First Fictions and the Parable of the Palace


Designing the ubiquitous experience

A column by Joe Lamantia
November 3, 2008

“The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.”—Mark Weiser [1]

Welcome to the inaugural installment of “Everyware: Designing the Ubiquitous Experience,” a column exploring user experience and design in the era of ubiquitous computing. Through this column, interested readers can investigate the expanding wavefront of the ubiquitous experience as it impacts design, covering topics ranging from ubiquitous computing to near-field communication, pervasive computing, The Internet of Things, spimes, ubicomp, locative media, and ambient informatics.

Everyware is the term coined by designer and futurist Adam Greenfield to describe “a vision of processing power so distributed throughout the environment that computers per se effectively disappear.” [2] The realization of the future that Greenfield envisions will mean fundamental changes to nearly every aspect of our lives.

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“All the familiar rituals of daily life—things as fundamental as the way we wake up in the morning, get to work, shop for our groceries—are remade as an intricate dance of information about ourselves, the state of the external world, and the options available to us at any given moment.”—Adam Greenfield [2]

Descriptions of technosocial futures often lack the engaging nuances and compelling richness of experiential narratives, so Greenfield describes the human experience of everyware as “one coherent paradigm of interaction,” in which “all the information we look to our phones or Web browsers to provide becomes accessible from just about anywhere, at any time, and is delivered in a manner appropriate to our location and context.” [2]

For design and user experience, the implications of this vision are profound. Everyware is a truly ubiquitous experience—perhaps the first. Everyware will span and merge formerly discrete social, cultural, chronological, economic, geographic, and technological contexts in a way that challenges all design disciplines, perspectives, methods, and techniques. The ubiquity of everyware requires everyone in the growing ecology of co-creation—whether professional designers, consumers, or those who span multiple roles—to internalize this new reality and reframe their viewpoints on the nature and boundaries of designed experiences.

More importantly, everyware will become the reference by which we define our understanding of and expectations for our lived experiences. Even when beyond the immediate reach of everyware on an island in the Net—because of the absence of connectivity, information supply, or electric power—we will imagine and describe our daily lives using its terminology. We will speak the language of everyware and see the world through its looking glass, regardless of whether we consciously realize we’re doing so.

The First of Many Fictions

Everyware builds on and extends ideas about ubiquitous computing Mark Weiser first set out as a researcher at Xerox PARC in the late 1980’s and 1990’s. Weiser’s central goal in this work was to escape the single-person-sitting-at-a-desktop model of human-computer interaction and move toward what he called “the third wave in computing,” creating “calm technology.”

“First were mainframes, each shared by lots of people. Now we are in the personal computing era, person and machine staring uneasily at each other across the desktop. Next comes ubiquitous computing, or the age of calm technology, when technology recedes into the background of our lives.”—Mark Weiser [3]

Weiser fully articulated his vision for ubiquitous computing in a 1991 essay titled “The Computer for the 21st Century,” which defined the first principles and the desired experience of ubiquitous computing. His essay is foundational reading for anyone interested in understanding the origins and evolution of the ubiquitous experience.

In “The Computer for the 21st Century,” Weiser embarked on a difficult path to an undiscovered country—one where the notion of the computer is transformed: “…we are trying to conceive 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.” As Weiser imagined them, “ubiquitous computers … reside in the human world and pose no barrier to personal interactions.” They “…will be invisible in fact as well as in metaphor.” Weiser believed the era of ubiquitous computing would “gradually emerge as the dominant mode of computer access over the next twenty years.”

In addition to defining ubiquitous computing, Weiser’s essay summarized the efforts of Xerox PARC to create and use prototypes of ubiquitous devices in support of their daily work and collaboration. It also presented the technological case for ubiquitous computing’s near-term arrival and broad adoption. To make this vision persuasive, Weiser turned to a familiar design tool, sketching a simple, but comprehensive experience scenario, describing the texture of an average workday for a commuter balancing career and family in a world of ubiquitous computing. Weiser concluded his essay with another experience-based prediction: “Machines that fit the human environment, instead of forcing humans to enter theirs, will make using a computer as refreshing as taking a walk in the woods.” Weiser’s experience scenario is of greatest note for designers—as an example of both the now hoary genre of ubiquitous techno-utopian bliss and how everyware’s first incarnation centered on the human experience it enabled and defined.

