Connectedness and Collectives

Ubicomp draws from and weaves together multiple qualities of the medium of computation, including embodiment, procedurality, transcoding, and the network as a medium of storage and exchange. But the quality that distinguishes ubicomp is connectedness. By connectedness, I mean the capacity of ubicomp to link together objects and systems. This connectedness is of a particular kind. It is not limited to a one-to-one connectivity or to connectedness between same or similar objects. Rather, the quality of connectedness that distinguishes ubicomp is a capacity for one-to-many or many-to-many connectivity among an array of diverse objects.

Consider again Spore 1.1 and the Ambient Umbrella. Both of these comprise a compilation of dissimilar objects—plants, water, pumps, Ethernet cables, umbrellas, LEDs, and microprocessors. What distinguishes ubicomp is not the form or material of any single object. For example, the tree used in the Spore 1.1 is materially like any other rubber tree (and could be replaced with any other plant from the Home Depot), and the Ambient Umbrella is like any other umbrella in material and form. What distinguishes these products is their connectedness as objects to other objects and systems—an umbrella to a data feed, which is gathered from a network of meteorological monitoring stations, radars, and satellites; and a plant to an automated watering system, the automated watering system to a data feed, parsed from a more general feed of stock market data, which could be seen as a response to a global financial network of events, actions, and desires.

In both of these examples, the ubicomp system is composed of a multiplicity of assorted objects, which are to varying degrees imbued with computation to exchange and express data. In designing the products of ubicomp, the fundamental activity is one of discovering and establishing compelling modes of computational exchange and expression between objects: the design of ubicomp is the design of connectedness. More than just exchange and expression between objects, this connectedness extends outward to enroll people, other entities in the environment, and even the environment itself.

Most of the discourses of ubicomp focus on the disappearance of the computer, but I focus here on the emergence of collectives. Computation that is distributed throughout and shared among objects draws people and things together into novel arrangements. These novel arrangements of people and things can be understood as collectives—collections and orderings of exchanges, dependencies, resources, and responses among objects, people, and the environment—focused around a particular issue or activity. More than just establishing connectedness, the design of ubicomp results in the formation of these collectives: the design of ubicomp produces collectives. For some, it may seem odd to speak of collectives comprising both people and object. But this activation of objects and their environments and this mingling of a multiplicity of diverse things together provides ubicomp with distinctive political potential. As designer and theorist Julian Bleeker (2009, 173) puts it, "Whereas the Internet of Non-Things was limited to human agents, in the Internet of Things objects are also active participants in the creation, maintenance and knitting together of social formations through the dissemination of meaningful insights that, until now, were not easily circulated in human form."

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