I've been reading Yvonne Rogers' 2006 article, "Moving on from Weiser's vision of of calm computing: engaging UbiComp experiences." Rogers is a professor at Open University, and a longtime friend of the lab. The article is awfully good, challenging and strongly argued. Rogers takes stock of work in proactive computing and ubiquitous computing, and argues that while Weiser's original vision of ubiquitous computing and calm technology is inspiring, "progress in UbiComp research has been hampered by intractable computational and ethical problems and that we need to begin taking stock of both the dream and developments in the field. In particular, we need to rethink the value and role of calm and proactive computing as main driving forces." (406) Instead, she argues, the field should shift its focus "from proactive computing to proactive people,"
where UbiComp technologies are designed not to do things for people but to engage them more actively in what they currently do.... [P]eople rather than computers should take the initiative to be constructive, creative and, ultimately, in control of their interactions with the world – in novel and extensive ways.... much can be gained from reconceptualizing UbiComp in terms of designing user experiences that creatively, excitedly, and constructively extend what people currently do. (406)
I think this is a great argument, but I don't think it's incompatible with Weiser's original vision. Rather, I think Rogers' "engaging experiences" are the kinds that promote the sort of calmness that I described in an earlier post: calmness that is not the result of passivity or inaction, but that results from control and skillful activity.
Rogers first describes the work in proactive computing that Weiser inspired, and where it went wrong. Proactive computing sought to create calm by anticipating user needs, and satisfying them. In this vision,
the environment, the home, and our possessions would be aware, adapt and respond to our varying comfort needs, individual moods and information requirements. We would only have to walk into a room, make a gesture or speak aloud and the environment would bend to our will and respond or react as deemed appropriate for that point in time.... But, as advanced and impressive as these endeavors have been they still do not match up to anything like a world of calm computing. (405)
So what went wrong?
There is an enormous gap between the dream of comfortable, informed and effortless living and the accomplishments of UbiComp research.... A fundamental stumbling block has been harnessing the huge variability in what people do, their motives for doing it, when they do it and how they do it.... The very idea of calm computing has also raised a number of ethical and social concerns. Even if it was possible for Weiser’s dream to be fulfilled would we want to live in such a world? (405-6)
Personally, I don't think Weiser's work needs to be read as an endorsement of proactive computing, but I think it's clear that like strong AI, efforts to create fully automated environments that are smart enough to adapt to and anticipate the needs of people (as opposed to environments-- like factories, say-- where people have to adapt themselves to the needs and pace of technologies) haven't worked out the way we wanted. Further, we've learned from these failures that success will be very hard to achieve.
But I think it's worth noting again the kind of calm that Rogers argues the proactive computing movement was trying to create. It was one in which computers and computationally-rich environments would "do things for people," "bend to our will," and thus create a life of "comfortable, informed and effortless living." This is a vision that equates calm with leisure, with not having to do anything.
So what does Rogers suggest instead? Rather than
augmenting the environment to reduce the need for humans to think for themselves about what to do, what to select, etc., and doing it for them, we should consider how UbiComp technologies can be designed to augment the human intellect so that people can perform ever greater feats, extending their ability to learn, make decisions, reason, create, solve complex problems and generate innovative ideas. (411)
[W]e should also be designing them to be exciting, stimulating and even provocative – causing us to reflect upon and think about our interactions with them. While Weiser promoted the advantages of calm computing I advocate the benefits of engaging UbiComp experiences that provoke us to learn, understand and reflect more upon our interactions with technologies and each other. (412)
But, I would argue, while Rogers sets up her argument as moving beyond Weiser's ideas, engaging ubicomp experience of the sort she describes should be seen not as an alternative to calm computing, but as a means to it. If I'm right that calmness is better understood as a skillful activity rather than a passive one, then engaging technologies that "provoke us to learn, understand and reflect more upon our interactions with technologies and each other" are a means to the end of ubiquitous computing. So long as the excitement and stimulation are invitations to understanding rather than ends in themselves, for users, the experience of engaging ubicomp will eventually become calm computing.
Yvonne Rogers, Moving on from Weiser's vision of of calm computing: engaging UbiComp experiences. In: P. Dourish and A. Friday (Eds.) Ubicomp 2006 Proceedings, LNCS 4206 (Springer-Verlag, 2006), 404-421.