First Law of Information Technology for Objects
May 4, 2007: We've been up in Mendocino this past week at a cabin overlooking cliffs and white surf. Beautiful and rustic. And part of the beautiful, rustic cabin is a charming wood-burning stove in which a roaring fire was built. The trouble, of course, with charming wood-burning stoves in which one has built a roaring fire is that they get very hot and, especially when you (or, say, your darling son) are 2 years old or so, it is easy to forget this fact and, fascinated by the pretty, pretty flames, put your tiny hand on the corner of the stove. What ensues - screaming, parents running to the fridge for ice, more screaming, hugs, sobbing, etc. - is generally presented to the victim as a handy lesson ("now you know" etc. etc.), but the trouble is that next time he's really just about as likely to put his hand back on the stove because (and this is the point) the stove doesn't look hot. Hot is red (like fire). Hot is glowing (like embers) or waving (like air over a highway). But the stove is just dull and black. Oh yeah, and by the way, it's 400-freaking degrees!
So, what's my point. Well, this is a case where it makes sense to me to add in some information technology. To augment reality. To ubiquitously compute. How straightforward it would be if the stove (or, say, that scalding pot handle you were about to grab because, well, handles afford grabbing) was glowing bright red.
Which leads to my First Law of Information Technology for Objects: it makes sense to augment objects with information technology when doing so enables the objects to communicate useful information about themselves which would otherwise be difficult or harmful to detect. (There are other reasons, of course, such as to enable objects to make use of information about other objects, etc. but I only felt like making up one law).
Of course, there are issues that arise when you start augmenting things. You have to think about what you might be covering up with your informational "overlay." For example, there was another rustic cabin I spent a night in, this one up in Humboldt, where we built a roaring fire in a wood-burning stove. No one touched this stove, despite the presence of certain vegetable inebriants, partly because we let the fire get so hot that the stove did start glowing red (all by itself). And, if some technological augmentation had turned it red at, say 250 degrees, maybe we wouldn't have noticed it creep up to 750 (or wherever iron starts to melt) and it would have burnt the cabin down). This is probably a solvable design problem (multiple shades from yellow to white as it gets hotter, for example), but the point remains: careful what you subtract when you start adding.
Postscript: There's a companion Law of Minimal Ugliness in Ubicomp, something to the effect that we need to consider the aesthetics of all information manifestation to avoid augmenting ourselves into ugliness (otherwise known as the Phoenix Principle).