Encountering the World with Ubiquitous Computing

Agustin A. Araya


Ubiquitous Computing has been proposed as a long term strategy for the penetration of everyday life as a whole with computing technology. It proposes a new way of integrating communications and computer technologies beyond the paradigm of the unembedded computer in a way conducive to the pervasive penetration of everyday activities.

Several key principles underlie the proposals for Ubiquitous Computing. First, as its name indicates, Ubiquitous Computing aims at achieving “maximal ubiquity.” Such principle, responsible for the surprising character of this technology, calls for the penetration of “everything” with computing technology. Computers “will be embedded in walls, chairs, clothing, light switches, cars – in everything.” Second, such ubiquity would make it possible the real-time dissemination of information “from everywhere to everywhere.” This principle, which we call the ultra-disseminability of information, by making information available everywhere it would enable the development of a variety of innovative applications, thus “making everything faster and easier to do, with less strain and fewer mental gymnastics.” Third, to achieve ultra-disseminability, an appropriate technological infrastructure is required which is guided by what we call the principle of ultra-connectivity: everything is physically connected to the web of ubiquitous computing. Ubiquitous Computing “is fundamentally characterized by the connection of things in the world with computation. This will take place at many scales, including the microscopic.”

What are the possible effects of this massive deployment of technology upon things, environments, and, in particular, ourselves, future users of the technology? We believe that to be able to achieve an appropriate understanding of the social and ethical issues arising from such deploy- ment, it is necessary to develop first a clear understanding of how things and environments would be transformed by this technology, as well as an understanding of how our involvement with them would be consequently transformed.

Our task, then, is twofold. First, we develop the basic elements of an ontological perspective from which we can address the issues of interest. Starting with Martin Heidegger’s analysis of “equipment” and the structure of “being in the world,” we focus on our involvement with things and identify a fundamental ontological dimension of such involvement, namely, “otherness,” which will play a crucial role in the analysis. Second, we examine the proposals for Ubiquitous Computing from the perspective previously developed. After examining the principles underlying this technology, we focus on several scenarios illustrating possible applications of Ubiquitous Computing. By examining these scenarios from the ontological perspective, we are able to determine potential transformations on the ontological structure of things, living beings, and environments. Subsequently, by elaborating on the trans- formed nature of our involvement with these new kinds of things, we are able to identify how they would appear to us, and by extension, how we would encounter a world intensely penetrated with Ubiquitous Computing.

In one of the scenarios, people and things of all kinds have attached or embedded signal emitter devices which are monitored by networks of sensors distributed throughout environments, such as buildings, homes, and airplanes. The identities and locations of people and things are constantly available on the web of ubiquitous computing. To locate, say, a misplaced pair of glasses, we access the web, furnish a description of it, and without much delay receive information about its location, possibly at the office, or in the glove compartment of the car, or even in the overhead compartment of an airplane.

Starting from the observation that in this scenario, in a very real sense, things can no longer become lost, we examine aspects of the “otherness” of things such as their “inaccessibility,” “separateness,” and “independence.” We show how in such scenario these characteristics, which are constitutive of otherness, are significantly “eroded,” leading to a first ontological transformation of things into “things under surveillance.” If we now examine how such things appear to us in our involvement with them, we identify another and more fundamental transformation of “things under surveillance” into “things-under-surveillance.” In this last case, we are dealing with a new kind of being, one which although sharing many characteristics with what we currently call “thing,” differs ontologically from it. An almost invisible, over-reaching apparatus – the web of ubiquitous computing – keeps a constant eye on the thing – on “every” thing. Having virtually bridged the distance that separated it from us, we virtually carry the thing like a “pendant,” to the point that things are no longer “in-de-pendent” from us. What we gain in accessibility, the thing loses in otherness, and we find ourselves involved with somethings that is “less other” than it was before, something that offers us less opportunities for becoming aware of their otherness. In this transformation, due to the changed character of our involvement with them, a thing is now less of a thing than what it used to be. In fact, it is no longer a thing, it has become a “thing-under-surveillance.”

Finally, after having examined several scenarios, we propose an overall characterization of Ubiquitous Computing as “an attempt at the systematic dismantling by computational means of the otherness of things, living beings, and environments.”