Technofutures in Stasis: Smart Machines, Ubiquitous Computing, and the Future That Keeps Coming Back
Technoculture promises eternal novelty, but it is often the same old future that keeps coming back. This article argues that the systemic repetition of imagined technofutures often sustains stagnant imaginaries of social relations embedded in those futures. Recycled visions of the smart office or the robot vacuum cleaner carry with them normative assumptions about relations of labor and gender, home and family, that are sheltered from scrutiny through the language of innovative “disruptions.” Drawing on archival research, I analyze the imagined futures of ubiquitous computing (“ubicomp”) in the 1990s, and their resonances in the popularization of “smart” machines today. Ubicomp’s signature promise of disappearing computers rested on a familiar conflation of individualized convenience with freedom—a view of breathless innovation underwritten by a static, ossified imagination of domestic labor or the white-collar office. Such mythmaking reproduces a persistent pattern of one-dimensional thought, in which asymmetric power relations and perverse economic incentives for data surveillance are systematically excluded from the drawing board.