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The hitchhiker’s guide to ubicomp: using techniques from literary and critical theory to reframe scientific agendas


Literary criticism places fictional work in historical, social and psychological contexts to offer insights about the way that texts are produced and consumed. Critical theory offers a range of strategies for analysing what a text says and just as importantly, what it leaves unsaid. Literary analyses of scientific writing can also produce insights about how research agendas are framed and addressed. This paper provides three readings of a seminal ubiquitous computing scenario by Marc Weiser. Three approaches from literary and critical theory are demonstrated in deconstructive, psychoanalytic and feminist readings of the scenario. The deconstructive reading suggests that alongside the vision of convenient and efficient ubiquitous computing is a complex set of fears and anxieties that the text cannot quite subdue. A psychoanalytic reading considers what the scenario is asking us to desire and identifies the dream of surveillance without intrusion. A final feminist reading discusses gender and collapsing distinctions between public and private, office and home, family and work life. None of the readings are suggested as the final truth of what Weiser was “really” saying. Rather they articulate a set of issues and concerns that might frame design agendas differently. The scenario is then re-written in two pastiches that draw on source material with very different visions of ubiquitous computing. The Sal scenario is first rewritten in the style of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In this world, technology is broken, design is poor and users are flawed, fallible and vulnerable. The second rewrites the scenarios in the style of Philip K Dick’s novel Ubik. This scenario serves to highlight what is absent in Weiser’s scenario and indeed most design scenarios: money. The three readings and two pastiches underline the social conflict and struggle more often elided or ignored in the stories told in ubicomp literature. It is argued that literary forms of reading and writing can be useful in both questioning and reframing scientific writing and design agendas.

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I would like to thank the anonymous reviewers of the paper for criticism and suggestions. I would also like to thank Jeffrey Bardzell for detailed comments and suggested deconstructive interpretations.

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Correspondence to Mark Blythe.

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Blythe, M. The hitchhiker’s guide to ubicomp: using techniques from literary and critical theory to reframe scientific agendas. Pers Ubiquit Comput 18, 795–808 (2014).

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  • Dick
  • Ubiquitous Computing
  • Critical Theory
  • Science Fiction
  • Alarm Clock