Preface to Digital Ground

April 2003


This book has come from a change of outlook. It does not presume to be an impetus of such change for the reader, and is only an invitation to share in the author’s inquiry. In some larger picture, many of us have been rethinking the relationship of environment and technology. Although this transformation seems most profound in biological fields such as ecology or public health, it also affects the disciplines of building social infrastructure. My own background is there, among people who work on architecture and computing. A decade ago, some people expected those fields to converge into something called cyberspace. Today, hardly anyone seems content with that notion. For me, and not me alone, part of the change has been a turn from the fast and far-reaching to the close and slow. I sit on stones in the sun more often, and hunch over screens in dark rooms less. Nevertheless the net still reaches me, wherever I am. That too has changed.

Few of us topple our viewpoints voluntarily, without a catalyst. For me, and for this book, that catalyst has been pervasive computing. This expression represents a paradigm shift from building virtual worlds toward embedding information technology into the ambient social complexities of the physical world.  This shift deserves plentiful explanation and considerable skepticism, for while it has advantages in making technology more intuitive by means of embodiment, it also obviously has disadvantages in unwanted annoyances and surveillance. Frankly, to devote years of research and writing to so questionable a topic has often felt like folly. But this troublesome topic has merely been my catalyst, and not my position. Although this book may first appear to be about information technology, it is ultimately a defense of architecture.

My claims about architecture are indirect because the design challenge of pervasive computing more immediately becomes a question of interaction design. This growing field studies of how people deal with technology—and how people deal with each other, through technology. As a consequence of pervasive computing, interaction design is poised to become one of the main liberal arts of the twenty first century. I wrote this book because I ran into many people who believe that. If you share this belief, or if you just wonder what interaction design is in the first place, you may find some substance here in this book.

Although design writing often takes the form of advocacy or manifesto, that was not the intent for this book. Like the web logs that became fashionable during the time of this writing, my goal was only to sound some depths, connect some increasingly related disciplines, and provide some paths through a complex field. A book provides more enduring form than a website, of course, and it invites a more thoughtful response. So despite the many doubts you should have about its topic, I sincerely hope that reading this book can be enjoyable and worthwhile.