Though Weiser recognized the impact ubiquitous computing would have on everyday touchstones like family, the morning commute, and working with colleagues, surprisingly, he did not think ubiquitous computing would bring about fundamental changes in society. “Like the personal computer, ubiquitous computing will enable nothing fundamentally new, but by making everything faster and easier to do, with less strain and mental gymnastics, it will transform what is apparently possible.”

Calm Technology

Weiser updated his vision for the 21st-century computer in a 1996 essay he wrote with John Seely Brown, titled “The Coming Age of Calm Technology.” In contrast to “The Computer for the 21st Century,” his later essay directly articulated the enormous social impact of everyware, comparing its significance to the changes effected by writing and electricity.

The central tenet of Weiser and Brown’s updated vision was this: “Ubiquitous computing will require a new approach to fitting technology to our lives, an approach we call calm technology.” Calm technology gives the user experience a central role in ubiquitous computing—as opposed to the functional uses of early Xerox PARC prototype devices or civic implications or profit potential. Weiser and Brown provided a simple mandate for the state of mind calm technology must inspire: “If computers are everywhere, they better stay out of the way, and that means designing them so that the people being shared by the computers remain serene and in control.” [4]

Historical Precedents

Weiser and Brown’s vision is notable for its prescience, but they built on a tradition of predictions about the impacts of computing technology that pioneers like Norbert Wiener and John Von Neumann made when working in the era of the birth of cybernetics after World War II.

As a consequence of Wiener’s experiences as a leading scientist for the U.S. government during and after the war, he came to believe that information technology would refashion society, acting as “the second industrial revolution.” [5] Wiener wrote about the far-reaching transformations cybernetics and information science would bring to all areas of society, from industry to philosophy. Wiener wrote at the very beginning of the computer era, casting his insights and ideas as predictions rather than established historical fact.

Forty years later, in 1985, James H. Moor published a now classic paper titled “What Is Computer Ethics” that succinctly outlined this second industrial revolution. Moor saw the computer revolution occurring in two stages. The first stage was that of “technological introduction,” in which innovators developed and refined computer technology. According to Moor, this first stage occurred in the United States and elsewhere in the developed world during the first forty years after the Second World War.

At the time Moor wrote his paper in 1985, he believed the industrialized world had only recently entered the second stage of the computer revolution, marked by “technological permeation.” In this stage, technology becomes completely integrated into everyday human activities and social institutions, changing the very meaning of fundamental concepts like money, education, work, and fair elections. [6] Moor’s “technological permeation” describes the current state of the “second industrial revolution” Wiener predicted, and his second stage marks the onset of the age of everyware.

Is Everyware Real?

Am I simply asserting the everyware vision will come to pass—without supporting evidence and despite a very long record of failed predictions about the future?

Looking around for a moment, we can clearly see that everyware is already here—at least in a partial or elemental form. It is part and parcel of the intersecting waves of technological, economic, social, political, and cultural transformation that characterize the era in which we are living.

In 2008—very close to the end of Weiser’s predicted twenty-year time frame—many elements that contribute to a vision of environmentally integrated ubiquitous computing exist in commercialized forms, including high-speed wireless data networks, RFID, nearly infinite addressing schemes, and extremely low-cost, cloud-based processing power and storage. The rapid spread of mobile phones—through device sales in excess of 500 million units per year—and the commercial success of other portable computing platforms such as digital music players and gaming machines is laying down a new layer of computing capability, permeating more aspects of our daily lives. In both the developing world and the developed world, computing is increasingly granular and fluid and impacts the lives of children and adults, in both leisure and professional contexts.

