Mark Weiser, the PARC researcher who coined the term UbiComp, imagined that ubiquitous computing would entail computers of many sizes, from “one-inch displays to wall-sized.” He envisioned “a path to the ‘invisible,’” whose highest aspiration would be to “make a computer so imbedded, so fitting, so natural, that we use it without even thinking about it.” At PARC, MIT, Cornell, the University of California-Irvine, Georgia Tech, and elsewhere, sensor-based and distributed computing systems were prototyped as theories about how we might live in the future. At MIT, for example, Hiroshi Ishii designed RFID-based tangible interfaces that he called “Things That Think.”
Weiser and other UbiComp pioneers may have been aiming for computing “in the woodwork,” but most of its experimental incarnations didn’t look much like computing or much like ordinary things. Ambience and slowness rather than speed and convenience characterized many devices. Office Plant #1, a robotic office plant that responded slowly to the mood of your emails; or Lumina, an architectural-scale, soft, morphing “kinetic organic interface” whose lighting adapted to the mood and activity in a room; or musicBottles, a set of “magical” but otherwise ordinary, non-technological jars that that can be used on a table for musical composition.
UbiComp may not always have been great art and culture, but at least it was trying. Weiser and others were influenced by more than just technology—fields like architecture, anthropology, phenomenology, sociology, were seen as integral to understanding what it would mean to put computers out into the world. A diversity of weird computers among the weird diversity of the rest of the world.
But the reality of UbiComp’s vision of ubiquity turned out to be far more ordinary and more singular. Today, the Internet of Things owes much to a few now-ubiquitous computational infrastructures: mobile devices, for one, and wireless networking for another, specifically Bluetooth and wifi. By integrating such capacities either into existing devices with electronics that measured things, like the GasWatch scale, or adding new, cheap sensing capabilities to new devices, like FitBit, the Internet of Things became something far simpler: a means of transmitting mostly unprocessed information to pocketable computers and the Internet for further display or storage.
In so doing, UbiComp, the Internet of Things, and its relatives have become less a practice of integrating diverse forms of computation into the fabric of ordinary life, of making it invisible, as Weiser imagined. Instead, they’ve made one kind of computing more visible, brazenly visible, in fact. Today, nothing is more visible than running an app to check your grill’s propane tank—nothing except begging for money to maybe-create one on Indiegogo. Instead of ambience and transformation, we ended up with the technological equivalent of Thorsten Veblen’s leisure class. This is computational showboating. Conspicuous computation instead of conspicuous consumption. Look at me, using this app, it checks my propane. Isn’t that cool? Look at me, running this Kickstarter. Aren’t I cool?