Here is an article someone sent to me a while ago about this very subject...
> THE VOLUNTARY COMPLEXITY MOVEMENT
Langdon Winner ([EMAIL PROTECTED])
1.3 September 14,
"Do these sneakers have a built-in pager, cell phone and Web browser?"
I asked the Nike salesman at the mall. "I need to stay connected while
I'm out jogging."
"Not yet," he smiled, "but I suppose we'll have all that by next
"Good. I'll check back."
Although my question was facetious, it was not entirely absurd given
today's tendency for electronics, clothing, appliances, vehicles, and
buildings to merge as new, feature-rich hybrids. Gone is the historical
moment in which a tool had just one function or a limited range of
functions. No longer is a telephone just a telephone, a mirror just a
mirror, a dishwasher just a dishwasher. In the era of "ubiquitous
computing" everything must become an "information appliance"
communicating with all the other instruments a person uses. According to
projections from the R&D labs, the creation, marketing and eventual use
of these gadgets will be one of society's major preoccupations in the
Proclamations of this great turning point are far from subtle.
"Technology: What You'll Want Next" exclaims the front page headline in
the May 31 issue of *Newsweek*. The drooling lead story by Steven Levy
describes dozens of home conveniences sure to become tomorrow's
necessities. "Your automatic coffee maker will have access to your
online schedule, so if you're out of town it'll withhold the brew."
"Electrolux's Internet Refrigerator can tell when food supplies get low
and order more from the supermarket." Looking into the more distant
future, the article describes the "really smart house" now on the
drawing boards. In the bathroom, for example, "The mirror over the sink has
given Mom the headlines while she's brushing her teeth, and the toilet has
monitored the family's general health by chemical sampling. The
medicine cabinet identifies Dad through biometric recognition and allows him
daily meds, while keeping out the kids."
What a world we're making! Thanks to the wonders of microelectronics,
pervasive presence of the Internet and the availability of low-cost
communications, there's literally no gadget so outrageous that no one
will try to design, promote and sell it. In the *Newsweek* story and
accounts, the basic assumptions of ubiquitous computing are presented in
* Decisions about what happens in domestic life should be delegated to
"smart" instruments able to communicate with each other and with the
organizations that provide various services and supplies.
* From now on the objects we use will understand us thoroughly,
anticipating our every need, whim, problem, and likely course of
action. (Your toilet will know more about you than your best
* What matters above all is extending the horizons of comfort and
convenience for wealthy consumers.
Descriptions of the world of ubiquitous computing are dazzling, if only
for their sheer silliness. If you rate humanity's needs for the coming
century on a scale of 1 to 10, none of the products and services
depicted in Levy's article rises much beyond a score of 1.5. Here we find
of the greatest minds of our time, working long hours in high-tech Meccas
like the Media Lab and Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, and what's the
best they can come up with? Hundreds of items slated for the Sharper
Image catalog. It's surprising that apparently nobody working in this
field has noticed that all these new devices are not "intelligent," but
simply dumb. Even thoughtful people like psychologist Donald Norman,
called "the movement's guru" by *Newsweek*, seem to have gotten caught
up in all the hoopla. Imagine sitting week after week in corporate
meetings where all these weird gadgets are being scheduled for design and
production and nobody stands up to say, "Hey, folks, let's face it.
This stuff is just nuts!"
Of course, the reason talented people are busily at work on all these
absurd appliances and infrastructures is that there's likely tons of
money in it. Examples of success like the Palm Pilot (now the Palm VII)
indicate how many billions can be made with a little ingenuity and
clever marketing. The fact that few of the items imagined today fulfill
the most basic standards of need or utility is beside the point. We'll let
the market decide, celebrating the fortunes made on one generation after
another of superfluous techno-junk.
As if to dignify the role of ubiquitous computing, spokesmen for the
movement argue that its larger, more noble goal is to eliminate life's
complexity. As Levy explains, "Everything connected to the Net. It's a
combination that could change our lives by doing what the PC, for all
its virtues, never managed to accomplish: making things easy."
Note this carefully. A key selling point, it turns out, hinges on the
frank admission that all those wonderful "personal" computers, touted
for the past two decades as ways to make life simpler, have actually been a
disaster -- complicated, confusing and difficult to use. Figures
prominent in hawking earlier models of the wired world, Michael
Dertouzos and Kevin Kelly, for example, now lead the choir denouncing the
as a failure. As Kelly opines in *Newsweek*, "For years, we've been
battling all these devices; because they've been so hard to use, they were
center of our consciousness."
Tears flow from my eyes. Can this be the same Kevin Kelly we've heard
extolling the utopian promise of wired society for the past decade? Oh,
never mind. Just ahead, we are assured, things will get much better.
The new era of computing will eliminate all the vexations that riddled the
previous one, at last making life truly simple. Because the new devices
are "ubiquitous and adapting to us instead of the other way around,"
Kelly maintains, "they'll retreat."
Simplify. Save time. Reduce effort. Liberate yourself from toil.
