Gandhi on Ubicomp

Remember Gandhi’s steps of a revolution? “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” For as long as I’ve known the term, ubiquitous computing has been largely ignored, written off as a scifi pipedream from the people who promised you AI and cars that would run on water. That’s beginning to change, as hardware such as the Arduino and programmable mobile phone handsets enabling artists, researchers, and makers like Eric Paulos, Elizabeth Goodman, and Julian Bleecker to join the digital and physical worlds in new and interesting ways. Now that it’s harder to ignore ubicomp we’re seeing laughter.

Nicholas Nova pointed to an article in Backbone Magazine where “Austin Williams, technical editor of the Architects’ Journal and director of Future Cities, a forum that critically explores city issues” wasn’t so impressed with Paulos’s work. “Williams, who calls such technology-driven projects indulgent, points to more urgent urban problems awaiting solutions, such as the loss of social connections between city dwellers.” While not technically laughter, I put this belittling in the same bucket on Gandhi’s progression.

I think Williams is wrong because he fails to allow for the rate that technology matures. Those practical ubicompers like Paulos, Goodman, and Bleecker have only had affordable easy-to-program embedded hardware and open mobile handsets for a few years. They’re explorers taking first steps on a new world. Explorers sometimes find gold, sometimes find deserts, sometimes get eaten. It’s the nature of the game. The explorers I named would be the first to tell you they’re not buliding products, things for wide deployment that are meant to be consumer-ready, shelf-demonstrable, and poised for their 30s spot after Leno’s monologue.

But in the legions of developers, hackers, hobbyists, alphageeks, and tinkerers who look at their work there will be some who see a product to build—the homesteaders who build cottages, shops, factories. From digital photo frames to the Chumby and the Dash (disclosure: O’Reilly Alpha Tech Ventures is an investor in the Chumby), we’re seeing the first products emerge. Some of them will be like Roanoke Colony, some will be like New Amsterdam. The next wave of products is going to be really interesting, and in there I’m expecting to see things that tackle “the loss of social connections between city dwellers” and other matters that Williams was concerned about. That should go some way to silencing the laughter.

Gandhi’s progression invites the question: if next “they fight you”, who will be fighting ubicomp devices? Not just those who fear wifi, but entrenched business interests. Any ideas? Leave them as comments below.

(Updated with Julian’s new URL)

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