The Pluralism of Collectives

Ubicomp systems employ more than computation and the affordances of individual objects such as coffee mugs and umbrellas. There is a pluralistic quality to these collectives. These systems extend outward to draw in and combine a much greater breadth of people, technologies, and objects than might be initially thought. Through articulation, the design of ubicomp systems link and incorporate the material and social environment into collectives. Through this, they become essential elements of the design. To fully realize the political potentials of ubicomp requires recognizing the extent of this social and material enrollment and the ways that ubi- comp systems can provide novel spaces for agonistic expression and engagement.

Consider again the Ad-hoc Dark (roast) Network Travel Mug and the CCD-Me Not Umbrella. Both of these systems depend on elements and phenomena that extend beyond the obvious parts of umbrellas, coffee mugs, LEDs, and microprocessors. The design of the Ad-hoc Dark (roast) Network Travel Mug includes more than the instrumented travel mug. The design also includes the subway car, the habits and customs of morning and evening commuters, and the spatial arrangement of people in that space and at that time. This collection of factors is foundational to the design of the system and requisite for the system to operate. With the Ad-hoc Dark (roast) Network Travel Mug, to establish a network among nodes, the nodes must be present and near each other—that is, the system requires particular spatial arrangements. Subway cars provide a bounded space in which that arrangement can emerge. But more than just the material construction of the subway car, the design also leverages the conditions of use of the subway—the close distribution of people within subway cars during the morning and evening commutes. Taken together, these qualities of the subway car and commute provide the material and social infrastructure of use and experience. A similar pattern can be seen in the design of the CCD-Me Not Umbrella: its design includes an umbrella studded with LEDs, city streets, and the software that it works to disrupt. Even the weather figures into its design, since weather is the excuse for using the umbrella.

In both cases, elements and phenomena of the social and material environment are made into integral aspects of the systems. They are articulated by design into the systems. Recognizing that ubicomp collectives articulate a host of elements into their design, beyond the computational objects themselves, provides important insights into how ubicomp can do the work of agonism. Like any manner of articulation, the combination of constituent elements transforms their identity in the production of a new collective with new possibilities for action and meaning. As previously noted, what makes a collective agonistic is the extent to which it produces an open space of contest where conflicting values and practices can be acted out. These spaces of contest are the contexts of use that are transformed by agonistic articulation. That is, when designed or interpreted from an agonistic perspective, ubicomp products can transform the context of use into places and events in which political contest might unfold.

For example, with the Ad-hoc Dark (roast) Network Travel Mug and the CCD-Me Not Umbrella, riding in a subway car during the morning commute and walking on a rainy city street are no longer just moments spent traversing the city. They become places and events for engaging, challenging, and providing alternatives to urban life as it intersects with ubicomp. The subway car and the commute become a context in which to work around systems of surveillance and engage in parallel, "dark" modes of communication. Likewise, the rainy city street becomes a context in which to work against systems of surveillance and engage in minor acts of disruption. And with Natural Fuse, the domestic environment and everyday activities as banal as turning on a lamp become transformed into places and acts in which questions of energy consumption are experientially confronted and the simple act of using an appliance is politicized, made into a situation with political meaning and consequence. Although the previous qualities and associations between these elements and phenomena remain—the subway during the morning commute is still a crowded place, rain is still wet, appliances still require electricity—through the articulation by design, new political associations and possibilities are constructed.

One effect of broadly articulating the material and social environment is that the situations and actors of the political are greatly expanded. By including elements and phenomena of the social and material environment into the design of a ubicomp system and as part of an agonistic collective, those elements and phenomena become politicized in ways they were not before. Who would have previously considered a subway car a space for engaging issues of network surveillance or a houseplant a thing for engaging issues of energy consumption, and individual actions and desires? Computation and the visions and practices of ubicomp seem to amplify the potential for political engagement with objects by enabling them to be linked to and link others into associations that have political meaning and significance.

In this sense, ubicomp systems actively participate in articulation, drawing together and giving new meaning to the constituent elements of a system, regardless of what those elements are. The ubicomp system engages those elements and phenomena, connects them through a series of design dependencies and exchanges of data and, in the process, transforms them toward new ends. And there seem to be few limits to what can be articulated into a ubicomp system. Nearly any site or object of any scale can become a site or object politicized by design by leveraging the quality of connectedness provided by ubicomp. Just as ubicomp embeds computation in everyday objects distributed throughout the environment, so too can it, by design, draw out the political in everyday situations and practices.

At its core, articulation is a transformative activity, and with ubicomp systems, that transformation is enacted, in part, beyond the designer and the user. Ubicomp systems actively gather, order, and express beyond the actions and intentions of the designers and users. The transformative event of articulation is not solely assigned to human actors. In this way, we are returned to or at least turned toward Latour 's project of broadening the understanding of how action happens beyond human effort, taking into account the capacities of objects.

This design of connectedness that characterizes the design of ubicomp also returns us to and mirrors earlier discussions of procedural authorship. With procedural authorship, designers construct rules for representations, those rules are executed in software, and depending on the variables (including user input) and the data available, different representations result. The adversarial design of ubicomp is similar, but rather than producing representations, it produces spaces for contest. With ubicomp systems, the designer constructs a series of linkages leveraging multiple qualities of computation, including procedurality and embodiment, and when those linkages are enacted, depending on the actions of users and the qualities of the elements articulated into the design, different experiences result. In regard to political expression, this suggests that a set of conditions can be gathered together, but the message itself cannot be easily scripted. Indeed, this is the opportunity of adversarial design in the context of ubicomp—to set stages and provide props for the open exploration, perhaps even discovery, of the political significance and meaning of social issues and conditions.

 
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