Essay: Croker

Trevor Croker - Final Draft [12/16/13]

Calming Ubiquity


Today, one of the dominant categories of distributed computing is “cloud computing.” Prior to the emergence of cloud computing, there were a number of technological standards and ways of framing the broader category of “distributed computing.” This essay looks at one of these older categories, “ubiquitous computing.” Ubiquitous computing can be thought of as a predecessor to cloud computing, both chronologically and in the way that they share similar technological arrangements. In the following sections, I will examine the emergence of ubiquitous computing and look at the philosophical underpinnings of this way of framing this form of computing. I argue that the particular conception of ubiquitous computing (and associated “calm technologies”) rest upon certain assumptions about the control of a specific type of environment. Because ubiquitous computing was envisioned around a particular space, primarily the office, we should be careful how we apply the metaphor of ubiquity to all technologies. Furthermore, the initial promoters of ubiquitous computing do not offer much in terms of philosophical justification for why the establishment of ubiquitous computer systems will lead to “calmer” technological systems. Despite this, it is possible to develop a philosophical position, it just has not been fully considered. This essay will start with the historical origins of ubiquitous computing and will examine some of the philosophical positions were originally linked with the concept.

Historical Background

In 1988 Mark Weiser, working as a research staff at Xerox PARC, introduced a term to describe a third “wave” of computing.[1][2] Weiser marked this wave as a new phase of “ubiquitous computing.” Ubiquitous computing, both as a conceptual tool and as a set of technologies, became a dominant way of conceptualizing a fundamental shift in the style and direction that computing technologies are moving towards. Weiser was amongst a group of technologists that would take this term and apply it to the development of new technologies. One of the most prominent ideological shifts that came about with the emphasis on ubiquitous computing was the introduction of “disappearance” in computer technology. To make things invisible was, and perhaps still is, the goal of ubiquitous computing proponents.

Although ubiquitous computing was first given a label in 1988, the term was popularized in September of 1991 when Mark Weiser published an article in Scientific American in which he laid out ubiquitous computing for a more general audience. He opens his essay, “The Computer for the Twenty-First Century,” with the lines, “the most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.” He goes on to suggest that ubiquitous computing is “a new way of thinking about computers in the world, one that takes into account the natural human environment and allows the computers themselves to vanish into the background.” He argues that the computer and silicon-based technology are all too often placed in sharp contrast with the natural human environment.

Computer produce two solutions to this divide. First, Weiser makes a claim that is based on the inescapable progress of new technologies, without considering alternatives to this linear history. According to Weiser, the inevitable “third-wave” of computing will solve this division between technology and environment because new technologies will become so prevalent that electronic devices will simply blend into the wall. Society as a whole will be so surrounded by computers of varying sizes that are networked that we will not be concerned with the divide between user and machine. This transition, it is argued, will be an inevitable outcome of the development of computer technologies. He suggests that “the real power of [ubiquitous computing] comes not from any one of these devices; it emerges from the interaction of all of them. The hundreds of processors and displays are not a ‘user interface’ like a mouse and windows, just a pleasant and effective ‘place’ to get things done.” The individual technologies, in essence, become invisible. Therefore, the narrative of technological progress will lead us down this path with little intervention.

The second solution that Weiser develops with his coworkers is more of a suggestion for certain design principles regarding the development of ubiquitous computing. In a 1995 paper (“The Coming Age of Calm Technology”), John Seely Brown (another Xerox PARC employee) and Weiser add another layer on top of ubiquitous computing. They define calm technology by suggesting that “calm technology engages both the center and the periphery of our attention, and in fact moves back and forth between the two.” Periphery is “what we are attuned to without attending to explicitly.”[3] A move to calm technologies is a repositioning of the periphery to the center of our attention. According to Weiser and Brown, not all technologies need to be centered (they suggest that the notion of a calm videogame would be of little use) – but those that require our focus should be centered so that “we can most fully command technology without being dominated by it.”[4]

In the following sections, I will be looking at the philosophical underpinnings of these two terms: ubiquitous computing and calm technologies. I will be paying particular attention to the way in which Mark Weiser and his coworkers at Xerox PARC have defined these terms. What I hope to argue is that ubiquitous computing relies upon a particular vision of invisibility. This vision relies primarily on a particular definition of what constitutes a desirable human environment. While it is not completely clear what Weiser had in mind for a desirable environment, clearly there is a sense that humans must be able to grasp and understand the technologies around them. The system itself should serve the humans’ needs without getting in the way. What should be moved from the periphery to the center is taken as self-evident. The problem, it seems to me, arises when we complicate the notion of control and invisibility. Towards the end of the essay, I want to suggest that a push to ubiquitous computing (even if we take the conceptualization of a natural human environment for granted) can cause serious issues if we do not attend to the question of what it means for a technology to be invisible or how we go about the task of calming our technologies.

