Presumed Ubiquity & Tangible Networks: The Materiality of TechnoRhetorical Work

Proposal Title: 
Presumed Ubiquity & Tangible Networks: The Materiality of TechnoRhetorical Work

We articulate Near Field Communication togs (NFCs), RFIDs, (smart)phones, GPS & mapping, databases, and a variety of emergent portable technologies as programmable intelligent agents that allow us to perceive simultaneous tracings through physical and virtual spaces. We overlay the virtual atop the real to reveal habitués of teaching, research, and technology in an emergent, post-PC computing environment: an augmented reality. This roundtable presents perspectives that presume ubiquity—that computing devices surround us and become the artifactual technological agents Latour describes as increasing human agency in networks. These agents leave tracings on the world; their impacts are tangible; we are watching. 


A series of unfortunate network failures kept us from delivering the roundtable described below at the 2014 conference. The positive reviews and reviewers' excitement about the panel encourages us to re-present the roundtable for 2015. Each presenter will offer brief remarks of 5-10 minutes accompanied by images. The roundtable format invites audience questions and prompts that will guide presenters to develop ideas presented in the opening position statements, resulting in a participatory and engaging session.

In Mark Shepard's Sentient City, the essay "Trash Track" follows smart- tagged garbage on its journey through the city's waste-management system. Before the advent of cheap RFID and NFC tags, the project requires that artist/researchers embed a few pounds of electronics to trace the movement of their subject—trash—through the system designed to dispose waste. In the essay, the artists discuss the ethics of adding to the trash stream in order to understand it: their intervention makes the trash elimination network visible and open to comprehension by human senses. Tracing the tags makes the subject visible in space and through time.

This roundtable investigates tangibility as an important component of technological networks and ubiquitous computing devices. In the example of "Trash Track," once the network becomes visible, it changes the relationship between researchers and subject. This is the hope of most critical theory: that by making things visible, people will want to change their behavior to be more virtuous, to create less waste, to become better stewards of the earth and its resources. Instead, it seems that visibility becomes an excuse to hoard finite resources, and fierce fighting for control emerges. Tangibility impacts behavior. And we need different rhetorics, a Nudge (2009) perhaps, in the right direction in order to act ethically with what is now visible. Tangibility—the ability to see, hear, or otherwise trace with human senses—is at the heart of this technologically-enmeshed, literacy-oriented, symbol (ab)using community. These tags act as sentient materials within complex networks of agency. Further, such environments are not new: “To define humans is to define the envelopes, the life support systems, the Umwelt that make it possible for them to breathe” (Latour, 158). Andy Clark (2008) has described these kinds of smart environments as a kind of “cognitive extension” and Nigel Thrift (2005) has illustrated complex systems that automate our everyday experiences.

Presenters in this roundtable will explore these claims of complex, smart, sentient environments by focusing on an ancient concept that has great relevance for movement throughout the world: logistics. Described by Aristotle as an irrational, calculative faculty, logistikos has at its core not a cold, mathematical calculation, but a faculty—a human need for order— perhaps even what might be called a desire for calculation. To say that we are calculating means that we conspire, within our unique constellations, to coordinate our world. We see the end result of this co-ordination as the art that results from a rational desire for calculation, and we can call it logistics. These logistics can be expressed through the designed environment, as we hope to structure ways of navigating physical spaces. Logistics is rhetorical: examining GPS (and satellite navigation more generally) as a smart technology with which we engage as part of our sentient environment. The roundtable considers numerous contexts for ubiquitous, tangible technology: lab and classroom learning spaces, urban navigable spaces, scientific research spaces, workplaces, and beyond.

As an example of this work in action, this roundtable will also address the update of a multimedia research lab into a self-sustaining space. Utilized as workspace, meeting room, and classroom at various times, the lab is an intersection among legacy systems, new technology, users, and institutional needs. The major design feature is the inclusion of NFC tags in the lab's design as a way of creating documentation and support for specific technologies in the lab. These tags link materials to the workspace in ways that physical guides or static websites do not—allowing users to add materials, ideas, and comments to the tagged documentation. In this way the "smart" lab becomes a tangible network of support designed by and for users as they work, turning a room with computers into a sentient space in which previous users leave traces of the lab's use for future users and contexts.

Finally, this roundtable reflects on the questions Computers and Writing scholarship has asked concerning invisible, ubiquitous technologies that surround and support our workaday activities by taking up questions that frame everyday technologies as more than simple signposts for wayfinding. They partner with us to direct human attention and privilege one practice over others. Arguably, if it’s true that we are what we do, such technologies are us, or at least are a part of us (Clark, 2008). But what, specifically, might this relationship have to teach us about Computers and Writing scholarship and pedagogy? We argue that writing practices are productively and, sometimes, disturbingly expanded, redefined, and strengthened by our smarter built environments. The technologies are all around us all the time; we have a glut of bandwidth, processing, and storage. This roundtable begins to suggest ways we might begin acting like we live in an age of ubiquity and digital abundance, allowing intelligence and information to exist ambiently in the commons, and explores what happens when we live among our technological networked helpers.

Our technocultural networks become layered, agglomerating, one atop the other, all connecting our individual selves to these interwoven but mutually unintelligible networks. We have helpers—technological artifacts—that help us sort out these signals arriving from different networks, but ultimately, it is our participation that give all the networks meaning. We have agency in that space, even if our agency is limited to having put at some point in the past a technological agent that maintains our connection to any given network. Ubiquity brings potential extensions of our senses enabling us (and our agents) to turn ambient elements into some perceptible form. Not necessarily limited to visual perception, we favor that sense over others. 


Clark, Andy. 2003. Natural-born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

Hutchins, Edwin. Cognition in the Wild. New York: Bradford Books.

Latour, Bruno. 2008. "A Cautious Prometheus? A Few Steps Toward a Philosophy of Design (with Special Attention to Peter Sloterdijk)," in Proceedings of the 2008 Annual International Conference of the Design History Society, Falmouth, Cornwall: September 3-6.

Schinkel, Willem, and Liesbeth Noordegraaf-Eelens, ed. 2011. In Medias Res: Peter Sloterdijk’s Spherological Poetics of Being. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Shephard, Mark, ed. 2011. Sentient City: Ubiquitous Computing, Architecture, and the Future of Urban Space. New York City: Cambridge, MA: Architectural League of New York; MIT Press.

Thaler, Richard H, and Sunstein. 2009. Nudge Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. New York: Penguin Books. 



We examine the role that technological innovations play in rearticulating our relationship with public spaces and with others who inhabit these spaces. We ask 'what are the social implications once techno/public intervention occurs?' While no one technological invention defines ubiquity, numerous personal technologies together create a new environment that requires renewed attention to designed spaces of techno-literate action. Ubiquity requires human individuals to recognize how agency is dispersed and distributed through the network. This roundtable explores emerging contexts of technological integration and access that requires renewed attention to both dissipation as well as potential multiplication of impact, interventions that allow us to perceive place within networks of human and non-human allies.
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