Clouds and Coffee: User affordance and information infrastructure

Some desktop coffee machines (e.g. figure 1) are now connected to the Internet (Pritchard, 2012).  Such devices are enrolled within increasingly complex information infrastructures involving cloud services. This form of entanglement creates mazes of unexpected heterogeneous opportunities and risks (Latour, 2003), yet users ability to perceive such opportunity and risk is limited their lack of visceral understanding of such entanglement. It is this understanding of the cloud by the user which is the focus of blog posting. Such a coffee maker “calls out” (Gibson, 1979) to users’ with a simple offering – its ability to make coffee. Its form attests to this function with buttons for espresso and latte, nozzles for dispensing drinks, and trays to catch the drips. To any user experienced in modern coffee this machine affords (Norman, 1990; Norman, 1999) the provision of coffee in its form and function keeping its information infrastructure hidden from view – only an engineer can understand that this machine is communicating.

Yet such assemblages of plastic, metal and information technology are a “quasi-object” (Latour, 2003)– complicated cases requiring political assemblies and no longer “matters of fact” but instead “states of affairs” (Latour, 2003).  Such a coffee maker is a drinks dispensing service (representing a service-dominant logic (Vargo & Lusch, 2004; Vargo, 2012)), provided through an assembly of material and immaterial objects whose boundary and ultimate purpose remain unclear.  While the device above only communicates about its maintenance, other machines may go further. Such machines’ users, hankering for an espresso to get them through a boring conference, may be kept unaware that the infrastructure is monitoring his choices to influence global coffee production, to ensure the output is sufficiently tepid and dull to damage his economic productivity, or that the device is recording and transmitting his every word.   He may be annoyed to discover his coffee is stronger than his female colleagues as gender profiling based on image recognition decides the “right” coffee for him. He may be horrified that the device ceases to work at the very moment of need because of a fault in contract payments within the accounts department – perhaps caused by their tepid weak coffee.

Similarly companies involved in providing the coffee and milk for such machines might become enrolled in this reconfiguration (Normann, 2001) of coffee service, an enrolment which could reconfigure the knowledge asymmetries within the existing market.  Suddenly an engineering company who previously made plastic and metal coffee machines is now in a position to better understand coffee demand than coffee growers or retailers. The machine itself could negotiate automatically on local markets for its milk provision, or compare material prices with similar machines in other markets, and even alter prices of coffee for consumers based on local demand. Through the enrolment of information infrastructures within a coffee service the knowledge of the coffee market shifts.

All this has happened already to the market for music (increasingly controlled by a purveyor of sophisticated walkmen using a cloud service) and more recently ebooks (increasingly controlled by a book retailer and their sophisticated book readers).   Now imagine the emergence of the smart-city with huge numbers of devices from street-lights to refrigerators connected to the cloud. How will the user of such smart-cities understand what they are interacting with – the quasi-objects they used to consider objects? How will such objects afford their informational uses alongside their more usual functions?

At the centre of this reconfiguration of material objects is a computer system residing in the cloud aggregating information. It is the aggregation of data from devices which may be central to the lessons of the cloud for SmartCities.

(© Will Venters 2012).

 

 

Gibson JJ (1979) The Ecological Approach to Perception. Houghton Mifflin, London.

Latour B (2003) Is Re-modernization Occurring-And If So, How to Prove It? Theory, Culture & Society 20(2), 35-48.

Norman D (1990) The Design of Everyday Things. The MIT Press, London.

Norman D (1999) Affordance, Conventions, and Design. Interactions ACM 6(3), 38-43.

Normann R (2001) Reframing Business: When the map changes the landscape. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester.

Pritchard S (2012) Mobile Comms: Coffee and TV. IT Pro, Dennis Publishing Ltd, London.

Vargo S and Lusch R (2004) Evolving to a New Dominant Logic for Marketing. The Journal of Marketing 68(1), 1-17.

Vargo SL (2012) Service-Dominant Logic: Reflections and Directions. Unpublished Powerpoint, Warwick,UK.

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