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The brilliant Joanna Stern wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal this week decrying the silly “put a bluetooth device in everything” gold rush with a brilliantly-headlined story, “Smart Tampon? The Internet of Every Single Thing Must Be Stopped.” You should go read it, and then come back and read this story. It’s nearly 20 years old (gulp!), but it’s among my favorites, and it’s still full of rare technology wisdom.
Back in 1998, I was lucky enough to spend a day with the man most call the father of ubiquitous computing, Mark Weiser. When I met him, he was chief scientist at the legendary Xerox PARC, which wasn’t that far removed from being responsible for inventing the computer mouse, etc. etc. Weiser was keenly aware, even then, that computers were on the verge of driving people crazy. He predicted disastrous techno-distractions before most Americans had cell phones, let alone smartphones, and before Mark Zuckerberg had even enrolled in Harvard. But he was an eternal optimist. He had a solution. He wanted ubiquitous computing to become “calm computing.” He was working on making machines so smart that they didn’t need to interrupt us, so we could once again focus our most precious commodity — our attention — on people we loved.
Weiser died less than a year after I published this story. The world still misses him. Probably more than ever. I’m still convinced his ideas will have their day. But for now, “Panic Computing,” with its smart tampons, rules the day. Please take a moment to hear from Weiser, below.
ARCHIVE, DECEMBER 7, 1998 — Computers in your clothes, in your walls, small enough to hang in the air like dust. All connected to you, right to your subconscious, and to everyone else, no wires necessary.
It will be like walking through, or even living in, the Internet. This is ubiquitous computing – data and computations taking place all around you, even inside you, so small and so well that you don’t even notice. Feeling unnerved, or even vexed? PARC’s Mark Weiser believes we will call this “the era of calm computing.”
Calm? Why would the complete digitalization of our universe make us calmer?
Two reasons, Weiser says. Needing information is annoying; and today, so is getting it.
“There’s a bunch of information annoyances that are part of everyday life,” Weiser says. “Can I park my car? Where’s a restaurant that can seat me immediately? Does my child have any homework that she’s behind on? These are all information-type questions that add a little bit of trouble to every day.”
Like checking your e-mail to see if your friends want to meet you after work. Checking the Net to see if you should sell a stock. When computers are all around you, such information will be immediately available, even before you ask.
“Ubiquitous computing, I think, is going to take care of a whole other layer of information annoyances and do it in a way that doesn’t require me to be constantly logging in and checking … in a way that I am just constantly regularly informed. I don’t even have to worry about these things.”
And without all those cares, mankind will be much more productive, able to spend time on more important things, from “reducing poverty, to getting people to Mars, to having better entertainment, better novels, better books – there’s nothing like the human mind to create a wonderful new world. Why should our minds be filled with these information problems that can be solved if we can get ubiquitous computing into everyone’s lives?”
If these promises sound familiar, they should. You remember, technology was going to make our lives easier, do so much for us that we’d be able to work less; it would free our minds. Well, six e-mail addresses, a pager, a cell phone, two voicemail boxes and an answering machine later, you probably don’t feel freer.
In fact, you’re probably more annoyed, not less.
Precisely Weiser’s point.
The term ubiquitous computing gets thrown around a lot, particularly by folks excited about Sun Microsystems’ Java, which allows little applets to run everywhere, from Coke machines to gas pumps.
Ubiquitous computing is about much more than computers everywhere, taking orders from you. We already have that kind of command and control – you can plug some devices into your home that let you turn on the lights by yelling at them.
“ATTENTION! Lights off!”
And there’s the problem. Shouldn’t the lights “know” when to go on and off, just like the door in “Star Trek” knows when to open and close?
See, you can’t look at your pager and drive. You can’t read e-mail and read a book. You can’t answer your cell phone without interrupting your other conversation. All our electronics demand our attention, hundreds of children all dressed up for gym class, grabbing at the basketball you hold. Nothing calm about that. How do we change that?
In the flow
It’s really a user interface problem, Weiser says. Today’s computers just don’t think like we do or talk like we do. These devices just don’t work well with people.
Things would be better, he says, if you didn’t have to pay attention at all to your machines. If they sent you messages even without your being aware. If they communicated right to your subconscious. Instead of information hitting you in the face like cold water, you would then be “in the flow” with the river of information.
“When you are driving a car, you are in control, but your conscious mind is actually … looking ahead at the flow of cars in the distance, you’re thinking about your destination,” Weiser says. And if the light turns red, you don’t answer a message that asks, “Would you like to hit the brakes? – Yes/Cancel.” You just hit them. “In fact, a voice-controlled car would probably be a disaster,” Weiser says.
“So the challenge is to create that kind of information flow that we have when driving a car. It’s basically a challenge of the interface into our unconscious mind or our subconscious mind. That’s the real challenge. It’s not commanding and controlling, but it’s being in the flow with information that is the interface challenge.”
