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November 04, 2007

In Conversation with Adam Greenfield

An interview with Adam Greenfield, author, Adjunct Professor at New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program and principal at Studies and Observations NYC . I got a chance to catch up with Adam to chat about some key themes related to DUX2007. The following is an excerpt from our conversation.


Adam, fair warning—the first couple of questions are going to be a bit like the “Justify Your Existence” column in The Onion. They are intended as a warm-up. Describe what you do in 5 words or less?

"Raise consciousness."

That was a fast answer. Apparently, you are sure of what you do. Why is it worth seeing you at DUX?

Because rightly or wrongly, I get the idea that experience design and most of those who would think of themselves as being user-experience practitioners—those who constitute the core of the DUX audience—are still not wrestling with what to me are the key questions of interaction design when information processing is distributed throughout everyday reality. This isn't science fiction, this isn't futurism, this is unquestionably happening now: our transactions with informational systems are no longer solely happening on the desktop, or the handset, but increasingly and more importantly, in the ordinary, nontechnical circumstances of everyday life. The same talk that I used to illustrate with prototypes and proofs of concept and vague hand-wavy academic projects eighteen months ago I now illustrate almost exclusively with commercial product photography drawn directly from Apple or Nike or Nintendo. And it’s frankly disturbing to me that the sector of experience design work that I’m most familiar with by dint of previous exposure, information architecture, appears to be ducking this challenge, just as these ubiquitous systems are becoming a matter of incontrovertible commercial reality. The challenge is here, but as far as I can tell we aren’t as a community fully thinking through the implications of this class of technologies and the ways in which people will experience it. This is happening to us, as users and consumers and citizens, but there is as yet no large body of qualified interaction and user-experience designers who are really engaging these concepts in a consistent, measured, and thoughtful way. If I can light some signal flares with the DUX audience that this is going to be career-making work for the people who get it right - if five or ten people in the audience get the message that they can focus on this, really make a positive contribution, and build their careers on that - then I'll walk away happy.

OK, well the theme of DUX2007 asks some pretty fundamental questions related to the notion of design and the designer. How do you have you seen the roles of design and designer change over your career and how do you envision it?

You know, I can’t speak for the profession as a whole, because honestly I have very little contact with the design profession as a whole. I’m not a joiner, I have no professional affiliations, and startlingly few of my friends and personal acquaintances are people in this line of work. What I am happy to say, from my own perspective, is that it seems that design is getting a lot more humble, and that this is a very good thing. I take my inspiration from guys like Jasper Morrison or Naoto Fukasawa, who very consciously try to step out of the role of godhead or genius or expert. I think users are the experts. (Let me say, parenthetically, that I really dislike the word “user” but for the sake of being understood, that's what I’ll use for now.) Ordinary people really are astonishingly creative in terms of taking up, adapting, and remolding technologies for their own purposes, and the wisest and the best thing that an enlightened designer can do is to facilitate that process. This doesn’t mean getting entirely out of the way, but rather putting yourself through an extensive process of immersion, ethnography, contextual inquiry—acquainting yourself with the world of the user. That means understanding the user's values and belief systems, their mental models and what they are trying to achieve with their use of a given tool. And then, ideally, we use the skills and techniques acquired as a designer in the light of this understanding, to facilitate a user’s independent, free, unconstrained use of the product or service in question.

I’m sorry to say I haven’t had a chance to read your book Everyware yet, but from what I’ve read, it seems you’re pretty certain we’ve entered an age of ubiquitous computing. I have to say, I don’t really agree. When I consider how technologically savvy I am and how much work it is to stay constantly connected, I have to question this premise. Moreover, there are so many people even in the modern Western world who are completely disconnected in rural and inner-city communities—this doesn’t even count the hundreds of millions found in the developing world. How do you respond to that?

Well, first let me say that "ubiquitous computing" is not necessarily the same things as "ubiquitous connectivity." One of the ways I define everyware is "information processing embedded in the objects and surfaces of everyday life." Now a big part of the value and power of that is when all of that is networked, so connectivity is certainly important...but it's not the whole game. Do you happen to have a major credit card on you, by any chance?

Why, yes I do.

Go ahead and take it out.

OK, it’s an American Express.

I would like you to hold that American Express up to the light at an oblique angle. About of the quarter of the way in, there should be a dimple that is barely detectable. You probably won’t even be able to feel it by running your finger over it but you should be able to see it if you hold the card just right.

You know, I think I do see a dimple.

OK. Do you know what that is?

An RFID chip?

Bingo. So, guess what? You’re right there now. You’re in the everyware age.

OK, so maybe I’m here. But what about the hundreds of millions of people in inner cities and the developing world?

