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Into the archive of ubiquitous computing: the data perfect tense and the historicization of the present

John S. Seberger (Informatics, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, USA)

Journal of Documentation

ISSN: 0022-0418

Article publication date: 27 September 2021

Issue publication date: 3 January 2022




This paper theorizes ubiquitous computing as a novel configuration of the archive. Such a configuration is characterized by shifts in agency underlying archival mechanics and a pronounced rhythmic diminution of such mechanics in which the user's experiential present tense is rendered fundamentally historical. In doing so, this paper troubles the relationship between: archival mechanics such as appraisal, accession and access; the archive as a site of historical knowledge production and the pervasiveness of data-driven daily life.


By employing conceptual analysis, I analyze a classic vision of ubiquitous computing to describe the historicization of the present tense in an increasingly computerized world. The conceptual analysis employed here draws on an interdisciplinary set of literature from library and information science, philosophy and computing fields such as human-computer interaction (HCI) and ubiquitous computing.


I present the concept of the data perfect tense, which is derived from the future perfect tense: the “will have had” construction. It refers to a historicized, data-driven and fundamentally archival present tense characterizing the user's lived world in which the goal of action is to have had created data for future unspecified use. The data perfect reifies ubiquitous computing as an archive, or a site of historical knowledge production predicated on sets of potential statements derived from data generated, appraised, acquisitioned and made accessible through and by means of pervasive “smart” objects.


This paper provides foundational consideration of ubiquitous computing as a configuration of the archive through the analysis of its temporalities: a rhythmic diminution that renders users' experiential present tenses as fundamentally historical, constructed through the agency of smart devices. In doing so, it: contributes to ongoing work within HCI seeking to understand the relationship between HCI and history; introduces concepts relevant to the analysis of novel technological ecologies in terms of archival theory; and constitutes preliminary interdisciplinary steps towards highlighting the relevance of theories of the archive and archival mechanics for critiquing sociotechnical concerns such as surveillance capitalism.



The author would like to thank Johanna Drucker and Bono Olgado for their editorial contributions, as well as Megh Marathe, Luke Stark and Oscar Lemus for their thoughtful discussions before, during, and after our panel at 4S 2020. The author would also like to gratefully acknowledge the organizers and participants of two workshops: About Time at iConference 2020 and the Workshop on Fostering Historical Research in CSCW and HCI at CSCW 2019. Finally, the author would like to express my gratitude to the anonymous reviewers whose thoughtful guidance improved this work. This work is dedicated to the memory of Oscar Lemus.


Seberger, J.S. (2022), "Into the archive of ubiquitous computing: the data perfect tense and the historicization of the present", Journal of Documentation, Vol. 78 No. 1, pp. 18-37.



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