"Beyond the glowing rectangle" - Claire Rowland and Chris Browne at the Polish IA Summit

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 15 April 2011

This week I’ve been publishing the notes I made in Warsaw as I attended the Polish IA Summit. Today I’ve got my notes on a brilliant session looking at the design implications of ubicomp.

Claire Rowland and Chris Browne - “Beyond the glowing rectangle”

“There is a fine line between pervasive and invasive computing” - Victor Rozek

Claire Rowland and Chris Browne brought along an updated version of their EuroIA 2010 talk “Beyond the glowing rectangle”. It is in parts an exhilarating vision of the future, and in other parts deeply troubling as they consider the implications of an increasingly interconnected networked world. It was, in my view, by far the most thought-provoking talk of the two days.

On the positive side, these new types of devices and interactions promise great potential. Chris highlighted the use of GPS devices in cars to plot which roads were passable after the recent Japanese tsunami disaster, allowing emergency services quicker access than they would have had if they had been relying on trial and error.

They also highlighted the risk of technology developments out-pacing the consent obtained from the public for their usage. Chris cited Adam Greenfield telling the story of the CCTV scheme in Wellington, which was installed with democratic consent as a scheme to police traffic offences. A subsequent firmware update enabled the network to do facial recognition, something the population had not been consulted on, but the infrastructure enabled it to be used.

Claire said that the desired outcome of all this tech ought to be a world of “calm computing” where the technology quietly fades into the background. “Most people don’t want to become technical experts” she said.

However, she suggested one possible future is a Blade Runner-esque world, constantly interrupted by advertising. Supermarket chains, for example, might give away free fridge freezers in return for being able to deliver targeted advertising to you as you open the door to retrieve the milk. It isn’t that huge a leap. Supermarkets already collect huge amounts of data on us via loyalty card schemes, Google already sell adverts based on the text of our personal emails, and telcos already give away hardware like phones, iPads and laptops in return for contracts. Maybe, she said, only the rich will be able to afford “calm computing”.

Claire and Chris really do a fantastic presentation of this material. You can find their slides on SlideShare, and I also made some notes on the talk when I saw it in Paris.

Next...

In the last of these posts about the Polish IA Summit, this afternoon I’ll have my notes from Peter Boersma’s closing address.

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