The recent 10th annual UbiComp 2008 conference, in Seoul, South Korea, served as a window onto the immense amount of activity and thinking underway in the design of ubiquitous experiences. The conference keynote, “Realizing the Ubiquitous City,” described the ongoing effort to create New Songdo, a complete city of 500,000 people that is fully informed by ubiquitous computing capabilities, on new ground near Seoul. [7] The New Songdo effort is a joint venture of the Korean government, major businesses such as Samsung and Microsoft, and large international real estate and development actors such as Gale International. [8]

The bait-and-switch rhetorical assertion that social utopia is possible only through technological ubiquity is latent in many depictions of everyware, But Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates makes it explicit in his description of New Song Do.

“Designing an entirely new city from the ground up provides a unique opportunity to create an ideal technological infrastructure in which access to digital capabilities and experiences is an inherent part of the living and working environment across people’s lives.”—Bill Gates [9]

Descending from the grand level of creating cities from whole cloth to more practical realms does not shrink the breadth and depth of the ideas on display at UbiComp 2008. I’ll share the titles of some of the presentations from the conference to illustrate: [10]

  • The Heterogeneous Home
  • A Context-Aware Patient Safety System for the Operating Room
  • Designing Sociable IT for Public Use
  • Lifelogging Memory Appliance for People with Episodic Memory Impairment
  • Enhanced Shopping: A Dynamic Map in a Retail Store
  • Accessible Contextual Information for Urban Navigation
  • Picture This! Film Assembly Using Toy Gestures

These topics cover human experiences from public to private, from medicine to memory, from the intimate scale of the home to whole cities, from childhood to old age, and diverse activities from retail consumption to media creation. And this list represents just a small selection of the larger community of business, academic, government, and other interests making active efforts to bring on the ubiquitous experience showcased at UbiComp 2008.

Skeptical observers might note that many of the presentations and papers at UbiComp 2008 described theoretical efforts rather than functioning products, services, or technical systems. Fair enough. Even so, if only a small number of these efforts succeed, the impact on our lives will be substantial. And the astonishing volume and pace of efforts relating to ubiquitous computing at times seems almost sufficient to will the ubiquitous experience into being as a kind of self-fulfilling techno-prophecy.

Clearly, the ubiquitous experience is not simply science fiction or yet another techno-utopian sales boondoggle. Everyware is part of the future we must take into account when designing user experiences.

User Experience and Everyware

What then do everyware, the computer revolution, and the rise of ubiquitous experiences mean for the field of user experience design?

In “The Internet of Things,” Rob van Kranenberg of the Institute of Networked Cultures suggests several far-reaching implications of ubiquity. First, the basic focus—the what—of user experience design changes: “When computational processes disappear, the environment becomes the interface.” Second, the roles of people from the perspective of design changes: “In such an environment—where the computer has disappeared as a visible technology … human beings have become designable and designerly information spaces.” Third, the way design effects its goals changes: “…design decisions inevitably become process decisions.” [11]

Kranenberg concludes by asking, “Are our current designers, architects, policy makers equipped to deal with these fundamental issues and dilemmas…?” For most, the honest answer to van Kranenberg’s question is No. Most designers, architects, and policy makers are not yet equipped to deal with the challenges of everyware. Ubiquitous computing is largely undiscovered country. But many people in user experience and a wide variety of other fields are working hard to understand the implications of ubiquity and endeavoring to respond accordingly.

As a small part of that effort, this column will take the form of a journey through a wide range of topics at the intersection of user experience design and everyware. I’ll begin by considering the three implications van Kranenberg identified, exploring them from the perspective of several imagined futures that span a continuum from near term to quite far off. Each possible future will serve as an example of one or more possible combinations of experiences, environments, and dynamics that design must discover how to create and define. After exploring possible futures, I’ll move on to cover common aspects of the ubiquitous experience that have implications for user experience—such as mediated spaces, new interaction languages, implicit and explicit avatars, and the collapse of context.