This has been the continuing siren song of consumer technology throughout
twentieth century. Unfortunately, in its own terms, the dream is always
self-defeating. As people add more and more time-saving, labor-saving
equipment to their homes, their lives do not become simpler and easier.
Instead their days become even more complicated, demanding and rushed.
Historians and sociologists have studied this phenomenon thoroughly and
can explain its predictable, recurring dynamics. Ruth Schwarz Cowan's
book, *More Work For Mother*, for example, describes the attempts of
several generations of women to "save time" by using new household
appliances. As people adopted these conveniences, they also changed
their expectations about what the good life should include. Thus, families
that bought washing machines after World War II did not spend less time
washing clothes, but more. The reason was that the machines enabled them to
have clean clothes more often, something that mom, dad and kids found
Over several decades the same pattern appears in other areas of
cleaning, cooking and household management; new gadgets actually take up
and effort, but are welcomed because they seem to enhance people's
material well-being. When the automobile and suburb are added to the
equation, one sees families spending enormous amounts of time taking
care of the supplies, services and repairs needed for the everyday
maintenance of the "good life". Thus, the minutes and hours supposedly
never put in the bank and never draw any interest. The phantom of
simplicity and ease vanishes as people frantically dash about trying to
squeeze out the last ounce of satisfaction.
But that was then, this is now, right? Surely the smart equipment
slated for our domestic tomorrow will finally help us achieve the
existence of our dreams.
Don't count on it. All one has to do is look at how the best-equipped
families in America's high-tech neighborhoods are now arranging their
everyday lives. In Silicon Valley, for example, several anthropologists
are studying the detailed movements of people employed in the
electronics and computing industries. Their findings, summarized recently
Today*, suggest that, if anything, the rat race identified by Professor
Cowan and others is being reproduced and greatly intensified. Adults
work long hours, commute long distances and spend little time at home.
children shuttle from schools and day care centers to their soccer games
and music lessons, driven by services like "Kids Kab" that fill in for
busy parents. Mom and dad stay in touch by cell phone and pager, check
the Web for schedule changes, and coordinate the next day's agenda by
synchronizing their Palm Pilots when they meet at night.
Conditions of this kind take shape as people who work in technical
fields adapt family life to the norms and pulse of their high-tech jobs.
"They're multitasking like mad," researcher Jan English-Lueck told *USA
Today*. "I'm stunned at all they do." The picture that emerges is of
an endlessly busy, complicated, precariously balanced, strung-out existence
in which traditional boundaries between work and leisure have
evaporated. "Parents go to events for their kids because they know they'll
meeting parents of other kids who will be good business contacts," notes
anthropologist Charles Darrah. "Is that home or work?"
Adding smart machines to every corner of the built environment does
nothing to alleviate these patterns of hurry, stress and disconnection
from people. Indeed, this is the very path through which the madness
spreads, grasping us more firmly. Most appalling, we Americans scarcely
notice the pathologies our choices spawn. Sometimes it takes an
outsider to remind us what we're doing.
Recently, I asked a German friend, Ernst Schraube, a psychologist now
finishing a sabbatical in the U.S.A., what he found most surprising
about our country. "Oh yes," he said, "one thing that amazes me is how hard
Americans work and how little free time people have. They fill their
days with activity and seem to leave little room to relax or be with family
or friends. By European standards this is unthinkable. In Germany, for
example, the work week is thirty-five hours and we have six weeks paid
vacation. I don't know how you Americans stand it."
But stand it we must, cramming more and more tasks into already harried
days, adopting all kinds of digital technology as glue to hold things
together. It never occurs to us that real time could be saved doing
away with some of the routines and equipment that fill our lives. It never
seems an option to reduce our workloads to enjoy being with the ones we
love. So complete is our embrace of voluntary complexity that one
strategy alone seems sensible: Push on and hope for the best!
* * * * * * * * *
Tech Knowledge Revue is produced at the Chatham Center for Advanced
339 Bashford Road, Valatie, NY 12184. Langdon Winner can be reached at:
[EMAIL PROTECTED] and at his Web page: http://www.rpi.edu/~winner .
Copyright Langdon Winner 1999. Distributed as part of NETFUTURE:
http://www.oreilly.com/~stevet/netfuture/ . You may redistribute this
article for noncommercial purposes, with this notice attached.
> From: Carol Gigliotti
> Sent: Thursday, November 18, 1999 1:15 PM
> To: 'john courtneidge'; Michael Gurstein; Faculty
> Cc: futurework; CPI-UA
> Subject: RE: The 'Privatisation of Knowledge' agenda (Was Re:
> Bell Labs
> Predictions for 2025)
> John's comments echo
> my thoughts on The Bell Lab predictions. And why would this
> all be a "good" thing? And what then happens to this skin?
> These skins?
> Carol Gigliotti, Ph.D.
> Associate Professor
> Faculty, Interactive Arts
> Technical University of British Columbia
> ( TechBC)
> Suite 301-10334 152A Street
> Surrey, BC V3R 7P8
> 604-586-6038 (voice)
> 604-586-5237 (fax)
> [EMAIL PROTECTED]