Ubicomp, and why I think it's broken
You see, I think that intelligence is relative. You feel stupid when you're with people who're smarter than you, but you could rule the land if you were the only person in a village of idiots. Kinda like social status or wealth - you don't have to be rich: it's enough to have more money than your neighbour.
The thing is, that when you make the space around you smarter, you make the people more stupid. And most people just don't like that. For example, I sometimes like to stay late in the office ('cos it's nice and quiet). The automatic system does not see me moving around, so it shuts off the lights and air conditioning. So you have to go an push a button or run around the corridor and wave your hands, hoping that the system will pick it up. And I just hate that.
People want to feel smarter, and in control. When you are overwhelmed with choice, you feel stupid. When you have five options, you can weigh them in your mind, and make a choice which you feel happy about - you feel both smart and in control. Apple gets this - the reason why iPhone is so cool is because it makes you feel powerful and in control as an user: you understand the options (no geekery involved), you can use it with ease, and you get to go wherever you want. Granted, your array of choice is limited, but that only exists so that you can feel smarter.
Mobile phones are an extension of you these days. Jan Chipchase notes that most people are very Maslowian: they carry means to a shelter (their keys); means to purchase food (money or credit cards); and means to connect to their circle of people (their cell phone). They give you power over bad weather, hunger or loneliness.
So I believe that the logical extension of putting smartness are the things that you carry with you. The idea of "googling for your keys" is alluring, but that does not warrant a full-scale smartification of the entire world. It's much easier to make the keys smarter so that they can talk to you and let you know where they are - not Google.
Same goes with money: it's increasingly becoming smarter. The chip cards are essentially small microcomputers of roughly the same scale as a Commodore 64 (though about 20 times faster).
One of the things about Near Field Communication that really fascinates me is how it takes the money and keys and puts them into your mobile phone. So it's real convergence of the most important things that most people carry. But more importantly, it's something which does not require the environment to become smarter. It makes you smarter because you have the power to use the mobile phone in any way you want.
The second big reason why the ubicomp vision is broken is cost.
Building infrastructure costs money. Maintaining infrastructure costs money. Making your environment smarter means that it needs to have maintenance. Yes, it can be smart and call a repairmain to come by - but as long as it's not a legal citizen, it can't pay for the repairs. So who's going swipe the cards?
Is it really ubiquitous, if it works only in very selected patches of the world where people can afford it?
However, consider your personal electronics - like the mobile phone. You get a new one every two years. The carriers will essentially force one down your throat. It's got more power than a turn-of-the-century PC. It's already with you. It's connected almost everywhere (third world countries and USA notwithstanding ;-). You get immediate, concrete, even life-saving benefit from carrying one around. The infra is already laid down, there is no need to bootstrap. Corporations are making loads of money from the infrastructure - but would they make money out of googling for your keys?
Personally, I think the iPhones and Androids and Limos and Nokias of the world have a lot more claim to the ubiquitous computing vision than the internet-of-things folks. They're already connected, and they're everywhere.
The third thing that I find broken in the whole thing is how the human factor has been cut from the equation. Yes, it is said to transform our lives, but I've yet to hear one good reason what exactly would make two home appliances want to talk to each other? And note - I am specifically saying want. Because at the moment, they don't want anything. They do as they are told, without any personality or desires. We need to figure out what a toaster wants (and not ask the one in Red Dwarf) to understand why they would need to network - and if they do, why aren't they talking to me instead of each other?
Yeah, I know that sounds weird. But consider this: we already speak of cars like "it has a tendency to understeer" or "why won't it go?" We are attaching emotions to things which don't have them - and does that not create them? Does it matter if they have any, if we treat them like they had?
Because in the end, it's my life, and all this stuff should be out there to make my life easier, more bearable, and in general nicer. And of course, all my fellow human beings.
(Ha, the lights went out while I was writing this. Damn you, smart environment! I am still here!)
P.S. Yes, I understand the desire behind the ubiquitous computing. I'm just saying that I think it's just mostly harmless tinkering, until either of the two things happen:
- the Singularity arrives, or
- someone figures out a really good business case for it and can solve all of the logistics issues around it.
My cynical self says to bet for option 1. Until then, I think it's just better to help you become smarter, which in turn makes the environment dumber.
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