Philosophies of Nature

I want to open this section by quoting a paragraph from Weiser’s Scientific American piece in which he discusses the disappearance act in philosophical terms:

“Such a disappearance is a fundamental consequence not of technology, but of human psychology. Whenever people learn something sufficiently well, they cease to be aware of it. When you look at a street sign, for example, you absorb its information without consciously performing the act of reading. Computer scientist, economist, and Nobelist Herb Simon calls this phenomenon "compiling;" philosopher Michael Polanyi calls it the "tacit dimension;" psychologist TK Gibson calls it "visual invariants;" philosophers Georg Gadamer and Martin Heidegger call it "the horizon" and the "ready-to-hand," John Seely Brown at PARC calls it the "periphery." All say, in essence, that only when things disappear in this way are we freed to use them without thinking and so to focus beyond them on new goals.”

Weiser’s concept of ubiquitous computing is clearly informed by philosophical notions of invisibility. The shift to ubiquitous computing, for Weiser, seems to be a shift to align our computer technologies with our human psychology. In essence, Weiser is describing the process of crudely “black-boxing” technologies. We could take any one of the philosophers that Weiser mentions and each would have a different take on this notion of invisibility. In this paper, I am interested in how Weiser himself conceptualizes invisibility.

One of the major questions that needs to be addressed before looking at invisibility directly is the way that Weiser uses nature to construct his argument. In the previous quotation, Weiser lists a number of philosophers who he draws upon for support. The first philosopher, Herb Simon, uses the term “compiling.” As a computer scientist, Simon’s work seems much more aligned with the type of understanding of nature that Weiser is working towards. In one of his better known papers, “Machine as Mind,” Simon argues that “conventional computers can be, and have been programmed to represent symbol structures and carry out processes on those structures in a manner that parallels, step by step, the way the human brain does it.”[5] In making his argument, he suggests that “successive levels in the architecture of nature are not arbitrary…[that] most complex systems are hierarchical and nearly decomposable.”[6] This notion of “decomposable” can be neatly be linked up to the programmer’s notion of decompiling code, where a single software program can be broken into multiple segments. Being able to break down nature (or human nature in the brain) to individual parts, is a particular view that suggests nature can be coded and broken down to certain logics. Ubiquitous computing itself, attempts to use multiple components to create a centered (hopefully “calm”) whole.

Another philosopher Weiser lists is Michael Polanyi and his work on “tacit knowledge.” One of the key questions that Polanyi raises for philosophers is the notion of how we know nature. This is a particularly vexing problem for philosophers of science, particularly if certain knowledge is considered tacit and somehow outside the written. Much like Simon, Polanyi does spend some time discussing “inanimate nature” and the consideration of “machinelike functions of living beings.”[7] For ubiquitous computing, this tacit dimension somewhat complicates Simon’s account of nature, but it does give some insight into some of the ways that these technologies could be implemented into an environment (i.e. the placement of computers everywhere to support a certain type of learning over interaction with a single computer). Overall, the use of Polanyi’s notion of tacit knowledge, suggests that the invisibility of nature comes from our everyday interactions with the objects around us.

Furthermore, Weiser also draws upon Gadamer and Heidegger. He mentions Gadamer’s notion of “horizon.” The way that Gadamer uses horizon draws upon what we can know about nature. Having access to a new horizon, or a “fusion of horizons,” means being open to the knowledge and experience of others.[8] In this sense, ubiquitous computing could give some form of access to a particular “horizon,” by placing humans in front of a previously invisible landscape. Likewise, Heidegger’s “ready-to-hand” suggests, like Polanyi’s philosophy, another form of tacit knowledge where we can know things in the world through their use. For instance, when we encounter a hammer, we see that hammer as a tool to accomplish a particular task, rather than seeing an iron head and wooden handle. Both of these philosophers argue that particular forms of invisibility are natural, both in the sense that these invisibilities exist in nature, as well as invisible to the human psyche.

Finally, Brown’s notion of the “periphery” has already been discussed in this essay but is probably the most significant philosophy impacting Weiser’s philosophy of nature. The notion that nature can be kept on the periphery (and brought to human concentration when desired), suggests a particular relation between humans and nature. Primarily, there is a logic of dominating nature. Additionally, there is an invisibility built into the idea of a periphery.

