New IT Use: From Calculation to Communication

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While the computer of yesterday was occupied with crunching numbers, today

and tomorrow’s technology will be occupied with maintaining our social

contacts with one another. The computers of yesterday were commonly

labeled as “information technologies,” “IT” or “IS” (i.e., Information Systems).

Now it might be a good idea to reinterpret this “IT” acronym. Due to the more

social focus of modern IT use it might be more appropriate to talk about IT in

terms of “Interaction Technologies” as a general label for what this technology

does for us on a social level.

To be social is something very fundamental to us as humans and therefore it is

quite easy to understand why these new technologies and devices to support

human communication have so rapidly become adopted on a widespread basis.

It is sometimes claimed that a loved baby has many names. That is also true for

this new technology that has already been commonly labeled as, e.g., ICT

(information and communication technology), social belonging technologies,

awareness technologies, groupware, and virtual community support. These

technologies appear nowadays everywhere and are used by a broad population

ranging from adults to teenagers to children.

One important aspect of this new kind of IT use is the difference in the purpose

of the technology, i.e., to support various kinds of social activities instead of

supporting, e.g., advanced calculations. Another difference is in its use patterns.

While computing in the 1970s was about several persons working

together around one single machine to make it produce an exact result, today’s

computing is about several persons interacting with each other via several

computers and, as such, it enables them to maintain and develop their social

networks. Here, it becomes clear that also the role of the technology has

changed from being in the frontline of our attention to now becoming a more

pervasive technology that enable us to do new things without directing our

attention to the technology per se. How many people think about how the

phone operates “under the shell” while they are having a phone conversation?

There are several factors that together enable the Interaction Society including

not only the new technical devices such as pagers, mobile phones and

BlackBerries (i.e., mobile email devices, see Figure 2), but also, e.g., the

underlying infrastructures (e.g., the Internet and the mobile phone network),

new interaction modalities, new applications and services, and maybe foreIntroduction

most, new use patterns and new emerging behaviors due to the adoption of

these technologies.

In the next section we go through these different enabling factors and take a

closer look at a few of the new behaviors that have started to arise around these

interaction technologies.

Enabling Components for the

Interaction Society

As stated in the previous section, the Interaction Society is enabled by several

factors including, e.g., mobile devices, new applications, technical infrastructures,

etc. These are all important factors that enable this new society to

become a reality. Then, on top of these technologies, new use patterns and

behaviors are emerging around these technologies. In this section the enabling

technologies are first presented followed by a brief introduction of some new

human behaviors that have already started to grow out of this new kind of IT

use.

Interaction Infrastructures for the Interaction Society

From a technical viewpoint, the Interaction Society is mainly enabled on top of

two major and global technical platforms, i.e., 1) the telephone network,

Figure 2. Two different BlackBerry mobile email devices

 (including mobile networks for voice and data communication), and 2) the

Internet. These two platforms enable people who are geographically dispersed

to communicate across the globe independent of the distance in

between them. The telephone network enabled people to synchronously talk

to one another. On the other hand, Internet enabled for more sustained

interaction and enabled people to more or less asynchronously communicate

via email, chat rooms, virtual communities, discussion forums, bulletin boards,

etc. Today, these two platforms are now melting together into one global

communication network where people can communicate with each other

across these two previously separated infrastructures. A good example of the

melting of these two platforms is the now growing market for IP telephony

where the Internet is used to enable Internet users to make voice calls to other

persons on the telephone network.

So, clearly these two platforms enable computerized interaction support. But,

in order to reach the user and enable him or her to start to interact there are

several additional components needed. Below some of these components are

presented.

Interaction Devices

On top of the telephone network and the Internet infrastructure several new

interaction devices have been developed to enable us to communicate at

anytime, and from almost any location. Today, these technologies no longer tie

us to the desktop or the office environment. Rather, the modern interaction

devices are mobile, thus enabling us to take advantage of them in any

preferable place and whenever we want to. From that perspective the technology

has finally become ubiquitous and an integrated part of our lives (and not

just an integrated part of our office environment). From a perceptual perspective,

one of the most visible sign of today’s Interaction Society might be the

widespread adoption of mobile phones1, and the second most visible sign of

how computers are entering our everyday lives might be the widespread

adoption of laptop computers and the everyday increasing numbers of Internet

accounts2.

