Beki Grinter

Ubicomp and the Maginot Line

In computer science, discipline, European Union on September 19, 2011 at 10:32 am

When I moved to Metz to teach at GT-L for the Fall 2009 semester, I lived very close to the Maginot Line and consequently had an opportunity to learn more about it. The Maginot Line was a series of defensive fortifications built by the French after the first world war to protect themselves in the event of invasion by the Germans. What I had known about the Maginot Line was that it was not successful. The invasion of France occurred through the Ardenne forest, a place that had not been protected by the Maginot Line.

But, while in Metz I learnt far more about the Maginot Line. The Maginot Line had been a site of significant innovation as well as engineering. It had air conditioning for example. It had a communications infrastructure that was secure, connecting each of the fortifications to each other and to the national telecommunications network. It had underground railroads, used pressure differentials to avoid having gases enter the tunnels from outside, contained hospitals, and had its own power system even though each fort was connected to the national grid. Visiting the Maginot Line was something I’ll never forget.

There is going to be a panel at this year’s Ubicomp conference about the Vision of Ubiquitous Computing (Ubicomp) from the perspective of 20 years later. The panelists will reflect on the original vision that proposed a world of Ubiquitous Computing, what resulted, and whether (and if so what) role Ubicomp has going forward. I wish I could attend. This panel is another point in what has become a series of reflections by various people including Yvonne Rogers, Paul Dourish and Genevieve Bell about the original vision and the world today.

I can’t help thinking that Ubicomp’s vision, like the vision that created the Maginot Line, inspired a lot of innovation and in that sense it was incredibly successful. But I agree with the advocates for moving on and away from that original vision. The Maginot Line despite its successes is widely understood as a product of an imagination (made manifest in the vision) that was shaped in the First World War and unprepared for what would happen in the Second one. That innovations in warfare would ultimately leave defensive structures designed for a war fought by soliders in trenches less ready and able to fight a war that would involve planes and tanks. So while the Maginot Line became a site for innovation, it was simultaneously one that was blind to the innovations all around it that would render it obsolete. And that I think is a lesson for Ubiquitous Computing.

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