Invisibility in Ubicomp II – The introduction of infrastructure awareness systems

A phenomenological perspective on interaction (like Heidegger’s or Merleau-Ponty’s) describes it as a loop, where the interaction is followed by feedback, and this one triggers refletion that supports the understanding of the interaction and thereby of the system. This new understanding iteratively shapes the following interactions with the system, leading to the formation of mental models about the systems’ inner working. Weiser described calm technology as fading in the background of users’ attention. This definition does not entail that the systems are not to be seem by their users in any way. A common trend in ubicomp has been replacing background for invisible, making systems invisible under the argument of being calm technology. Invisibility takes different shapes:

  • Implicit interaction (sensors act autonomously)
  • Literally invisible systems (very small sensors/interafaces, invisible means like radio waves, or totally virtual technologies like software)

The problem with this approach is that the interaction loop is broken, thus not reflection or understanding is enacted. Important to Weiser though, is that technology goes to the background but does not dissapear, thus the interaction loop is not broken. Being in the background allows also for the tecnology to come to foreground at different levels of detail.

When a technology is well adopted, our interaction with it ceases to occupy the center of attention, falling into the background. The interaction keeps generating feedback though, but this one is processed in the peryphery of our attention. The user is aware of the interaction, even though it’s not the object of his attention. A different feedback from the one expected puts the technology back in the center of attention.

A different perspective on this issue is that of technology as infrastructure (see Leigh Star in her work The Ethnography of Infrastructure). A technology adopted within our everyday activities is an infrastructure. Infrastructures are embbeded into our activities, thus transparent in our usage of them. It’s said of infrastructures that they become visible upon breakdown. By breakdown, Star mean the unexpected: complete non-working or undesirable behavoir. It implies the existance of feedback to the user, as a way to receive information of the infrastructure’s working, but also, once the infrastructure falls in the background, as a tool to match expectations between real and expected behaviour. This matching again, occurs in the background of our attention.

Technologies must embrace this basic cognitive requirement in order to be adoptable and become infrastructures. Technological infrastructures should provide feedback, an allow for this feedback to easily move between focus and periphery of the users’ attention. Focus, to enable the reasoning and further understanding of the technology that foster the formation of mental models. And periphery to be able to fade in the background, and provide information enough to enable the matching between expectations and actual behavoir of the technology, enabling the gaining of visibility upon breakdown.

A way to obtain this dual behavoir is through awareness systems used in the context of infrastructures. Infrastructure awareness systems convey information about properties of an infrastructure with special focus on the effects of the interactions with it. Infrastructure awareness systems should allow for information to be provided in the pheriphery and the center of users attention, taking into account the different possibilities in each situation. The centre of attention permits conveying detailed information, that can be read or deciphered by the user. The peryphery uses subtle perceptive cues like basic colours and shapes, sounds or movement.

PD: This post is not necessarily a continuation of the previous one. It’s rather a re-writing adding the phenomenological perspective, and introducing infrastructure awareness system (supporting both periphery and focus) as a way out.


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