Devices of Articulation: Ubiquitous Computing and Agonistic Collectives

At first glance, the Spore 1.1 project appears to be an ungainly and puzzling assortment of stuff collected together—a small rubber tree that is surrounded by computer circuitry, wires, and tubing, set atop a reservoir of water, and encased within a transparent plastic cube (Easterly and Kenyon 2004) (figure 4.1).1 What is this all for? The simplest answer is an automated system for tending a plant. But it is also something more. The design of the system includes a wry twist that shifts it from just an automated system for tending a plant to a system or assemblage that provocatively models a series of associations and dependencies and provides another example of how design can do the work of agonism. The tree is a particular plant, not in species but in origin: it was purchased from the retailer the Home Depot. The significance of this is that the tree comes with the guarantee that if it dies in the first year, the Home Depot will replace it free of charge. The design of the system links the survival of the plant to the Home Depot. Each week, the computer collects stock price information for the Home Depot corporation via the Internet. Whether the plant is watered or not is determined by the performance of the Home Depot stock. If the stock performs well, the plant is watered. If the stock performs poorly, then no water is given to the plant. If the stock continues to perform poorly, the plant eventually dies from lack of water and is removed from the plastic cube, returned to the local Home Depot, and replaced with another tree provided by the Home Depot corporation free of charge, and the process begins again.

Spore 1.1 is prototypical of ubiquitous computing (ubicomp). As computational components such as integrated circuits and sensors have become smaller and cheaper, they are increasingly embedded in common objects and scattered throughout the environment. The effect is to imbue the world with computational capacities. So through the design of ubicomp systems, one may encounter objects such as Spore 1.1 more

Figure 4.1

Douglas Easterly and Matthew Kenyon, Spore 1.1 (2007), photo by Luke Hoverman frequently—computational objects that are defined by their connectivity to other objects and systems and that have the capacity to receive, process, share, and act on data. One consequence of a world that is imbued with computational capacity is that ideas about engaging computation are progressively shifting. Computation is no longer limited to familiar notions of computers. This, in turn, affects the practices and products of design, opening them to a wide assortment of materialities to manipulate with computation, vastly expanding the possible bits and pieces of computation.

This shift should also provide opportunities for distinctive forms and subjects of adversarial design. As the design of ubicomp systems strings together objects and people in various arrangements of exchange and interaction, in what ways will these designs do the work of agonism? What political issues will be evoked by these novel conglomerations of objects, people, and computation? Spore 1.1 provides hints at answers to these questions. The project establishes simple linkages between objects of varying scales, to surprising effect. These linkages are made significant in a dramatic way as the life or death of a plant is established as being dependent on—connected to—the relative health of a corporation. Although the design of system is provocative, a political perspective is hard to discern. It could be interpreted in multiple ways, for instance, as being about the cyclic and cynical nature of capitalism and consumption, or the responsibilities of corporations to the environment, or our categorizations of nature and technology. But one would be on dangerous ground to assign any single particular political stance or issue to the project. Rather, Spore 1.1 should be interpreted as suggesting the agonistic potentials of ubicomp by the way it works to produce an articulation of a corporation, its products, consumers, digital networks, financial networks, and the ties that bind them. By establishing these linkages, the design of Spore 1.1 creates a collective of sorts that people can participate in to consider and question the components of this system and their relations. It is not so much that Spore 1.1 addresses any one political theme but that it instantiates a model that expresses all of those themes (and others that one might want to project into it) on a scale that is accessible and able to be experienced. Thus, in a manner that typifies agonism, the design of Spore 1.1 evokes political issues without resolving them. The design of the system identifies the factors at play and establishes their relationships and possible consequences, but it leaves open the space of interpretation and contest. Moreover, it does so in a manner that leverages distinctive qualities of computation, suggesting that ubicomp does offer opportunities for unique forms of political expression.

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