It’s no accident Weiser is a musician. (“If you call being a drummer being a musician.”) Playing in a band requires all kinds of subconscious or semiconscious communication to take place. Done right, it’s a very relaxing experience, to be in synch with the bass player. Weiser want to bring that experience to everyone through these tiny computers.
What would it look like?
The idea is to use information source inputs you already have – smell, hearing, touch – and let computers tell you things without you needing to think about it.
“Maybe you have made an arrangement with your mother and your sister who live in New Jersey to tune into their day to have a kind of information sharing with them,” he said. “Not in the sense of a videoconference, but for instance there’s been work at the Royal College of Art on awareness servers that use feathers. If the feather is fluttering, then you know your significant other, whoever he or she is, is up and walking around, and you have a sense of connection to them.”
Or imagine a tone or a vibration stuck somewhere within the environmental sound that represents the stock market. Tone goes up, market goes up. After a certain point, you realize you had better turn your attention to your investments.
Xerox has a toned-down version working already – coffee pots that communicate with desktop PCs to tell employees there’s a fresh pot of coffee brewed.
Now, you might be inclined to think that information agents could take care of all this for you – like an agent that tells you when a stock has reached a certain threshold. Far inferior, says Weiser. Agents work entirely outside your control. You have to train them, and you’d better train them right.
“What’s not so good about that is it actually – it’s a little bit dehumanizing,” he said. “What we’re great at as human beings is being in this flow of information and responding intuitively to things that our conscious mind has no idea why we’re responding that way, but nonetheless we’re staying on the ski slope, we’re responding to some intuition about ‘Well, I think I ought to check the stock now.’
“And that happens because there’s much more of our brains and our bodies that’s unconscious than conscious.”
What’s so scary?
So you’ve decided there are benefits to allowing computers to communicate with you without demanding your attention, on some subconscious level. But do I really want a computer hooking into my brain like that?
“Well it does sound a little bit dangerous if you say the computer’s going to tap into my subconscious,” says Weiser, gently, not unlike a 19th-century electrician must have talked to first-time customers. “It’s more like my subconscious is going to tap into the computer. It’s still me in control.”
“Right now, what is informing our subconscious? It’s everyday life, it’s the furniture, it’s whoever designed the office that I’m in or the home that I’m in…. It’s the advertisements I see…. Constantly things are already bombarding my subconscious and influencing my decisions.
“The one place that we’re not letting inform our intuitions and our subconscious is the flow of technological information. So it’s a way of making us smarter.”
OK, fair enough. But what about the boss? No doubt you’re right now contemplating what an amazing guilt tool this could be for your employer.
“Of course, the danger is that people in our lives can add annoyance that would be harder to escape from,” says Weiser. Like your boss breathing down your neck, no matter where you are. “So they’ll be an evolution of being better-informed and also being able to kind of turn off things.”
“We’re going to need new social standards, new laws that will start to at least set the standards for what these boundaries are going to be,” Weiser says. “This happens with every new technology. Things that used to be physically impossible suddenly are possible, and now you need some kind of new social systems, at least, if not laws, to govern proper behavior. And there will always be law breakers, as well.”
Between here and there
When Weiser first began his quest in the 1980s., there were four obstacles. Serious progress has been made on all four. Power: All these computers need electricity. You can’t be changing the batteries all the time. “We’re now creating a generation of low-powered devices (MEMS, or micromechanical electronic systems). There are computers that can operate off the difference in skin temperature or ambient light. Communications: There are plenty of low-cost wireless communications systems, like infrared systems, which are available. Standards: All these little devices must speak a common language. Thanks to the Internet, and IP, TCP, HTML, etc., there are such standards in operation today (“We’ll be using HTML 100 years from now,” Weiser says.) User interfaces: Getting into the subconscious. This is the biggest challenge. Perhaps influenced by his musicianship, Weiser believes the biggest potential is in what’s called non-speech audio. “We developed our hearing to be alert to things all around us. And so it’s actually quite a bit more difficult to get audio interfaces right than to get visual interfaces right because the nuances of how our brain interprets audio is extremely subtle.”
When will we see it?
Sounds interesting, this world of computers floating all around us. But it also sounds a million miles away.
Weiser says we’ll see the first ubiquitous computing devices within five to 10 years. They will be smart information cards, wirelessly connected to the Web. And they’ll be as cheap and as common as phone cards today.
“I’ll take out that card, and my school will have given me one, and it will tell me what’s happening in my daughter’s school. I’ll have one for the town I live in that will tell me about parking places and restaurants. And I’ll start to have these little information cards with me all the time and just expect to be more in touch with my everyday world and up-to-date.”
It remains to be seen when more information about your child’s school, or about parking space, will make us all calmer.
NOTE: Mark Wesier died of cancer only a year after this story was written, leaving the world decidedly less wise.
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