Weiser draws upon these philosophers in a particular way that highlights the importance of humans in constructing and understanding nature. Drawing simply upon the arrangement of these philosophers (rather than a pure examination of the philosopher’s themselves), we can see that Weiser is interested in constructing a view of nature in which nature can be controlled and broken down into individual units (Simon). Furthermore, increasing our knowledge of nature requires a consideration of tacit knowledge (Polanyi), positioning humans to a certain perspective (Gadamer), knowledge through touch (Heidegger), and an ability to keep nature to the periphery (Brown). Running throughout these philosophies is an understanding that invisibility is at once a product of human nature, external nature, and the nature of technology.

What Type of Invisibility Are We Talking About?

Having discussed the philosophical underpinnings of Weiser’s view of nature, now I will discuss the notion of invisibility in more specificity. For Weiser, invisibility arises from the high concentration of electronic devices that work in tandem with one another. The human experiencing this environment does not focus on the individual computers, instead the person see a web of visualized data that infers some type of knowledge about the world. Certainly, each individual component can be examined. If a user wants to look at the screen protecting the information, he or she is free to do so. However, the purpose is to create an invisibility by constructing an environment in which this technology is so commonplace people do not even recognize it anymore.

Weiser makes it clear that he is not interested in virtual reality. Whereas virtual reality, “attempts to make a world inside the computer,” ubiquitous computing is an “embodied virtuality” that refers to “the process of drawing computers out of their electronic shells.” However, we might ask the question as to where virtual reality and embodied virtuality bleed into one another? At what point is the so-called “natural” environment washed out completely from an overdose of computer ubiquitousness? This question will be addressed in the next section. For now, it is important to finish this section with a discussion of physical technology.

When Weiser is trying to envision a world of ubiquitous computing, he relies upon three devices about which Xerox PARC had previously dreamed. These devices are “tabs, pads, and boards.” A tab is akin to an extension of a computer screen, a small device that you can shrink information down to. The second device is a “pad,” around the size of a sheet of paper or slightly larger, the pad is a disposable computer that can be used and then thrown away. Finally, boards are large displays that can display large chunks of data but are not portable. In each of these cases, there is something that can be touched or handled. However, the devices’ true potential arises from the ways in which a user can throw these devices together and mix-and-match them for his or her own use. The invisibility, therefore, emerges from the continual use of and play with these devices.

However, we might ask what sets apart ubiquitous computing’s invisibility from previous forms of technology? Are “tabs, pads, and boards,” not simply the “cars, trains, and planes” of today? Modern transportation networks also invisible in the sense that they feel natural. The hum of traffic, for anyone who has lived by a busy road, fades into the background and becomes part of the environment. Although I do not think Weiser would disagree about this form of invisibility, it does seem that Weiser is trying to set apart ubiquitous computing from other technologies. In part, this bias can be seen in his place of work (Xerox PARC), but more than this, I think it has to do primarily with the ways in which ubiquitous computing is seen as an alignment of human nature with ideal human environments. In the next section, I will take issue with the notion of ideal human environments.

Where does calm happen?

As mentioned at the start of this essay, the second move that Weiser makes with Brown is a desire to design calm technologies. One fundamental question about this move is not only how do technologies become calmed, but ought these calming practices occur? I will set aside the question as to whether it is desirable to try to design calm technologies. This is a question that is perhaps better addressed by the psychology of affect. However, I think it is necessary to ask the physical question.

The office, it seems, is the primary focus for Weiser and Brown for the introduction of ubiquitous, or calm, technologies. By establishing the office as the site of focus, the producers of ubiquitous computing have already defined a particular type of human environment. Within the typical office setting, data flow and data processing are already “natural” outcomes of workplace production. The use of pads, tabs, or boards to direct human action clearly fit the office model. However, would these same ubiquitous technologies fit outside of the data-driven office, or is this move a new virtualization of other environments?

To be fair, Weiser and Brown’s work at Xerox PARC clearly narrowed the focus of their output. Their theories were likely to be confined to businesses practices simply because of the industry in which they were writing. However, their discussion does not limit itself to the office – instead they are making claims about all of human interaction with computers.

There is something to be said for the influence of modern computing technologies on everyday life, particularly in more affluent regions. Few would deny that the iPad does resemble the type of pads that Weiser envisioned and of which he helped design early prototypes of. The cell phones in our pockets could be thought of as pads and the large information screens in airports as boards. However, there are two questions that remain in my mind. First, how does the production and use of these devices fit into the idea of desirable human environments? Secondly, how does invisibility or calmness fit into this discussion?

Weiser and Brown’s do not define what is a “desirable human environment.” This is likely an unanswerable question and therefore it is not surprising that Weiser and Brown do not attempt to address it. However, I think within their discussion, they do paint a particular picture of what it might start to look like. Fundamental to this vision is a notion of control. The very notion of calming a technology demands a type of control. The technology must, if it is to be centered, conform to the human desire to control when that technology appears or does not appear. For Weiser and Brown, the Internet was one technology that could potentially give users a total sense of control, and perhaps create calm through this control.