I’m going to flip that question on its head. We hear about the “digital divide” all the time, but it's my assertion that in the near future we'll see a world where the wealthy and the privileged will have shelter from connectivity and from the network. These people will have moments of non-connectivity, privacy, and everything that goes along with that. By contrast, it's those who have no power or resources or influence that will have no control over the time, place and duration of their engagement with ubiquitous systems. The real “digital divide" - and the one worth worrying about, and trying to do something about - won't be that the less-privileged can’t afford access, but that they won't be able to afford not being connected all the time. Now let me go back to your initial question of whether ubiquitous computing is here or not. As what we see before our eyes increasingly comes to resemble a fairly aggressive, almost science-fictiony vision of computation in everyday life, we keep moving the goalposts! We keep saying, “Well, OK, I have an RFID tag in my Nike+ shoe, and that’s uploading biometrics to the Web. And, yeah, sure, I have this touchless keyfob that lets me ride the subway and buy things at the 7-11. But that’s not really ubiquitous computing.” The fact of the matter is that this stuff embeds itself into our lives in all kinds of miniscule ways. It comes at us from a thousand different directions, on tiny little feet, and it's not heroic or grandiose. And that's what makes it so hard to recognize.

You’ve had a pretty diverse career doing everything from designer to critic, coffeeshop owner to a sergeant in the Army. You’ve also spent a lot of time in Tokyo and traveling the world. What do you think has been the most pronounced effect of this on how you view the world and your work?

Wow. Well, personally speaking - I guess it's sort of sad - the effect has been one of making me radically dissatisfied with the options that Americans are presented, in terms of the cities we live in and the political and technological and social choices we are offered. I’ve seen just how well it can be implemented in other places, how genuinely beneficial at least some of these technologies can be in improving the tenor of everyday life. Now, this is not without risk or difficulty, but it can be done. A concrete example of this is that very recently the New York City Transit Authority opted to not install mobile basestations in the subway system itself. Station vestibules, OK, but God forbid people should be allowed to talk on their phones on the train. Some individual or very small group of people made this decision paternalistically, without ever apparently inquiring into how this particular scenario played out anywhere else. And the truly sad fact is that it probably was the right decision for this time and place, but made in the wrong way and for many of the wrong reasons. The technology isn't what 's making people act rudely on the subway. It’s our culture that does that. You look at places like Korea and Japan, by contrast, and you see social adaptations to these technological circumstances. Etiquettes have arisen, there's a social contract that allows people to make space around them and act within that space. It’s not chaos, it's not the end of the world - society evolves, people adapt, technologies are in turn designed to respond to these agreements and arrangements. So my feeling really is that we're ducking a lot of the hard questions on this continent.

Switching gears back to the conference theme, it seems at some level like people are closer than ever before because of social networking platforms but also further apart? What do you have to say about it?

I would say a couple of things. The first is that the current generation of social networking platforms and services are kind of horrendous to me, and one of the reasons is that they make for easy echo chambers. When you organize your social world solely or even primarily around affinity, I believe you risk getting caught in an endless hall of mirrors. And the likelihood of anyone in that hall of mirrors arriving at a belief of statement or profound feeling that would ever challenge you, or make you question your prejudices or presumptions about the world is relatively small. By contrast, I believe that an organic and functioning city is nothing more than a machine for producing confrontation with the Other. To me, that’s one the things that underlies a healthy democracy: understanding how to manage, negotiate, and persevere through the fact of difference. One of the things that frustrates me around social networking is that by arranging people into affinity clusters and groups which have such a high degree of commonality, it provides relatively little room for friction or difficulty in the discourse. We begin to forget how to interact with people who are profoundly different from us. And I just don't think that this makes, ultimately, for a healthy society. More personally, I'm just not interested in quote-unquote "social networking" as a cultural or business phenomenon. The only site in this space that has ever worked for me is Flickr, and that's not even explicitly about social networking - of course, it's ostensibly a photo-sharing service, but because there's this token of exchange that acts as a boundary object and a social pivot, you actually do wind up making new and genuinely rewarding connections. By contrast, I must get two or three invitations every single day to join Facebook or LinkedIn, and they just have no value or utility for me.

It’s funny that you say that - I just searched Facebook for you before our chat. You weren’t on it. Moving on, if there was exactly one concept or meme to be aware of in the social networking space, what would it be?

I would say the reality of the other few billion people in the world who are not able to fully take advantage of Internet technology as it exists now, and are certainly not responsible for designing it. Let me tell you why I'm spending so much of my time thinking about this. I just got back from an amazing event in Asia. The event itself was at a seven-star resort—the highest of high end, just incredibly comfortable and luxurious. But right outside the door, and all through the hour-and-a-half long drive from the gates of this facility to the airport, were people who were living in something that, if it wasn't actual statistical poverty, sure as hell looked like it to my eyes. And it was humbling, a little bit bizarre and dislocating, that the one thing everyone seemed to have in this relatively impoverished environment of village life was a mobile phone. I’m not entirely sure if they had adequate shelter or nutrition or healthcare or clean water, but they sure had phones. To me, that implies an extraordinary responsibility for those of us who arrange to put that device in their hands. What are you going to do with your access to that person's life? What are you going to enable them to do with this tool? What are you going to ensure that they can do with it? To participate in a business like this without considering the larger agenda is to miss the moral and ethical challenge of this moment in technology entirely.

Thank you for the very enjoyable conversation.

No problem, I’m looking forward to chatting again. Just don’t invite me to Facebook.

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