Dourish, P. and Bell, G. (2007). The infrastructure of experience and the experience of infrastructure: meaning and structure in everyday encounters with space. _Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design_, 34:414-430.

Genevieve Bell, PhD in Anthropology from Stanford, is Director of Intel Corporation’s Interaction and Experience Research. As a cultural anthropologist, she studies how various cultures use technology. In addition to this article, she and Paul Dourish co-wrote Divining a Digital Future: Mess and Mythology in Ubiquitous Computing (2011). [See other Dourish entry for his bio.]

What happens when computation leaves the desktop and enters our daily practice in the “third age” (Weiser, 1991, as cited on 414) ubiquitous computing (aka “pervasive computing,” “context-aware computing”)? In this context, computer devices penetrate all our actions, so “though each device may be small, the overall effect to be achieved through the combination of hundreds of thousands of devices…can be massive” (415).

Now computer scientists must, with assistance of sociological and ethnographic analysis (as opposed to classic cognitivist approaches) examine more closely embodied action, and the physical relationships of people and their technologies. This essay reflects a computer scientists and cultural anthropologist’s “collective interest…in the ways in which pervasive computing integrates technological and social aspects of interaction” (415), and proposes the “infrastructure of experience” and the “experience of infrastructure” as tools to think about this new physical relationship.

“Infrastructure of experience” refers to how both the practices and the setting-inscribed structures shape our interactions with everyday objects. Infrastructure here is an analytic construct that can have nine properties: embeddedness; transparency of use; reach; education necessary for “membership in a community of practice” (416); connectedness to conventions of practice; embodiment of standards; dependency on preexisting base; post-breakdown visibility; and incremental (not global) fixed-ness.

From here, we see the deep sociopolitical implications of infrastructure. Referencing Castells (1996), Bell and Dourish remind that no matter the revolutionary rhetoric, new networked infrastructures “are as likely to reinforce as to destabilze existing information infrastructures … for all the contemporary interest in blogs and individual publishing … information on the Internet tends to be centralized in largely the same hands as that in other media. Graham and Marvin (2001) propose networked infrastructures have encouraged the fragmentation of urban spaces.

Experience of space (which is organized culturally) “is coextensive with the cultural practices of everyday life” (428) which makes that space meaningful. “Experience of infrastructure” refers to the way infrastructures are readily manipulable and interactive, and must be, though they recede into the background to foreground their supported operations. However, it becomes more visible as we become more dependent on it for our daily lives. Bell and Dourish hold that “infrastructure” is better understood not just as a physical intervention but also how we experience space, so it can be any number of things.

“Traffic flows, [religious] service times, calls to prayer, regions and neighborhoods: these are all infrastructures that shape one’s experience by making it meaningful in different ways, and which in turn are shaped and configured in support of patterns of social practice” (418).

The relationship between these two phenomena, infrastructure of experience and experience of infrastructure is a “recursive” (428) one: “infrastructures give meaning to experience, and experience gives meaning to infrastructures” (ibid).

“The world of everyday experience is not simply the physical or visible world, but one imbued with historical, social, and cultural meaning which is, critically, mapped onto and experienced through spatial patterns, or perhaps more accurately, through habitation patterns. Everyday space is not experienced neutrally; it is experienced as inhabited, with all that entails” (423).

This matters because infrastructures come with particular perspectives. “Spaces are not neutral” (424). Three topics relating to infrastructure’s physicality and cultural context: (1) “the physicality of the virtual” (424), which reminds us that the wireless world is very much a material thing (e.g. broadband cables, bluetooth devices, GPS satellites, etc.); (2) “the spatial situatedness of mobile devices” (425), and the social norms associated with particular locations; (3) and the “cultural framing of space” (426), since technologies aren’t just the tools for cultural production, they’re sites for it, as well.

Knowing this leads to a series of design practice guidelines for pervasive computing (and planning). (1) Cultural forces shape space, not the physical elements; this is the context in which technological infrastructures operate. (2) We must design for in-between times and anticipate how ubiquitous computing can be more seamless. (3) Technologies encourage, if not make inevitable, people’s’ encounters with space. “This is not a question of mediation, but rather one of simultaneous layering” (428). (4) Space, infrastructure, culture, and experience have a complex interaction. Their combined effect is frequently unstable and fluid, so whatever technologies people introduce, they must realize that doing so will change the environment, but won’t ordain its directions.

“Accordingly, the goal of pervasive computing must be to design not simply for settings, but for the processes by which practice and meaning evolve. Pervasive computing was, from the outset, a proposal not for how technology should be, but how it should be experienced” (429).

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