Embracing the messy diversity of a Ubicomp state university: Cal State Nowhere is indeed a Somewhere at the fissures of the Ubicomp Present

**Embracing the messy diversity of a Ubicomp state university: Cal State Nowhere is indeed a Somewhere at the fissures of the Ubicomp Present**

Outline of Messy Ubicomp Present Research:

Series of four articles/case studies that begins with preamble/preface

1. Embracing the messy present of ubicomp at CSUEB

2. Urgent Evoke–Challenges of serious gaming in shifting voices

3. Integrating UX into the curriculum–Interventionist agendas unfulfilled

4. Exposing students to new experiences or just ruthless marketing?

My confession is that I have a keen fascination with the Google User Experience Team and other large firms who have invested much in examining the user experience at comparable sites like Intel and Facebook and even at small nonprofits like The Institute For The Future. New media work practices and managing new media work are in flux and in need of research according to the editor of Managing Media Work (Deuze: 2010). What are some of the goals of Google’s UX team? The mission of the Google UX team is to make their engineers sensitive to the User Experience (UX) and draw from their own particular careers as ethnographers, HCI designers, and anthropologists (Au et al: 2008). The Google UX team even holds office hours for its engineers to consult. Google’s constant mission statement refrain is that the User Experience is part of its DNA although its UX research manager relates how difficult it is for Google engineers to recruit user subjects beyond their own dorm room buddies at Stanford.

In their pursuit, Google UX team members tend to shed their critical cultural paradigms and lean to treating UX as a metric driven, Taylorist project in order to shave seconds off of our search time among other endeavors. Google UX is where technological determinism rears its ugly head. As Gina Neff stated about Kevin Kelly’s deterministic assumptions, the Google UX team would fail to pass muster with our academic mentors (Neff: 2012). I wonder to what extent do former academics at UX or UX researchers abandon their graduate perspectives amid the need to show their value as viable UX operations? How can we reclaim user experience research as a qualitative and messy endeavor with wider concerns about socioeconomic and ethnic disparity and multicultural diversity?

Just across the Silicon Valley and the Bay, one of the gateways to the East Bay resides Hayward, California, a city at once reviving and still caught in the doldrums of a digital economy that passed it by in terms of its lackluster strip malls with the exception of its newly gentrified downtown. Still, up on the hill overlooking the Hayward earthquake faultline is California State University, East Bay, the campus that changed its name from Cal State Hayward to reflect its other satelite campuses in Oakland and Concord. In reality the naming change was a marketing pitch to brand itself as the central state university of the East bay.

Walking onto its campus almost ten years ago carried with it a feeling of travelling back in time to the 1980s where the communication curriculum was steeped in a mass vs. speech communication division and rhetoric was at its height as the academic superdog. Students and classrooms were not yet wired and Blackboard was still a novelty. Coming out of a critical cultural studies program at UC San Diego and a hub of research in Activity theory, new media, cognitive and social studies of technology research not to mention its Supercomputer center, I felt like a real alien and isolated on the CSUEB campus. How was I to pursue my new media research agenda? Would I be able to continue my studies of futures research think tanks like the Institute for the future? What could this campus offer me other than the continual drumbeat of super TA status as an assistant professor without the luxury of TA’s?

What a difference ten years makes as smart classrooms suddenly became ubiquitous, Blackboard became the norm and students came equipped with a multiplicity of devices by 2008. Science, Technology, Engineering, Math became the buzz words of a campus re-orienting itself as wired and committed to STEM objectives. I became more at home and more suspicious of the agenda being implemented. With the onslaught of STEM initiatives at my own university, I have tasked myself with the mission to ensure our Communication Department infuses the STEM initiative with critical cultural perspectives. While we are at it, why don’t we create a UX Lab for educational technology as an alternative to the Google one? What does that look like? Given the particular working class, socioeconomic, Model UN ethnic style diversity characteristic of Cal State East Bay, can we do a better a job at understanding the embodied rituals that folks really do within digital culture as a path to the coming embedded world of ubiquitous computing as Paul Dourish emphasizes?

A start is understanding what Google’s UX and Intel’s People Practices are all about, viewing Google’s corporate videos in Life at Google, making a visit to their UX team (thanks to some of my friends), Luckily their researchers actually publish some of their research!

I am outlinng an agenda for Alternative UX research by creating serious game-like challenges that require students to imagine the future of gender roles for example. This fall I joined two research initiatives on campus to make this happen: Games as a Lens for Learning; the other is the Long Term Futures Thinking in Education Project. As project director for the Long Term project, I am investigating how undergraduates conceive of and envision the future. I have a senior undergraduate student studying the erasure of transgender categories on Facebook’s demographic registration setup. On my campus the messiness of the ubicomp agenda is on display every day with a growing demand for more ubiquitous computing, the influx of diverse cultures, and the lack of state support, and the growth of an online initiative to move our courses to an online or hybrid online model.

I am discovering that my university is no longer behind but at the forefront of how ubicomp really “is”, a ubicomp hybrid of the proximate future and the messy present as Paul Dourish frames it (Dourish: 2011). Envisioning a radically inclusive future is what the California State University system has inched towards and in some ways arrived at with a mix of students not ready for college demands and those who surpass those trials. It is the everyday of real digital divides and alternate visions of how ubicomp will unfold in California. Is there an app for that?


1. Deuze, Mark. 2010. Managing Media Work. Sage Publications.

2. Au, Irene et al, (Richard Boardman, Robin Jeffries, Patrick Larvie, Antonella Pavese, Jens Riegelsberger, Kerry Rodden, Molly Stevens),“User experience at Google: focus on the user and all else will follow”, Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems – CHI, 2008, pp. 3681-3686.

3. Neff, Gina. 2012. Culturally Digital Post: “Affordances, technical agency, and the politics of technologies of cultural production,” Jan 23, 2012 a dialogue between Gina Neff, Tim Jordan, and Joshua McVeigh-Schulz.

4. Dourish, P. and Bell, G. 2011. Divining a Digital Future: Mess and Mythology in Ubiquitous Computing. Cambridge: MIT Press.