Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 1, Number 6 / October 1, 1994 / Page 18

The Last Link:

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Why Ubicomp Scares Me

by Stephen Doheny-Farina (

Some days I think a world networked by computers will be a better place to live. Some days I get very, very worried. I had a dark day some months back when I came across a quote attributed to a computer researcher at one of the most important and innovative research centers in the U.S., Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC).

Anyone who studies the birth and development of innovations in information technology knows something about the Xerox PARC. Not only the source of many technological advances, PARC has also been involved in enterprises that shed light on the social impacts of new information technologies. For example, many net enthusiasts know of PARC primarily through the work of Pavel Curtis and LambdaMOO, the pioneering, networked virtual reality that enables individuals to interact in real time with others in simulated, text-based environments. LambdaMOO and a number of other MOOs using the LambdaMOO software have spawned many intriguing grassroots experiments in online social relations and collaborative work.

Of course, LambdaMOO and its like represent merely incremental steps in the process of networking computer users. For example, at last year's Directions and Implications of Advanced Computing Conference (DIAC '94) at MIT, Pavel Curtis presented a status report on the next generation of MOOs being developed at PARC. These systems involve real-time sound and video. I remember listening to him speak and thinking "Hmmmm. Little video cameras watching me watch everyone else. Don't know if I'd like that." But to be fair, I also remember that Mr. Curtis made it clear that personal privacy was important element that had to be designed into such systems. But still I worry--especially when I read articles like Howard Rheingold's "PARC is Back!" in Wired 2.02.


One of the most interesting passages Rheingold's piece describes PARC researcher Mark Weiser and his work with ubiquitous computing, or Ubicomp, as Weiser calls it. According to Rheingold's version of Weiser's work, Ubicomp represents the attempt to make computers invisible. That is, it attempts to get working computers out of your way when you do your work. This means the technologies must evolve beyond easy-to-use interfaces and away from virtual reality. Merely improving interfaces makes the obstruction (your computer) nothing more than an easier to use obstruction. VR places your entire working universe within the computer making the device the ultimate obstruction. Instead, the goal, according to Rheingold's article, is to enable you to work with the aid of computers while never actually having to focus on working the computers.

Ubicomp, at first, intrigued me. In particular, I was quite heartened to read one quote attributed to Mr. Weiser as he explained the difference between VR and Ubicomp:

"Second, and most importantly, it (VR) has the goal of fooling the user--of leaving the everyday physical world behind. This is at odds with the goal of better integrating the computer into human activities, since humans are of and in the everyday world." (p. 93)
(I might add here that I applaud any intelligent counter argument to VR--but that's another issue for another time.)

Yes, I like a principle that seems to privilege human activity over computer use. At least I liked it until I began to read about some specific technological developments in Ubicomp. Rheingold describes something called an "active badge":

"With an active badge system, every computer you sit down at is your computer, with your custom interface and access to your files, because your active badge sends it information via infrared signals. It is possible to track the locations of other researchers at all times by central monitoring of active badges--a handy tool with Orwellian implications." (p. 94)
Orwellian is right. Active badges should scare the daylights out of anyone. Of course, as I read on I expected to be assured that any Orwellian nightmares would be unjustified because of the way the technology is being designed. The following passage, I think, was supposed to placate me. It didn't.
"PARC is an intellectual playground, full of free spirits. How do they feels about the possibility that Ubicomp might lead directly to a future of safe, efficient, soulless, and merciless universal surveillance?

'Some people refuse to wear badges,' Weiser says. 'I support their right to dissent. And one principle we go by here is to maintain individual control over who else sees anything about us... The answer will have to be social as well as technical.'" (p. 94)

Hooo boy. OK, first the good things: I agree with the principle about individual control and I agree that the answer indeed lies in social controls over technological capabilities. But I am absolutely chilled by one particular word: dissent. His use of that word makes me feel quite uneasy about the effectiveness of social controls on Ubicomp surveillance outside of organizations like PARC--organizations that encourage freedom, privacy, and ingenuity among their employees. On the other hand, I can easily imagine many organizations not so enlightened, not run by people who believe that privacy and freedom are essential to the organizations' well-being, organizations that would tolerate little, if any, dissent. If we begin by thinking that refusing to wear the badge is dissent, we are asking for, as Rheingold put it, "merciless universal surveillance."

No, I think Mr. Weiser has it backwards. We need to begin any consideration of Ubicomp by accepting a simple equation: default = unconnected, offline. Accordingly, we need to agree upon some principles that can inform Ubicomp policies throughout society.


In the final chapter of Virtual Communities, Howard Rheingold quotes Gary Marx on issues of privacy and computing. Mr. Marx presents five principles outlined in the Code of Fair Information developed by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in 1973 (Virtual Communities, p. 294):
  1. There must be no personal-data record keeping whose very existence is secret.
  2. There must be a way for a person to prevent information that was obtained for one purpose from being used or made available for other purposes without his consent.
  3. There must be a way for a person to correct or amend a record of identifiable information about himself.
  4. Any organization creating, maintaining, using, or disseminating records of identifiable personal data must assure the reliability of the data for their intended use and must take precautions to prevent misuses of the data.
In light of my concerns about Ubicomp, I want to propose a few principles of my own:
  1. The normal state of anyone's computers is OFF.
  2. The normal state of anyone's relationship to computer networks is UNCONNECTED.
  3. The normal state of knowledge about the location of anyone is UNKNOWN--whether connected or unconnected.
  4. Connectivity and location is private information that must be protected by both technological and social policy mechanisms.


Now I fully realize that there are legitimate reasons for a person to be locatable and, even, continually observable. The obvious situations come to mind: If you're in critical condition in a hospital, you want your specialist to be easily and quickly locatable when your physical condition demands her/his presence. When there's a fire in your house, you want your local firefighters to be easily and quickly locatable. Situations such as these are clearly discernible. But beyond life threatening situations, there may be many other justifiable reasons why an organization may need to keep track of its members. And I wouldn't doubt that surveillance via computer badges may be efficient, productive, and satisfying to all involved. That is not my point. When it comes to connectivity, the employer must justify the surveillance. Everyone must assume that only extraordinary conditions merit surveillance. The requisite argument must not be, "Why do you not want to wear the badge?" The requisite argument must be "Why do you want me to wear it?" We must demand that the burden of proof is on the watcher, not the watched. ¤


  1. Marx, Gary. "Privacy and Technology." The World and I, September 1990.
  2. Rheingold, Howard. Virtual Communities: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1993.
  3. Rheingold, Howard. "PARC is Back," Wired 2.02, February 1994.
Stephen Doheny-Farina is an Associate Professor of Technical Communication at Clarkson University where he teaches courses in rhetoric and electronic media.

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