Tuesday, August 8, 2023

Mark Weiser’s Quest for Calm Computing

I never cried before when I read a book about computers and their creators, but this time I did. Mark Weiser's death from cancer in 1996 was both sad and tragic, but he imbued his last few weeks with meaning by making a choice demonstrating what his life's philosophy had been all about, to be present and engaged with his fellow human beings, in particular his family, friends, and colleagues. When he was diagnosed with cancer and told that he had only three weeks to live, his first thought was to isolate himself and write the book he had always dreamt of writing, laying out his philosophy behind ubiquitous computing, an approach to computing that wanted to get them out of the way, so that they didn’t become a distraction from our humanity and human social life, but in the end he decided to spend the time with his ex-wife, daughters and friends. On the brink of death, he chose to be present.

The Philosopher of Palo Alto, written by John Tinnell, director of digital studies and associate professor of English at the University of Colorado at Denver, captures Mark Weiser's long struggle to keep the exploding new information technology from overwhelming us as humans. 

Wherever you look in 2023 it seems that he lost his battle as parents and children, friends and lovers, stare down at the mobile phones to count Facebook likes or laugh at Tik-Tok videos rather than look at each other, talk and listen. But the battle is not over, and Mark Weiser's ideas are still simmering and nurturing many information technology developers, researchers, and critics.

It was at Xerox PARC's legendary research lab that Mark Weiser developed the concept of ubiquitous computing, a radical paradigm for what computers could and should do, as well as what they should not do. He was influenced by philosophers such as Michael Polanyi, Martin Heidegger, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, an influence that made him question the impact on computer research and development of the Cartesian split of mind and body. 

I interviewed Mark Weiser at his Computer Science Lab in early 1992, and he immediately made a strong impression on me, and I would never forget his basic ideas infused with humanity as they were. Half-way into the book Tinnell writes about Mark Weiser's visit to the MIT Media Lab where he was going to challenge the rest of the panel, which included the Lab's founder Nicholas Negroponte who touted software “butlers” that knew what their master’s wanted. It is a dramatic moment as he took on the more well-known and established digiterati. At this point, I found myself quoted in the book. 

"Weiser, meanwhile, sporting a rare tie and his trademark red suspenders, waited for his turn to address the crowd, aware that the other speakers were likely aligned against him. Weiser had picked fights with a few of them in his interview with reporters over the summer. Most pointedly, for example, he told a Swedish technology magazine shortly before the symposium: ‘I feel sick when I hear Alan Kay, Apple's research guru, talk of intimate data processing as the next step. Computers are a part of my life, like paper, pens, and chairs, but I don't want to become 'intimate' with them.’" (A footnote points to my 1992 article in Datateknik. John Tinnell, The Philosopher of Palo Alto, University of Chicago Press, 2023, p 156)

This was a time when the computer world was centered around personal computers or workstations, linked by local area networks, and maybe networks connected to universities, corporations, or government agencies. Lacking such a connection, you relied on CompuServe and America On-Line to get access to their respective and separate online worlds. It was before WWW, laptops, tablets, and smartphones, and a time when many industry players thought television would be the center of the connected and interactive home.

The book continues by exploring how the computer lab tried to move beyond the initial success for the concept of ubiquitous computing by collaborating with Xerox PARC’s inhouse anthropologists. Despite serious attempts on both sides, the two groups never quite connected since they had very different cultures and perspectives. Maybe one could say that it was a collision between anthropological fieldwork and engineers sprouting ideas in their labs. The problem for the engineers was that they must build the prototypes of ubiquitous computing with a technology that had a long way to go before it could be viable. During my visit, I was shown the three key components that illustrated the concept – tabs, pads, and boards, that is small, handheld devices with limited but context-aware functionality, electronic notepads, and finally a large electronic whiteboard. They were all connected through a primitive network that still enabled the user to pick up his work on a pad in another room or an electronic board, provided he had brought his tab with him. A fourth element in this model was a badge, that worked as an electronic ID-card, which could open doors and signal where a person was. The big difference between Mark Weiser’s approach and the rest of the computer world was that he didn’t want the system to spy on the user, not collect data that then could be used to influence or control the user. 

John Tinnell shows how the project lost some of its steam partially due to technological limits and the fact that the industry was heading in another direction. With the birth of the Web, and the explosive growth of both users and content, the world of information technology spun out of control. Mozilla became Netscape and suddenly Yahoo! was on everybody’s lips and screens. The old research labs funded by monopolies like AT&T and Xerox began to fizzle, and money started to flow from venture capitalists that had little patients for ideas like those of Mark Weiser.

All eyes were now on MIT Media Lab which became the shining star of the emerging digital age. On the one hand, projects like Thing That Think reflected some of the ideas behind ubiquitous computing, but the dominating trend was to use the new technology to track and predict what the users would do. Instead of freeing people from being stuck in front of screens, they were about to be sucked into a world where they were staring at screens of all sizes at every waking hour, which was more of a ubiquitous nightmare than anything else. An example of this brave new digital world was wearable computers, which the MIT Media Lab showed off at a big event in October 1997. It was quite a circus with Leonard Nimoy kissing a photo model on stage, causing his wearable gadget’s biosensors to signal more emotions in red lights than one would expect from Mr. Spock. 

Both I and Mark Weiser attended the event, but I was not aware of his presence, so I missed a chance to interview him, but later did an email interview with him on wearables.

In chapter 10, A Form of Worship, Tinnell explores the foundational beliefs that led Mark Weiser on his unique path as a computer researcher and the “philosopher of Palo Alto.” He wanted engineers to recognize uncertainty, the bottom of the iceberg. 

“If you were sure that your invention would be for others exactly what it was in your blueprint, then you were thinking only about the visible tip of the iceberg. You were presuming to know more than you did-your knowledge of other people was always incomplete. Even their own self-awareness was largely tacit, as was your own. Better to acknowledge these uncertainties, Weiser advised, than to presume yourself into an illusory state of omniscience. Adhering so doggedly to the pretense of certainty could push you to dismiss variables beyond your control or, worse, warp them to serve your design. Instead, Weiser urged his fellow engineers and technologists to cultivate an attitude of ‘deep humility,’ which ought chiefly to encourage ‘humility toward the role of [our] artifacts in other people's lives.’" (John Tinnell, The Philosopher of Palo Alto, University of Chicago Press, 2023, p 274)

It's a deeply humane and well researched book about a remarkable man who fought to “fit technology to humans.” (p 272)

Hans Sandberg

Mark Weiser on Ubiquitous Computing (Datateknik, February 18, 1992)

Mark Weiser on Wearable Computers (Email interview Oct 17, 1997)

Remembering Mark Weiser who Wanted to Get the Computers Out of the Way (May 26, 1999)

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