  
The systems architecture - MIPSA , Modular Intelligent Pedestrian  
Surveillance Architecture - is programmed with scenarios – “such as  
unattended objects, too much congestion, or people loitering - and  
when it detects one of those, it alerts the operator through a series  
of flashing lights and messages.”
“To determine what is suspect, the system memorizes the features of  
an image that are constant, and then subtracts those to figure out  
what is happening. It looks at patterns of motion and their  
intensity. Things that are stationary for too long in a busy  
environment raise alarms..”[vii]
When computational processes disappear, the environment becomes the  
interface. In such an environment - where the computer has  
disappeared as visible technology - and human beings have become  
designable and designerly information spaces - design decisions  
inevitably become process decisions. Are our current designers  
equipped to deal with these fundamental issues and dilemma’s, where  
what used to be media ethics has now become building ethics itself?
In the November 2002 Proposal for a School of Design at the  
University of California, Irvine it is recognized that design  
education has to confront a fundamentally changed situation of  
design: “To be effective, designers can no longer focus simply on the  
narrow domains of specific applications. They must increasingly reach  
deeper and more broadly into the foundations of design, and they must  
understand more about the cultural contexts in which their designs  
are created and used. They are now called upon not only to produce  
new products but also to manage the processes by which the products  
are produced. They must also understand more about the ways products  
are used and the people who use them, about how to involve users in a  
design process, and about how to evaluate designs based upon  
usage.”[viii] Design decisions have become process decisions.

Design education means confronting multiple literacies: textual,  
visual, and corporal

“As thousands of ordinary people buy monitoring devices and services,  
the unplanned result will be an immense, overlapping grid of  
surveillance systems, created unintentionally by the same ad-hocracy  
that caused the Internet to explode. Meanwhile, the computer networks  
on which monitoring data are stored and manipulated continue to grow  
faster, cheaper, smarter, and able to store information in greater  
volume for longer times. Ubiquitous digital surveillance will marry  
widespread computational power—with startling results.”[ix]
Every new set of techniques brings forth its own literacy: The  
Aristotelian protests against introducing pencil writing, may seem  
rather incredible now, at the time it meant nothing less than a  
radical change in the structures of power distribution. Overnight, a  
system of thought and set of grammar; an oral literacy dependant on a  
functionality of internal information visualization techniques and  
recall, was made redundant because the techniques could be  
externalised. Throughout Western civilization the history of memory  
externalisation runs parallel with the experienced disappearance of  
its artificial, man made, character. An accidental disappearance,  
however much intrinsic to our experience, that up till now has not  
been deliberate. This then is the fundamental change and challenge  
that we are facing in ubicomp; the deliberate attempt of a technology  
to disappear as technology.
Rethinking skills, literacies and research

The main question from a design educational point of view concerns  
the kind of skills and kind of literacies that a designer needs to  
function. And these turn out to be those that are most foreign to an  
educational practice today, as this new situation needs designers  
that can assess emergent literacies, unforeseen uses, unintended use,  
and resonance – not interaction – as the key producer of causalities.  
For such a designer the default position is one of uncertainty, of  
being able to cope with a continuous delaying of the act of closure,  
of an ‘end’.
In the new 754i BMW sedan the iDrive, also known as the miracle knob   
“is designed, through a computerized console, to replace more than  
200 that control everything from the position of seats to aspects of  
the navigation of the car itself to climate, communications and  
entertainment systems.” In May 2002 15,000 7-series were recalled.  
"BMW tried to do too many things at once with this car, and they  
underestimated the software problem," says Conley, ex-CEO of EPRO  
Corp." Only two-thirds of hardware has been unleashed by software.  
There are so many predecessors and dependencies within software that  
it's like spaghetti-ware. It's not that easy to get all these little  
components to plug and play." [x]
Bemoaning the loss of old skills is probably not the most productive  
way to critique the new technologies.  The greater need is to  
recognize that, precisely *because* of the labor-saving capabilities  
of our high-tech tools, the art of mastery demands greater skills and  
more arduous discipline than ever before.[xi]
Rethinking research

