Adam Greenfield

Digital Mediator

In a world where computing is everywhere, Adam Greenfield is a voice of reason and a champion of the user experience.

Adam Greenfield is a writer, user experience consultant, futurist, and instructor at New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program. He recently joined Nokia as its head of design direction.

He has spent the past 10 years exploring the intersection of technology, design, and culture, with a strong focus on pervasive computing. His 2006 book, Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing (see Book Review, page xx), was called “groundbreaking,” “elegant,” and “soulful” by cyberpunk science fiction writer Bruce Sterling, and “gracefully written, fascinating, and deeply wise” by Steve Silberman of Wired magazine. 

Adam speaks frequently on issues of design, culture, technology, and user experience before a wide variety of audiences, including the 2007 XTech conference, the Seventh International Conference on Pervasive Computing, the Monitor Group's IFA Forum, Nokia's Asia-Pacific CEO Summit, and AIGA's DUX07. He was also a featured speaker at the 2008 SEGD Conference + Expo.

Your book talks about “a world of computing without computers,” where information processing is embedded in every facet of our lives. From your perspective, what’s the most exciting promise of a digitally mediated world? 

I suppose it would have to be the potential that we'll really come face to face with ourselves—as individuals, as communities, and as a species—for the first time.

And what’s the scariest thing about it?

Among other things, moving through a digitally mediated world is going to mean being able to track, visualize, and share how we really allocate our attention, our time, and our money as a matter of course, and in a very great degree of detail. And this, in turn, will mean that a lot of the masks, deceptions, and pretenses we've relied upon since time immemorial simply won't hold up anymore. We'll stand revealed before ourselves, in all our frailty and glory.

You say everyware hasn’t reached its “Betamax vs. VHS” stage, where technological standards will determine its eventual shape. When do you think that tipping point will occur, and what will bring it about?

Taking your question literally, I can say that at the everyday or consumer level, there just isn't going to be any breakout, winner-take-all system or standard. The informational environment I see coming into shape around us is instead wildly heterogeneous. It's something that already is and will continue to be fed by phones, cars, gaming systems, personal biomedical monitors, municipal infrastructure—just about anything you can imagine that can sense and transmit data.

Our audience is concerned with communications in the built environment. How do you see a digitally mediated environment carrying or integrating information in the future? For example, will static signage be made extinct? 

I sure hope not! I mean, things like directional or warning signage are really mission-critical interventions in the urban fabric, things that people need to know in their bones that they can rely on, even when the power fails, even when the network's down.

Furthermore, there will always be a requirement for standard visual indicators that such-and-such a ubiquitous system is in operation in a given environment and that these indicators should be useful to people who either don't have access to or are not comfortable manipulating digital devices and systems.

But personally, I'm most concerned that designers will be forced to develop new strategies to capture the attention of people immersed in the babble and crosstalk of ubiquitously-endowed public spaces. I can so easily see the kind of attentional arms race that waits for us there:  how even things like traffic lights are going to have trouble competing against everything flickering away and laying claim to the visual field. Absent community activism or legislation, I'm not sure what can be done about this, and it’s worrisome to me.

And while it's certainly true that anything that can become digital tends to do just that, I wouldn't waste much time worrying about the idea that static signage will somehow disappear. The French writer Eric Sadin even argues, in his Times of the Signs, that the multiplication of digital screens has paradoxically led to a proliferation of printed materials in the street environment—that immersion in information generates the demand for still more information. I'm not sure I'm 100% willing to follow him there, as his case is built primarily on the Japanese experience. But honestly, that it's even possible for him to make this argument is an indicator that the possibilities of more traditional design have not yet been exhausted.

You've just started a new position as Nokia’s head of design direction. What are your goals for this job, and how do you plan to guide Nokia in light of where you think pervasive computing is heading? 

I should just be honest and admit that the scope of my ambitions for this new gig is essentially unlimited. With a 45% global market share, the number of human beings using or encountering our products and services on a daily basis literally numbers in the billions, so clearly anything one can do as a designer to improve those experiences, even at the margins, is going to have a tremendous impact. I'm very, very excited about some of the things we have in the pipeline, and impressed by how clearly the organization I belong to understands the nature of the challenges that await us.

Having said that, I think there's clearly (understatement of the year here) significant scope for the entire industry to improve the way it feels to use the things we make. In my book, ease of use in basic functionality is an absolutely minimum acceptable standard, and not particularly something that any company should be boasting about having achieved. I'd rather identify real, everyday human needs that our devices and services can meaningfully speak to, and then aim squarely at devising solutions to those needs that consistently afford sensations of effortlessness, empowerment, and delight.

These challenges are holistic in nature, and their successful resolution requires deep ethnographic insight, aesthetically gifted design intervention, and a fanatical dedication to the human user. Since we know that any such holistic process is, at best, an uneasy fit with the entire practice of information-technological development the way it's currently structured, we sure do have our work cut out for us.

Your book was published in 2006. Are there any predictions or statements you’d like to change or update now?

Those references to "ubiquitous computing" are certainly beginning to sound a little dated, aren't they? This is simply the way we do things now.


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