UbiComp 2006: Day 3
John Shen: New Head of Nokia Research Center, Palo Alto

Techno-Spiritual Practices and New Technologies of Enlightenment (A UbiComp 2006 Postscript)

Genevieve Bell, of Intel Research, was unable to attend UbiComp 2006, and so, unfortunately, her paper on "No More SMS from Jesus: Ubicomp, Religion and Techno-spiritual Practices" was not presented at the conference.  I read the paper on my return flight, and it was so inspiring I wanted to post a few notes about it.

The title derives from a Reuters headline announcing the demise of a Finnish mobile service that offered text messages from Jesus, in response to prayers received from subscribers. Genevieve goes on to highlight a range of other techno-spiritual practices, including

Genevieve notes that "religion shapes ideas about time, space and social relationships" (very much in line with obserations Brenda Laurel made in her closing keynote on day 3 of UbiComp regarding the influence of art and music on our understanding and representation of time and space in nature), and the importance of ritual and magic in many primitive religions (calling to mind some of Bruce Sterling's condemnations of magic on day 1 of the conference). 

Genevieve also notes how the "command and control" paradigm of HCI conflicts with the "inner stillness" of spiritual life, highlights the absence of any aspects of spirituality in Mark Weiser's vision of ubicomp, and warns that continuing to ignore these aspects will hamper the ability of technology to integrate into a dimension of life that is very important to much of the world's population.

The paper is designed as "a classic ethnographic intervention ... grounded in anthropological theory and praxis" with the highest number of references (88) of any paper in the conference. The tone, style, strength and approach of Genevieve's paper her paper reminds me very much of Yvonne Rogers' paper on day 2, however I think it is rather different in this important respect: Genevieve seeks to insert spirituality into Weiser's vision of calm technology, and offer techological support for simplicity, grace, humility, modesty and purity; Yvonne seeks to move ubiquitous computing technology beyond calm and into the realms excitement, stimulation and provocation.

At their core, however, I think the papers share a common theme of using technology to help people come alive, reminding me of one of my favorite quotes (often attributed to Harold Thurman Whitman):

Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.

I would alter this just a bit to reflect the messages in these two papers, and to continue my rant on an strong bias on infrastructure that persists in ubicomp:

Don't ask yourself what technology needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go and design ubiquitous computing applications that do that. Because what ubicomp needs is applications that help people come alive.


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