However, I do not want to abandon this notion of ubiquitous computing while discussing calm technologies (because they are purposely linked together). It seems to me that in this discussion of these technologies how they relate to the external world (that outside of computers) gets lost in the discussion. This leads to the question: can calm only occur though the mediation of technology with the environment?

I would argue that Weiser and Brown’s move to control technologies has produced a vision (alongside other narratives of dominating nature), that suggests that to truly calm the environment, we must design technologies that allow us to dominate the environment to our own desire. While some would argue that nature can simply remain on the “periphery,” I would argue that by defining what should or should not be the center of our attention, we are already producing a dominating narrative.

Can calmness emerge in individual technologies? For Weiser, I think the answer would be no. The arrangement of technology seems so key to ubiquitous computing, that if a technology is unlinked from the network of computing technologies, the computer would seem to lose its calming power. Although not directly aligned with the notion of local devices, many computers are unable to operate without a continual connection to the Internet. In this sense, the calm of the technologies is disturbed because it is unable to keep in sync with the devices around it. Whereas Weiser talked about the network of local devices (those physically around it), it is easy enough to extend his metaphor to suggest that ubiquitous computing’s strength is found in the network of computers stretching geographic distance. However, this presents a challenge for how we measure the calm of these technologies. Can a calm technology remain calm when it is put into a different environment?

If we simply take ubiquitous computing as concept in itself, we are not given much philosophical grounding to work with. According to Weiser, we are able to control our environments and we have some flexibility to make these technologies fit into our environments to produce a sense of “calm.” However, without some other type of philosophical stance, we are not given much of an option to modify or halt the progression of these technologies and their influence on the environment around us. Many of the philosophers that Weiser draws upon had different ideas about the importance of living life according to some set of principles. However, if we simply draw upon a few of their concepts to justify the continued push of ubiquitous computing, we are not left with much of a base to work upon.


I do not have a particular philosophical stance that I think should be married to ubiquitous computing, but I would suggest that we critically analysis the categories that ubiquitous computing gives us. I have tried to start challenging these categories, such as “ideal human environment,” “calm,” and “natural,” but perhaps the most beneficial move would be a shift towards the individual and physical level. We can suggest that networked computer systems will produce calm because they will be “smarter,” but individuals will experience similar technologies differently. How I feel when I use a computer will vary from how anyone else uses that same computer. Could we think about the computer in the forest? As of right now, ubiquitous computing is a wholly human phenomena, but if we are to consider our place in the environment, we need to think about how these technologies interact with non-human life and the broader environment.

The rise of cloud computing is another iteration of ubiquitous computing, spreading the net over more geographically wide areas. We should be careful, however, that as we spread these technologies, that we do not start substituting these technological standards for a more robust philosophical understanding about the essence of these technology and our responsibilities to use these technologies in an ethical way.

Work Cited

Clark, Jeff. 2008. “Philosophy, understanding and the consultation: a fusion of
horizons.” British Journal of General Practice 58(546): 58-60.

Polanyi, Michael. 1966. The Tacit Dimension. New York: Doubleday, 44.

Simon, Herbert. 1995. “Machines as Mind” in Android Epistemology. Cambridge: MIT

Weiser, Mark. 1991. “The Computer for the Twenty-First Century.” Scientific American.

Weiser, Mark and John Seely Brown. 1996. “The Coming Age of Calm Technology.”
Author revision of earlier PowerGrid Journal article.

1. The use of the phrase “waves of computing” is typically associated with an attempt to market and set apart a new technological arrangement of computer software and hardware. Historians of computing do not typically use this language, but I have used it in this essay because Weiser and other actors rely upon this language to sell ubiquitous computing. The actual history of computing complicates the simple narrative of successive waves.
2. Weiser joined Xerox PARC in 1987 (from a position as an Associate Chairman of the Computer Science department at the University of Maryland) as a member of research staff and was promoted to Chief Technology Officer in 1996 to his death in 1999.
3. Weiser, Mark and John Seely Brown. 1996. “The Coming Age of Calm Technology.” 3.
4. Ibid, 10.
5. Herbert Simon. 1995. “Machines as Mind” in Android Epistemology. Cambridge: MIT Press. 23-24.
6. Ibid, 24.
7. Michael Polanyi. 1966. The Tacit Dimension (New York: Doubleday), 44.
8. Jeff Clark. “Philosophy, understanding and the consultation: a fusion of horizons.” British Journal of General Practice. 2008. 58(546): 58-60.

Note: The wiki would only let me label this section bibliography, when it is actually the footnote section.

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