Summary

Ubiquitous computing provides yet another example of a category of computational objects with distinctive design challenges and opportunities for doing the work of agonism. Doing design with ubicomp means establishing and structuring the connectedness of the constituent elements of a ubicomp system. The range of these elements is arguably boundless because in the grand vision of ubicomp set out by researchers, any object can be imbued with computational capacities and distributed throughout any environment. In the near future, aware and responsive networked objects and spaces will create environments of seemingly sentient things, which will interact with people and with each other in lively fashion. Regarding the political, ubicomp systems have the potential to do the work of agonism through processes of articulation by using the quality of connectedness to construct agonistic collectives. These collectives are political and agonistic because they enable users and objects to participate together in making, exploring, and contesting alternatives to a wide variety of societal issues and conditions.

Although the design of contemporary commercial ubicomp systems, such as the Ambient Umbrella, begins to fulfill the early promises of ubicomp by imbuing everyday objects with computation, most such examples are still relatively staid designs. The collectives they construct continue and extend familiar and common relations. For example, with the design of the Ambient Umbrella, all that has occurred is that two points in a series of relations and dependencies have been combined: news of inclement weather is now available through the object used to mitigate inclement weather. Users do not have to listen to weather reports to learn this information and then reach for the umbrella; they can reach for the umbrella when it communicates news of the weather. This is clever, perhaps even useful, but it is not really a compelling demonstration of the possibilities of ubicomp for prompting new relations between people, objects, and issues and for instigating new forms of action. Moreover, the design of the Ambient Umbrella does not address the political issues or potentials of ubicomp. One function of systems such as Spore 1.1, Natural Fuse, and the products of the Sentient City Survival Kit is to demonstrate alternatives to the mainstream practices and discourses in ubicomp design and product development. As demonstrative alternatives, these products operate in a manner similar to the robots discussed in chapter 3. They function as exemplars of things, situations, opportunities, and consequences that might be. Like Kelly Dobson 's Blendie and Omo (2007a), which challenge us to reconsider the assumptions and purposes of social robotics, projects such as Spore 1.1, Natural Fuse, and the Sentient City Survival Kit challenge us to reconsider the contexts and implications of ubicomp. Across all of these cases, these designed objects do more than just level a critique. They provide a material demonstration of possible alternatives and shift debate from a discursive format to an experiential form. With Natural Fuse, users are not abstractly arguing about the ethics of energy consumption, cooperation, and conservation but are participating in a model of it. And with Blendie, users are not discussing robots and emotion at a distance but rather directly engaging a machine in an affectively charged encounter.

In fact, articulation can be considered to be a tactic that is akin to reconfiguration but with distinctions of scale. As a tactic, articulation tends to work across a range of objects that are greater in difference and distribution than is the case with reconfiguration. In some cases, this span of distribution and difference is merely a matter of definition of what constitutes an object or a collective. For example, a challenging boundary case would be a collection of robots working together, perhaps as a swarm working toward a singular goal, or perhaps a group of robots that work together with scientists and a host of other devices, such as the Mars rover robots. But more often, this difference of scale is immediately apparent. For example, Blendie consists of an instrumented kitchen mixer and single user, but Spore 1.1 spans from the individual consumer to the multinational corporation, from the biological health of a single plant to the economic health of the Home Depot.

Perhaps most significant for both the design scholar and the practicing designer is to understand that through the process of articulation—by forging connections between objects, people, space, and actions—the identities and meanings of each element are transformed. A plant is not just a plant, a coffee mug is not just a coffee mug, an umbrella is not just an umbrella. Through design, they are now objects that people can use to engage in questioning and contestation to provoke and probe political issues and relations. This transformation extends beyond the objects to include the social and material context of use and user. A user is now a politicized actor. In these agonistic ubicomp systems, the user engages in questioning and contestation as she decides what amount of electricity to use at what time, whether to participate in the construction of a parallel data network or in the disruption of surveillance systems, or whether and how to intervene in the care of a plant. Through the design of agonistic collectives, one can begin to envisage ways in which users are not only witnesses to adversarial design but also participants in doing the work of agonism.

 
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