Where technology goes next will change us all
Technology is changing the way we live. But where we take it in the coming years will have profound implications. What will be our next step?
I remember being taken aback four years ago on a tour of Microsoft Research's Home of the Future, when one of its head researchers claimed that they weren't interested in having technology in the foreground.
He expressed a worry that we were overly obsessed with technology, and that our need to put it front and centre was actually getting in the way of it being pervasive and more useful.
By way of demonstration, he showed an OLED touchscreen that was built into the wall, but then painted over so that most of the time, you'd never even know it was there. If you needed to know about messages, things going on with your house and so on, you could call it up and it would show through the paint, but otherwise it was just an ordinary wall, and you could get on with enjoying life.
Various demonstrations continued, with RFID, voice interaction, projectors and more, of which the central theme was that the technology was utterly invisible until you needed it.
The experience neatly encapsulated a struggle whose great gears were only just starting to grind into motion at the time, and has since built up quite the head of steam.
The mother of all tech battles is brewing, in which the battlegrounds will be open versus closed, brand loyalty versus brand agnostic, fashion versus utility and spec obsession versus lifestyle. The outcome will affect the way we live and communicate, and maybe who we are as a species.
On one side, you have the cloud, with the intention that information is everywhere and open, invisible except when required, providing us with the fabric to start weaving this pervasiveness from. It's spreading, and the devices tapping into this resource have only just begun to grasp the sort of power it brings. In combination with technology like RFID and NFC, the invisible-until-demanded aspect makes magic from technology. It is the wizard behind the curtain, with the promise that pervasive technology doesn't mean life-consuming technology.
On the other side, you have the movement that puts the device first. Celebrity-level smartphone launches of whatever the flavour of the month is; the usual to and fro over what specs it has; various walled garden services; and an endless churn of incremental updates that imitate the development of the PC. It's device obsession backed up by style and brand. The impact of lifestyle and fashion cannot be denied; people actually define themselves by the gadgets they carry. Here, the device demands more attention than the access it enables.
Both of these factions play along with each other just fine today; however, if we're to head farther down the "technology everywhere" approach, we'll have to be willing to demote gadgets from the centre of our universe to being utilitarian — something that the companies pushing them will likely be highly against, and something we'll likely have a hard time letting go of. A whole glut of standards will be required to make it happen. The ultimate argument is that we shouldn't care what device we use; it's simply a gateway to all the technology that surrounds us, waiting silently, invisibly, to be called into life.
Given the rapid development and innovation surrounding the field of proprietary mobile communications, though, and the huge buzz and spectacle accompanying device launches, that's clearly not a step we're yet ready to embrace. Perhaps the balance will tip in its favour in the next cycle of the server versus client war.
The options, of course, aren't as black and white as I've made out; the greys are already creeping in at the sides, offering a hybrid perspective. That is, the Project Glass view of the world that may very well turn towards a cyborg level of evolution. Instead of objectifying technology or universalising it, we will become it. Humans are the next device to plug in.
As we find our way to these new horizons, there'll be social, ethical and privacy debates to be had, with the potential to redefine ourselves as a species.
Which way will we choose? To make technology a tool; background it, but make it pervasive? To continue to obsess over it, and make it a fashion choice? Or to take that last step, and become part of our own creation?
Which would you choose?