Masterly overview, inspiringly written,
This review is from: Divining a Digital Future: Mess and Mythology in Ubiquitous Computing (Hardcover)
I've never been moved to offer a review on Amazon before. I'm a university academic from a different field (medicine). I ordered this book because I'm about to start a research project on how to design assisted living technologies for older people living in their homes. I'm not trying to design these technologies myself, I'm trying to understand "what needs to be understood in order to design appropriate technologies". I'd got as far as working out that "ethnographic" and "co-design" approaches were a good idea, but was hazy on the detail of what to do next - and on how to theorise such a complex and crowded field of inquiry.
Before I opened this book, I'd explored around the heterogeneous literature on 'real world' technology design and realised that the signal to noise ratio in this field is very weak (there's a lot of technical stuff, a lot of science fiction / speculation, some really sad stuff on smart homes, lots of deterministic experiments from geeky doctors, some fantastically clever sociology which is hard to apply in practice, and a splash of colour from the wackier fringes of actor-network theory). But I hadn't found much to help answer the question "but which conceptual / theoretical perspective[s] do I need for MY project to inform better ICT design?".
This book was the overview I was looking for. After setting ubicomp in a fascinating historical context, it offers a succinct and beautifully written overview of the key theoretical perspectives, introducing many, dismissing some and recommending a few (all with justification). Ethnograhy is needed not just to "get data" to inform design, but to illuminate the practices through which "culture" is constructed and technologies-in-use emerge (or not). Dourish and Bell go over some well-trodden ground (Geertz is in there with his "webs of significance", as are Bowker and Star on classification and Mary Douglas on sacred/profane etc etc), but these classics are all woven together and placed in the very particular context of what they mean for the future (and indeed the present) of ubicomp. Whilst the examples in the book are all miles away from my own (medical) interest in ubicomp, they were accessible to the non-specialist and illuminative of the theoretcial points made.
Congratulations to the authors for offering a 'way in' to this swampy intellectual territory and for leaving so many new interdisciplinary avenues open for further exploration.