The editors of the first volume of Visual Communication, claim that:  
“at the same time as the study of language and communication has  
become more openly oriented towards practical problems, the practice  
of designing visual communications has become more openly allied to  
research.”[xii] The working notion of research, however in current  
academies is deeply infested with a sterile theory-practice dichotomy  
that functioned in a mechanistic worldview, but is hardly productive  
in a ubicomp world. We face the challenge of rethinking research as a  
performative practice based on creating applications for societal  
benefit. There are very few ubicomp applications at the moment that  
do not focus on control or surveillance issues. That there is a great  
need for applications that empower users in dealing with uncertain  
situations is witnessed by the fact that Pervasive Computing  
published my work-in-progress in the Jan-March 2003 issue.

Rob van Kranenburg • Resonance Design

Roger was a successful vice president of a bank, unremarkable in  
every respect, except one. Before starting a task, he had to pull his  
socks up and down five times. Exactly five. Roger (not his real name)  
had obsessive-compulsive disorder. Like a skipping record, OCD  
patients repeat an act or repeatedly think about a phrase, number, or  
concept. "Most of us are able to switch things off," says Hopkins  
professor of psychiatry Rudolf Hoehn-Saric. "In obsessive-compulsive  
disorder, the person can't." (M. Hendricks, "The Man Who Couldn't  
Stop Adjusting His Socks," Johns Hopkins Magazine, June 1995;  

In the US and Netherlands, one in 50 adults currently has OCD, and  
twice as many have had it at some point in their lives. OCD is a  
medical brain disorder that causes problems in information  
processing, creating a loop in the feedback procedure so that people  
miss the "ka-chung" that closes a car door or the click that shuts  
down the television. According to the Obsessive-Compulsive Foundation,

Worries, doubts, and superstitious beliefs all are common in everyday  
life. However, when they become so excessive, such as hours of hand  
washing, or make no sense at all, such as driving around and around  
the block to check that an accident didn't occur, then a diagnosis of  
OCD is made. In OCD, it is as though the brain gets stuck on a  
particular thought or urge and just can't let go. People with OCD  
often say the symptoms feel like a case of mental hiccups that won't  
go away. OCD is a medical brain disorder that causes problems in  
information processing. It is not your fault or the result of a  
"weak" or unstable personality. (The Obsessive-Compulsive Foundation,  

How could ubicomp be instrumental here? Phase 1 is researching if  
ubicomp applications can assess if a person has a tendency for audio,  
visual, tactile, or other kinds of feedback that would signal the  
task scenario's closure. In Phase 2, we would have to access, for  
example, if visual feedback on clothing or another appliance could  
break the chain of repetition for a person who functions on visual  
feedback but is dealing with an apparatus that does not provide such  
feedback. Working closely with psychiatrists and OCD patients, in  
Phase 3 we could test whether such ubiquitous computing applications  
could break the loop of repetition, assuming that it is the kind of  
feedback that is responsible for the taskloop's nonclosure.

A group of researchers performed experiments and concluded that "the  
OCD group performed significantly worse than controls in the temporal  
ordering task despite showing normal recognition memory. Patients  
were also impaired in ‘feeling-of-doing' judgments, suggesting they  
have a lack of self-awareness of their performance" (M.A. Jurado et  
al., "Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD): Patients are Impaired in  
Remembering Temporal Order and in Judging Their Own Performance," J.  
Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, vol. 24, no. 3, 2002, pp.  

Based on these findings, research into ubicomp applications could  
focus on temporal markers and serendipitous feedback scripting into  
various scenarios to raise self-awareness.

The three phases just discussed are being developed within the  
framework of contemporary performance and theatrical practice. There  
we find an actualization of (and ways of dealing with) the bottleneck  
scenarios that information experts envision.