However, it is not only laptop computers and mobile phones that count as

interaction devices, and it has not only been efforts made on bridging long

distances between geographically dispersed persons (like enabling communication

over the Internet between different countries, or via the telegraph or the

modern mobile phone), but there has also been efforts made on developing

mobile devices to bridge quite short distances (i.e., the walkie-talkie supports

one-to-one voice communication over two to three kilometers).

There have also been some efforts made on supporting human interaction

across really short distances. One such example is the Japanese LoveGety

(see Figure 3). The LoveGety is a matchmaking device that communicates with

co-located devices in the near proximity of its user, i.e., around 10 meters.

Owners can set the device to show display lights according to whatever mood

they are in (there are only three): “let’s just chat,” “let’s go sing some karaoke,”

or the “Get together” mode. The idea is to bring the device to, e.g., a night club

or other social situation where others are equipped with similar devices and

then do a virtual hide and seek until you find somebody that matches your

distributed profile. When one LoveGety detects another of the opposite sex

within range, it beeps and flashes green if both are in the same harmonious

mode, and red if the opposite user is sending out a different mode.

In fact, there is a lot of research going on today that focuses on interaction

support for co-located communities similar to the basic idea behind the

commercial LoveGety device (e.g., supporting social gatherings and groups at

fairs, conferences, rock concerts, etc.). During recent years several research

prototype devices have been developed to support, e.g., mobile group

awareness [i.e., the Hummingbird device (Holmqvist et al., 1999)], ongoing

mobile interaction [i.e., the RoamWare system (Wiberg, 2001b), see Figure

4], mobile meetings [i.e., the ProxyLady system (Dahlberg et al., 2000)],

Figure 3. A picture of two LoveGetties (to the left a female device and to

the right a male device)

mobile co-located communities [i.e., the Memetags system (Borovoy et al.,

1998)], or even mobile folklore [i.e., “iBalls” (Borovoy et al., 2000)].

Figure 4 shows two pictures of the RoamWare system. The RoamWare system

allows its users to keep a dynamic contact list that is automatically generated

depending on who they meet during the day. This contact history can then be

used to, e.g., send group emails, send meeting invitations or initiate a teleconference

session with a group of persons that the user has just met, e.g., during

a business lunch, a seminar or any other social activity where people gather

together at the same physical place. As seen in the pictures in Figure 4, the

RoamWare device does not have a graphic display, nor does it have any tiny

keyboard or any other input modality. Rather, this is a “background technology”

or a calm technology (Weiser & Brown, 1996) that is designed to only

operate in the background of its user and let the user focus his or her attention

the social context rather then on the mobile device per se.

Recently there have also been some commercial interaction devices developed

with the same focus on supporting co-located groups and social gatherings.

One such example is the Spot-me device (http://www.spotme.ch/

spotmeinfo.html). As shown in Figure 5, the Spot-me device is a small mobile

device that communicates over radio with other co-located Spot-me devices

in the close vicinity of its user. This device is intended to function as an “icebreaker

technology” at conferences or other social gatherings. Using this

Figure 4. Two pictures of the RoamWare system (The first picture (left)

shows the RoamWare device with a connection cable to allow for

synchronization of data between the RoamWare device and a PDA or a

PC. The second picture (right) shows a use situation where two persons

are wearing the devices on their belts in a mobile meeting.)

device, the user can, amongst other things, search for other Spot-me users or

use the “social radar” function (Figure 5, right).

The radar function displays the photos and details of all people standing up to

30 meters away (and the range can be altered between one to three meters,

seven-20 meters, and 20-30 meters). This functionality provides a completely

new way to discretely decide whom to meet during coffee, to personally identify

the people sitting nearby at lunch, or to look up forgotten names according to

the manufacturer.

Besides these more or less “extreme” interaction devices developed, there has

also been a lot of effort made today on developing all various kinds of additional

hardware and add-ons to mobile phones to enable us to communicate more

easily and in totally new ways using, e.g., our mobile phone digital cameras and

video recorders, chat boards, (i.e., tiny SMS/MMS keyboards that can be

attached to a mobile phone), digital pens, ringer notification pens, etc.