A function, a seam, or a point of control?

I know, I know, you are probably saying “Can’t he talk about anything but seamful and seamless design?” Well, I’ll get off that topic soon. Yet, in the meantime, here are a couple of examples of how a seamless interface to the user of a device is a seam for control by someone else. One basic point of those arguing for seamful design is that the user of the device, rather than the developer, is the agent whose control over the device needs maximizing by designers. Those who contend the goal of a seamless interface is a well-intentioned effort to relieve those using ubiquitous mobile devices from information overload often fail to mention up front that all connected devices provide seams of control. You might say that proponents of seamful design are the Libertarians of experience design, contending that control over the agency of any device belongs with the person who uses it, especially if they own it. 

We hear from this story that Mformation is now offering leading mobile network operators (MNOs) and telecom integrators the ability to “reach into” devices using their mobile networks and disable the camera’s functionality with an Over-The-Air (OTA) instruction. Moreover, the same technique can enable/disable any functionality in the connected device. Now, of course, there are uses for this capability that organizations legitimately need. Perhaps the Iraqi government would have benefited from such capability at the Saddam Hussein execution. However, if a device operates seamlessly for the person using it, but seamfully for those willing to pay for access to controlling those functions, it seems to me that, for the MNOs, the whole concept of seamlessness depends on who you are and where you stand in the architecture. Perhaps the OpenMoko approach to cell phone architecture will introduce some degree of symmetry into who can control the seams of mobile devices and their functionality.

At the least, when a third party attempts to execute an (OTA) instruction the person who uses the device ought to receive some notification. Consider the more sinister point of the “roving bug” capability of some phones that allows some third parties to reach into the phone and activate the microphone even when the phone itself is off. The cell phone then dials those same third parties and allows them to listen to conversations occurring near the phone.

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