SIGCIS 2022

Making Sense, Crystallizing Reason: an Intellectual History of Pervasive Computing at Xerox PARC

Eric Rawn

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Abstract:

In the 1980’s and 1990’s, Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) was both a technological and intellectual force for the advent of pervasive computing: computation that was not only on the desks of office workers but instead became the invisible background against which we communicated, acted, and thought – in other words, computing as infrastructure. Mark Weiser, then the manager of PARC’s computer science lab, argued that such a view of computation would create a new relationship between people and computers, allowing us to ultimately shift our attention away from the computer itself: “only when things disappear… are we freed to use them without thinking and so to focus beyond them on new goals.” Computation as infrastructure has since become a material reality across the world, and continues to shape the role we envision for computers in human society.

In this talk I investigate the intellectual history of pervasive computing at PARC. Through a combination of oral history and archival records, I show how Weiser and his colleagues relied on a diverse constellation of intellectual sources, including work in Artificial Intelligence and Economics, the work of Heidegger and other existentialists, and influences from Anthropology and Sociology, to conceptualize and articulate this new relationship between humans and computation. Importantly, I argue that these conceptual foundations sharply disagreed on a fundamental picture of the world, mind, and machine, outlining three broad positions which each structured pervasive computing but saw the relationship between world and mind very differently. Clarifying how a pervasive computing worldview draws from each of these is crucial, as each, I show, structures a different conception of politics, power, and human agency in relation to computation. Therefore, I argue that understanding pervasive computing’s intellectual history is essential to critiquing and remediating the view of computation it proposes. Additionally, I argue that this history clarifies what relationship between minds and machines might be necessary for a more just technological world.

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Eric Rawn