In the framework of theatrical practice we can create authentic  
educational scenarios that allow the research of  multi-literacies to  
be shaped into working methodologies on information overload (here on  
‘feedback’) for designers. The educational design challenge in  
implementing digital connectivity in an analogue environment lies in  
creating a working concept of corporal literacy that will inform a  
design for all the senses. There is more information available at our  
fingertips during a walk in the woods, says Mark Weiser, than in any  
computer system, “yet people find a walk among trees relaxing and  
computers frustrating. Machines that fit the human environment,  
instead of forcing humans to enter theirs, will make using a computer  
as refreshing as taking a walk in the woods.”[xiii]


One of the most intriguing aspects of Bauhaus is that the most  
successful unit, – the unit coming ‘closest to Bauhaus intentions’,  
as Gropius stated, the pottery workshop – was located 25 kilometers  
from Weimar, in Dornburg. It was hard to reach by train, and hard to  
reach by car. The workshop master Max Krehan owned the workshop, so  
there was a business interest from the start. The relationship with  
Marcks , the Master of Form, was not contaminated with formalized  
roundtable discussions, but was a productive twoway (abstract- 
concrete) interrelationship.

“More important still, in terms of what Gropius hoped for the entire  
Bauhaus, was the way in which the pottery workshop operated in close  
co-operation with the local community in which it found itself. It  
made pots for the community and the town of Dornburg leased the  
workshop a plot of land which the students used for vegetables and on  
which, it was hoped, they would build.”[xiv]
So what can we learn from this? That we must not aim to define, alter  
or transform practices, processes, places or people. The aim should  
be to define a vision. A vision that should be able to inspire and  
empower designers in their concrete experience of agency in this  
seemingly undesignerly new world, towards a humanistic and optimistic  
positive attitude in the role, function and leadership of the  
designer in his and her capability to make sense, to work within an  
uncertain framework of unforeseen consequences, unintended uses, and  
procedural breakdown.
Three basic ideas underlie this vision: a concept of life and living  
as slow becoming, as in Eugène Minkowsky’s idea that the essence of  
life is not “ a feeling of being, of existence, but a feeling of  
participation in a flowing onward, necessarily expressed in terms of  
time, and secondarily expressed in terms of space.”[xv], a concept of  
slow money, to focus on the design process and sustainability of  
design products, and a working concept of our notion of control, as  
slow resonance.

[i] Ranger, Steve. Shops reveal plans to replace barcodes. Vnut,  
04-09-2002. http://www.vnunet.com/News/1134796
[ii] Weiser,  Mark "The Computer for the Twenty-First Century,"  
Scientific American, pp. 94-10, September 1991
[iii] Junnarkar, Sandeep. Designing the century's first digital city.  
CNET News.com, September 18, 2002, 12:00 PM PT http://news.com.com/ 
[iv] Futurefeedforward" fff at futurefeedforward.com Date: Sun Mar 23,  
2003, By Bruce Sterling
[v] Farmer, Dan and Mann, Charles C. Surveillance Nation, Technology  
Review, April 2003
[vi] Farmer, Dan and Mann, Charles C. Surveillance Nation, Technology  
Review, April 2003
[vii] Campbell, Kim. Stand still too long and you'll be watched New  
imaging software alerts surveillance-camera operators to suspect  
situations by monitoring patterns of motion .Christian Science  
Monitor http://www.csmonitor.com/2002/1107/p17s01-stct.htm

[viii] University of California, Irvine. Proposal for a School of  
Design at the University of California, Irvine November 2002, http:// 
[ix] Farmer,  Dan and Mann, Charles C. Surveillance Nation,  
Technology Review, April 2003
[x] Gage, Debbie. Consumer Products: When Software Bugs Bite, January  
16, 2003 http://www.baselinemag.com/print_article/0,3668,a=35839,00.asp>
[xi]  Talbott, Steve. Subject: NetFuture #141 Issue #141. A  
Publication of The Nature Institute, January 28, 2003.
[xii]  Editorial, Visual Communication, volume 1, number 1, February  
2OO2 ISSN 1470-3572
[xiii] Weiser, Mark "The Computer for the Twenty-First Century,"  
Scientific American, pp. 94-10, September 1991
[xiv] Whitford, Frank, Bauhaus, Thames & Hudson, 1984, p. 73-4
[xv] Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Foreword by Etienne  
Gilson, Beacon, 1969, p. xii in the Introduction.

> What opportunities and dilemmas does a world of networked objects  
> and spaces
> pose for architecture, art, and computing? How might this evolving  
> relation
> between people and "things" alter the way we occupy, navigate, and  
> inhabit the
> built environment?
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