Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Shift shift shift

As I was chatting with somebody, I realized that something I think is obvious apparently isn't obvious at all. So I'll mention it:

We're in the middle of a shift, a technology shift that is changing the way everyone does everything.

The "computer" is such a young technology. It took thousands of years for humanity to really feel the effects of the plow. Hell, the book is barely a teenage technology. How the computer is today has absolutely nothing to do with how the computer will end up being. They may look vaguely similar and sound vaguely similar when described, but it'll be like the difference between when books were hand-copied by scribes and when they could be printed cheaply enough that commoners could read them.

We've always pointed out that computers have changed society as much as the plow, as much as the printing press. But apparently some of us seem to think that it's past tense, as if how society is now is the final result of the changes computers can create.

*Bzzt* wrong. No surprise, if you actually think a bit: computers have a long way to go, and we are going to go that distance with them.

A lot of the devices and hubbub we are seeing are the emergence of computers as a complex ecosystem instead of as largely independent little worlds. E-book readers and cell phones rely heavily on other computers and communication to servers in order to do everything they do.

We (well, I) get upset about this perceived slavery to an outside force. In truth, it's just basic ecology. The fundamental pattern is unavoidable: we will be in a future where computation and content needs to be thought of as ecosystems rather than a standalone libraries. I would like us to create ecosystems that are more robust and less repressive, but even I cannot deny that ecosystems are coming: individual devices will become less and less distinct from the mass of computation floating around you.

We like to talk about embedding computers in our clothes and all sorts of other classic "future tech" stuff. But the truth is that those sorts of ideas are fluff. Maybe they happen, maybe they don't. Either way, the heart of our growing and changing societies is all about the blurring of the lines between devices.

Other changes?

Lots, I'm sure, but none I feel as confident about.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree with you completely on this one, actually. We're still -building- the social fabric and etiquette we need to cope with these devices at all. Case in point, I was at dinner several months ago with someone who kept checking their phone the whole time. Bad form. But that's a really recent social more. I take that as evidence that computers and society have not yet hit their homeostasis.

As for the cloud, that's more of a step backwards than a step forward: Your garden-variety VT100 had a lot in common with the modern smartphone considering that the browser has become a highly advanced "dumb terminal", serving its apps up from a server.

In another sense, multics/unix/linux was way ahead of its time: BSD is at the core of macs, unix/linux is still used in the majority of internet servers, and android is based on a teeny tiny linux kernel. That basically leaves windows and iOS as the only major platforms that are not in the multics lineage.

Finally, I think screens are going away. Not in the "we'll no longer be getting visual information from our computers" way, but rather that information displays will be so ubiquitous and connected that we'll stop being able to point at one thing and say, "this is the screen for that."