Book Review: McCullough’s Digital Ground

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As ubiquitous computing crescendos further into our lives every day, designers must consider how embedded technology interacts with our environment and its influence within our own communities. So argues Malcolm McCullough’s Digital Ground: Architecture, Pervasive Computing, and Environmental Knowing, penned in 2004 and arguably more relevant today than when first published.

While there are many interaction design books ready to help practitioners develop more usable design patterns, and likewise plenty of texts steeped in interaction design theory, Digital Ground offers a cogent, though sometimes esoteric argument that interaction design is essentially an extension of architecture. Consequently, such an argument provides an intriguing framework by which to gauge pervasive interactions between people and technology, and amongst people themselves.

Glancing to the Past to Look Ahead

McCullough begins his argument in Expectations, the first of three parts comprising the book. The first chapter, Interactive Futures, provides a broad introduction into how people understand ubiquitous computing in their own lives. Interestingly, the author uses the 1939 New York World’s Fair exhibit The World of Tomorrow to illustrate how too many people—engineers, urban planners, the digerati, and others from 70 years ago and today—rely on an understanding of technology that “will transport us to some fantastical otherworld” (12) rather than “turn[ing] to the patterns of the living world as something other than a clean slate, and something to be understood, not overcome”.

pervasive computing has been hailed as a chance to escape from the desktop and start over. On the other hand, unless design can intervene, it is also a chance for computer technology to become even worse, and far less escapable

While some readers could contend discussing an exhibit built in 1939 to predict the future in 1969 is irrelevant, McCullough deftly ties the exhibit’s Modernist principles to how people have generally understand ubiquitous and pervasive computing. “Within the continual noise of the technology hype” he writes, “…ubiquity has quickly come to mean just about anything having to do with connectivity”, implying the terms refer to every office chair wired or the ability to browse the Internet from any location on Earth. As a result, McCullough prefers to invoke “pervasive computing” to represent context-aware, computer-chip equipped devices with which we interact more and more every day.

McCullough seems to realize some readers may still be skeptical associating interaction design with architecture and its relationship with pervasive computing. To strengthen his thesis, the next two chapters of his book cite philosophical thought, physical embodiment, cultural norms, and habitual contexts that make interaction design a defense of architecture (62). While some of the writing is dense or steeped in architecture theory, McCullough often draws direct relationships to interaction design or familiar technology as if to allow disoriented readers to catch up without slowing the pace of the argument.

Computing without Computers

The book’s second part, Technologies, discusses how the physical gear (hardware), the symbolic models (software), and patterns of usage (applications) comprise pervasive computing technology. As computers move out from simply desktop machines in the office or at home, good design becomes essential: “pervasive computing has been hailed as a chance to escape from the desktop and start over. On the other hand, unless design can intervene, it is also a chance for computer technology to become even worse, and far less escapable” (68).

The new Grand Rapids Art Museum by Workshop Hakomori Yantrasast and Design+  The world's first LEED certified museum.

The new Grand Rapids Art Museum by Workshop Hakomori Yantrasast and Design+ The world

Quickly moving from the theoretical explorations of the previous chapters, McCullough provides 10 concrete, real-world components of pervasive computing. For instance, he explores how sensors can monitor smog levels on London street corners and detect physical motion and movement of the chip itself. McCullough even mentions how the accelerometer sensor “invites more skillful, embodied, and unobtrusive operations” years before the Nintendo Wii and Apple iPhone popularized haptic interfaces amongst mainstream consumers.

To readers who may have struggled with McCullough’s earlier arguments, these component summaries provide a timely bridge from theoretical explorations to in-world examples. Likewise, the chapters Location Models and Situated Types also use specific, concrete references to the real world. McCullough asserts that location is fundamentally important to understanding context in interaction design since physical places are “representations of activity and organization”.

interaction designers will need to understand how pervasive computing and built space contributes to the conduct and quality of life

Location Models, for me and perhaps other readers, is where the ideas begin to leap off the page. McCullough moves quickly past the simple notion that geodata as the key to understanding context by arguing “navigation is only the beginning of this. There is a lot more to the technology of place than knowing where to make the next right turn” (105). Rather, he continues, pervasive computing, designed for flexibility and adaptability so as not to burden its users, “becomes a part of the psychological, social, and historical processes by which people come to identify with locations, [and therefore] the technology is more likely to be a success” (114).

The author also argues pervasive computing needs a typology to help us recognize and understand its applications. Without such a categorization in place, we can only expect huge design failures and ultimately chaos (118). McCullough provides a typology with 30 situations, organized by where each one takes place (at work, at home, and others). In each situation, McCullough provides a hypothetical use or application for pervasive computing. He uses these examples to stress that the “emphasis on usability and appropriateness eventually leads beyond its immediate concern for the situated task toward a more inclusive configuration of the physical context.” In other words, McCullough almost summarizes the thesis of the entire book: interaction designers will need to understand how pervasive computing and built space contributes to the conduct and quality of life (144).

Taking Place

Interaction designers reading the third and final part of the book, Practices, may likely find McCullough preaching to the choir as the author establishes the cultural and technical foundations of useful, effective design. Though the title Practices may suggest the author will simply describe how pervasive computing will be implemented in the earlier typology, McCullough leads the reader to understand how context, environment, and architecture all strive to solve interaction design’s fundamental problem: to get people (as individuals and cultures) into place. Ultimately, he writes, “response to place…demands major choices in the contextual design of technology” (207).

While Digital Ground doesn’t strive to be a straightforward book about the day to day challenges confronting interaction designers, it cannot be disregarded as a wispy philosophical tome relegated to graduate seminars, either. As many interaction designers already understand, desktop-based WIMP computing is far from the only battleground we face when we attempt to provide optimal, designed experiences. By understanding where those environments are and what people are doing there, we can begin to design for the technology embedded there as well. Digital Ground crystallizes those fundamental challenges by arguing “the response to place becomes the most practical adaptation strategy of all” (213).

Finally, this is a must-read book for readers interested in how we interpret our surroundings and its influences on interaction design. Whether or not we design pervasive computing systems today or not is immaterial; according to the author if we continue working as interaction designers, then chances are our work will soon communicate or interact with those pervasive systems. Consequently, Digital Ground prepares its readers for the questions to ask and the perspectives to consider when delivering those designed experiences.

Read it if
You enjoy philosophical and theoretical approaches to real world design problems; you’re interested in how individuals and cultures interact with technology and each other and you want to see the evidence to back it up (McCullough clearly cites over 170 sources).

Skip it if
You’re looking for a practical, task-focused book you can read in a weekend and reference in your daily work.

Book Details
Digital Ground: Architecture, Pervasive Computing, and Environmental Knowing
Author: Malcolm McCullough
Publisher: MIT Press, 2004
Details: 213 pages, paperback

Photos by Nathan Umstead. Used with permission.

Chris Avore

Chris Avore is a user experience designer in the Washington DC area.

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