Ubicomp, science fiction and collective imaginaries

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Ubiquitous Computing, often abbreviated as ubicomp, is a model of human-machine interaction aspiring to completely surpass the current desktop environment paradigm—the graphic interface through which the interaction between man and computer takes place, and which is based on the notion of desktop. Hypothesized for the first time in 1988 by Mark Weiser, ubicomp imagines a reality in which an ever increasing number of activities are filtered through and executed by dispositives and computers—remarkably imagining an everyday life in which these operations are dislocated and diffused in the human environment, instead of being located in a single device.

In the future planned by ubicomp man and machine exist no more as separate entities: in some sense the machine tends to disappear in order to come back, invisible, in our everyday gestures, habits and behaviours. In a not yet published article (but of which is available a print ready version, which can be read here), Paul Dourish—IT professor at the University of California—and Genevieve Bell—anthropologist in charge of the Interaction and Experience Research at Intel Corporation—traced an interesting parallelism between ubicomp-oriented design practices and the imaginaries linked to science fiction narrations. Essentially, they claim, science fiction can be seen as a narrative act imagining—and in a sense creating—possible future world, by means of deduction and speculation. This narrative act, this poiesis, is distinguished by the fact that it devotes a large part of its speculations to the technological innovations that will occupy the portion of the imagined future world; more precisely, the new technology, from a narrative point of view, functions as a pretext to develop a history by means of the characters—what Hitchcock defined as MacGuffin.

Now, according to Dourish and Bell, not only the planning and research in the ubicomp field shares many characteristics with the narrative modalities of science fiction, and with the imaginaries created by it (both can be defined as acts of representation and anticipation of the future); but most importantly the world imagined by science fiction short stories, comics, movies and TV series would be of great value for the scientific research inspired by Ubiquitous Computing. As a matter of fact ubicomp doesn’t configure itself solely as the development or fine-tuning of a new technology, but rather as a radical transformation able to completely reconfigure interpersonal relations—as well as the relations between the people and the surrounding world. This kind of research, and of design, has enormous consequences on the social, cultural and political plane—aspects that are not present in the sphere of scientific and technological development. Examining specific images, narrations, representations—in a word, collective imaginaries—proceeding from the science fiction worlds, the two authors point out some social and political issues related to the development of ubicomp technologies: “we are interested in the ways in which science fiction – the literary figuring of future technologies rather than the practical figuring of much contemporary research – engages with a series of questions about the social and cultural contexts of technology use that help us reflect upon assumptions within technological research.” In this sense the analysis of the Start Trek’s crew poses some moral questions concerning the conception of the available technology as an instrument able to guarantee a democratic, and devoid of racial and social prejudices, interaction—utopian image. Other TV series, as Blake’s 7 or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, root the most part of their plot in the immense and omnipresent bureaucratic apparatuses taking form thanks to new technologies—threatening thus the main character’s individual freedom—dystopian image.

These analyses, that seem at a first glance frivolous and devoid of scientific value, can instead move the attention of the research toward some questions and issues which are already present in the technological artifact’s design phase—matters concerning the effective use of a technology within a given social context. The value of such an investigation lies in the conception that the future imagined and anticipated by science fictions is particularly revealing about present times, since in those stories hopes—thus utopian images—and concerns—dystopian images—belonging to the past are projected, developed, and in a sense simulated in the literary process. The author of this text is increasingly convinced that such an approach should be taken into consideration also within communication design and in the visual culture studies. In which way the collective imaginaries take form on the basis of the production of visual communication? To which extent these imaginaries convey a given idea of the future, in which a collectivity recognizes itself? Can communication design, and the manufacturing of communicative artifacts, acquire a certain awareness and thus actively participate in the creation of these imaginaries?

These questions and many more are thus unavoidable points—although starting points—to frame the contemporary designer’s work within a process aimed to prefigure a shared future, to which we aspire as a collectivity.