The Word for the Universe

The emotional and creative explorations of art often prefigure the imaginings of technology by a substantial margin. In this spirit, I recommend we inform our journey ahead by taking a moment to consider the following excerpt from Jorge Louis Borges’s “Parable of the Palace—first published in 1936.

“What we do know—however incredible it may be—is that within the poem lay the entire enormous palace, whole and to the least detail, with every venerable porcelain it contained and every scene on every porcelain, all the lights and shadows of its twilights, and every forlorn or happy moment of the glorious dynasties of mortals, gods, and dragons that had lived within it through all its endless past. Everyone fell silent; then the emperor spoke: ‘You have stolen my palace!’ he cried, and the executioner’s iron scythe mowed down the poet’s life.

“Others tell the story differently. The world cannot contain two things that are identical; no sooner, they say, had the poet uttered his poem than the palace disappeared, as though in a puff of smoke, wiped from the face of the earth by the final syllable.”—Jorge Louis Borges [12]

An extended conceit linking Borges’s parable to the realm of ubiquitous computing would, inevitably and justly, collapse under its own overwrought weight. However, even in the ambiguities of this parable, it is possible to see some ready analogues to the situation we face at the dawn of the age of everyware: the poet is design, the palace is human life and lived experience, and the poem is the ubiquitous experience of everyware.

As Borges’s parable shows, in defining the experience of everyware, we are in truth designing lifeware: the full spectrum of lived human experiences, as mediated and informed by information, technology, and design. We must act now to create a human and humane world for everyone in the coming future—a future in which lifeware is livable. Let us hope our composition merits something greater than oblivion. 


[1] Weiser, Mark. “The Computer for the 21st Century.” Palo Alto Research Center, 1991. Retrieved October 15, 2008.

[2] Greenfield, Adam. Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing. Berkeley, CA: New Riders, 2006.

[3] Weiser, Mark. “Ubiquitous Computing.” Palo Alto Research Center. Retrieved October 15, 2008.

[4] Weiser, Mark, and John Seely Brown. “The Coming Age of Calm Technology.”, 1996. Retrieved October 15, 2008.

[5] Bynum, Terrell. “Computer and Information Ethics.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Winter 2008 Edition. Edward N. Zalta (ed.) Retrieved November 2, 2008.

[6] Moor, James H. “What Is Computer Ethics? The Research Center On Computing & Society, 1985. Retrieved October 15, 2008.

[7] UbiComp 2008. “UbiComp 2008 Keynote.” UbiComp. Retrieved October 15, 2008.

[8] Gale International. “Songdo: Korea’s International Business Destination.” Songdo. Retrieved October 15, 2008.

[9] Microsoft. “Microsoft Named Preferred Technology Partner in ‘City of the Future’ Project.” Microsoft, May 9, 2008. Retrieved October 15, 2008.

[10] UbiComp 2008. “Ubicomp Accepted Papers.” Retrieved October 15, 2008.

[11] van Kranenberg, Rob. The Internet of Things: A Critique of Ambient Technology and the All-Seeing Network of RFID. Amsterdam: Institute Of Network Cultures, 2008.

[12] Borges, Jorge Louis. Collected Fictions. Translated by Andrew Hurley. New York: Penguin Putnam, Inc. 1998.

User Experience Lead at Endeca

Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Joe LamantiaA veteran architect, consultant, and designer, Joe has been an active member and leader in the UX community since 1996. He has crafted innovative, successful user experience strategies and solutions for clients ranging from Fortune 100 enterprises to local non-profit organizations, digital product companies, and social media startups, in a wide variety of industries. Joe is the creator of EZSort, the leading, freely available tool for card sorting, as well as the Building Blocks for Portals design framework. He is also a frequent writer and speaker on topics including future directions in user experience; the intersection of business, culture, and design; and systems thinking. Joe is currently based in New York, working as a UX strategy consultant for the enterprise architecture group of a global IT services firm.  Read More

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