GigaOm’s recent article (The Future of Technology Means Making A Computer that Disappears) is interesting. On one hand, it makes all kinds of sense and continues the often-spoken meme of the shrinking and more capable computer becoming more entrenched into activities. But, on the other hand, it constrains the definition of technology to a style of computing that doesn’t do much to augment human capacities as much as it does replace some behaviors for the sake of analytics or efficiencies.
This year, probably more than any since I’ve been around consumer computing, I’ve been challenged to assess, reassess, and put down many ideas of computing that just aren’t keeping up with where we probably should be these days. For sure, this has been incited by Jaron Lainer’s You Are Not A Gadget and Rita el Khoury’s Are You Aware that Your Mobile Is Context Aware (from the piece Nokia Bots and the Intelligent Mobile). There’s much more that computing should be doing to improve our relationship to the world and our stewardship of it. In that wise, a computer that disappears is only part of the story. When it disappears, what then?
One of Steve Jobs’s comments sticks out here, (paraphrasing), "computing without the humanities is empty." And this I totally believe. Its not just that we can make a series of transistors, nails, and metals produce an infinite number of possibilities with bits and bytes. Its that we become motivated to take those bits and demonstrate a mastery of our environment that clearly leaves it in a better position than we we started – or understanding of the implications of our decisions once we’ve terminated that code’s use. I don’t know that just having a computer that disappears does this, not unless we fundamentally change how we live, work, and relate to one another.
Yesterday, I decided to reset my Nokia N8. I was noticing some severe memory loss with it, and that started to effect its stability, performance, and overall functionality. Per usual when I make a decision to do this, I backup what’s important, and then leave whatever I forget to be forgotten until next needed. So, I did the reset, and then had to go about putting applications back on. My first applications added were Nokia Bots and Universal Search. Both of these beta applications have a very unique ability – they learn how I use my device and then adapt it to my environment. They honestly create situations where I can keep the mobile out of sight unless I manually need to change it. Effectively, in a few weeks time, my mobile will disappear into my pocket, car cupholder, or bedside and I will just notice it when it alerts me about an event or to move to a new location.
What’s missing in the conversations about computing technology is this. Disappearing not being that we "go social" or that we agree/disagree to types of data collection that other time periods would willingly question our sense of ethics. Its disappearing in the sense of "hey, you do this, and this technology will further your ability to live, eat, produce, save, and protect yourself and others." Its only when computing tools, get to this point that we can start having the productive conversations of what a computer that has disappeared looks like to everyone.
That’s not the case today. Instead, the idea of augmentation (Lainer) or context shifting (Khoury) is still treated as something to come when processors get faster (!!!) or mobile platforms patch up their already great performance (against the backdrop of politics that would have otherwise happen). Nothing will disappear in our hands/pockets until we get that ‘"i" dotted. Like I’ve said in other pieces, we should not be applauding polish in this day and age of mobile. We had polish (functionaly) with the Newton and (visually) Palm Pilot/Psion models and platforms. We should be better now, not expecting that in the future that such issues will disappear because minaturazation has taken them out of our ability to see it.
The context of computing should shift for those of us at the front of this discussion to something that blooms rightly in season, not shines to continually barage for our attention.