Technofutures in Stasis:
Repetition and stagnation in smart technology and ubiquitous computing
Working Paper. Variations presented at:
The Web That Was, University of Amsterdam, 19-21 June 2019
Data Then and Now Seminar Series (video), University of Washington, 26 Feb 2020
International Communication Association Annual Meeting, May 2020
This paper interrogates the strategic role of imagined futures in the social life of digital technologies. It argues that the prevalence of repeated, deferred futures acts as a vehicle for stagnation and conservatism in the human values facilitated by those technologies. As a case study, the paper examines the contemporary popularisation of ‘smart’ machines (c.2012-) through the lens of earlier enthusiasm for ubiquitous computing, or ‘ubicomp’ (1991-1999). Widely attributed to Mark Weiser and colleagues at Xerox PARC, ubicomp promised a near future in which computers would ‘disappear’ into the background of life. Today’s smart technology reprises ubicomp’s ideas, language, and even signature products like the Internet-connected fridge. Here, past futures are strategically recycled for legitimacy. Yet this very repetition hints at an elastic temporality made up of failed startups and unbuilt prototypes, where technological novelties resuscitate highly static imaginaries of office work or gendered domestic labour. The stubborn emphasis on user convenience and efficiency provides justificatory cover for the advance of surveillance capitalism, in which the ‘disappearance’ of smart computers is calibrated primary for data extraction over and above meaningful extension of human freedoms.
Full Paper (still a working draft) available here.