Good Reads: “Everyware”

In the first of a series of recaps of the excellent, excellent reading material I covered in my final year at SI, I present Adam Greenfield’s Everyware: the dawning age of ubiquitous computing (New Riders, 2006).

Everyware is a multipart manifesto — brash at times with its self-assured tone, modest by intervals with its delicate forecasting of the trends it follows. The first portion of the work is given over to grappling with the intellectually thorny question of what exactly ubicomp (Ubiquitous Computing) is, precisely. While detailing the contours of this question, it also attempts to persuade the reader that regardless of your particular definition of ubicomp, it is happening. There is, insists Greenfield, some unique, powerful, and compelling at the intersection of micro-scale computing hardware, globally available high bandwidth connectivity, and multimodal interfaces that is and will continue to change the world we live in. At least in the affluent “west,” that is. The remainder of the not-enormous pagecount (268pp) is dedicated to exploring the many contours and faces of this technological revolution.

This is the heart of the matter, and Greenfield bravely plunges into discussion: “What does ubicomp/everyware mean for us? For those left behind, technologically speaking? What are the ethics?” In other words, Everyware is not just about what this technology is and what is possible to do with it, but also the critical (from this author’s perspective as an information scientist) question of what it means for society, what it affords, what it trends to, and what we can and should be thinking about as we respond to it. I thought, given the initial sections of the book, that I would absolutely hate the remainder of it, but in this I am happy to report that I did not. Greenfield’s discussion is articulate, forceful, and wise.

It is taken as read that the story of everyware is not yet determined (that is to say, Greenfield avoids the trap of technological determinism) and that society as a whole will play a pivotal role in shaping our collective experience of everyware. This warms my heart. Indeed, the final two sections are devoted to a forceful, reasonable, and ultimately emotional (though not in a bad way) set of injunctions prompting us to take action, to make sure we are prepared to make our future with ubiquitous computing bright, airy, and happy (much like the cover of the book).

Speaking of the book’s structure, its organization is one of its finer points. While Everyware is rich and dense, the tone adopted is definitively not the staid, traditional tone of academia. Seven sections, each adorned with fetching representative ideograms throughout, present 81 individual “theses” on the various subjects at hand. These are further annotated with several paragraphs — at most two or three pages — of discussion and references. With the possible exception of several obvious throwaways, the theses are well crafted. Any one of them could (and should) trigger discussion and reflection. A sample:

  • Thesis 16: Everyware can be engaged inadvertently, unknowingly, or even unwillingly.
  • Thesis 42: In everyware, many issues are decided at the level of architecture and therefore do not admit to any substantive recourse in real time.
  • Thesis 66: For many of us, everyware is already a reality.

…and so on.

Everyware sits nicely at the crossroads of my academic and intellectual interests and work, straddling issues from information policy to design to urbanism and sustainable development (even reaching into the philosophical space of epistemology itself). In this sense, it is less a book to read for itself (though it is well enough written and enjoyable) and more a book to read as a means of getting into many other subjects — many of which are amongst the more pressing of our generation.

So: Highly Recommended.

(Adam Greenfield is the principal partner at Studies & Observations, a New York design consultancy. He is a giant in the field of Information Architecture.)

— Matt Wilson

Book Cover - Everywareambient information hereSelf-Describing Space

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