Infrastructures and Their Discontents: Implications for Ubicomp

Mainwaring S.D., Chang M.F., Anderson K. (2004) Infrastructures and Their Discontents: Implications for Ubicomp. In: Davies N., Mynatt E.D., Siio I. (eds) UbiComp 2004: Ubiquitous Computing. UbiComp 2004. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, vol 3205. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.

The authors conduct an empirical ethnographic study of people for whom infrastructure, often invisible, had become visible. They focus on how the infrastructure is "perceived and conceived, emotionally understood, and interacted with from the first-person perspective of its users" (pg. 418). They sought out participants who had daily encounters with infrastructures due to a range of goals. They focused on four types of people: "homeschoolers, gated community dwellers, security seekers, and disconnectors ... Security seekers had joined a group to make their neighborhood safer, created a “safe room,” installed a home security system, or some combination of these. Disconnectors had stopped or almost stopped using the internet, TV, credit cards, or some combination." (pg. 420). They present their findings by participant category. They present challenges and opportunities to the design of ubiquitous computing services, which rely on multiple interconnected infrastructures.

Challenges and Opportunities for Ubicomp

Appropriable Infrastructures

Most infrastructures are provided by companies, and thus they are not owned by their users. Users needs are also not necessarily met by the infrastructure, and they must either purchase additional infrastructure services (e.g., a home security system) or build their own (e.g., a panic room). Ubicomp offers a spectrum of adoption (owned by someone else) vs. appropriation (more tailored to local needs) options. However, adoption options may lead to gaps in needs and potential frustrations. Appropriation options may require more expert users and work on the user's behalf.

Empowering Infrastructures

The authors argue that infrastructures like elecricity are empowering, and also require a level of trust in handling messy details, being reliable, and handling our health and security. They state that ubicomp infrastructures will also be powerful, "h integrating many mechanisms of sensing, inferencing, and communicating," and must meet demands for user trust (pg. 428). They do not see empowering ubicomp as automating human skills, but celebrating them, encouraging active engagement, and providing resources for continuous change.

Reflective Infrastructures

They state that infrastructures may bring unwanted "noise," literally or figuratively (e.g., unwanted nuisances or work). They suggest technologies of self-monitoring, self-surveillence, and self-reflection, rather than noisy, influential, or even calm systems.