I Don't Want To Be A Nerd!

The blog of Nicholas Paul Sheppard
Archive for september 2012

Tablets and the elusive black box of computing

2012-09-30 by Nick S., tagged as buzzwords, mobile computing, prediction

The Conversation last week included Roland Sussex wondering if digital tablets have become essential. His answer seems to be "no", since he observes they aren't very good for textual input and aren't sufficiently robust for use by children. He eventually comes to the rather inane conclusion that "for what they do well they are fine." For things they do badly, we still need other devices.

For my part, the answer is obviously "no" since I don't have a tablet and have yet to drop out of society, or even be inconvenienced in any way. I have a netbook that I find quite useful for reviewing lecture material and drafts while I'm on the train. Perhaps a tablet would be better for reading books and magazines (which I also do), but I do enough typing to feel that a device with a keyboard is the most appropriate tool for the job. See my comments on the article for my full argument.

I sometimes wonder if all the fuss about tablets (and cloud computing and any number of other buzzwords that have appeared over the years) is driven by a self-fulfilling prophecy in which everyone buys tablets because everyone says tablets are the way of the future. Did Steve Jobs anticipate the market for tablets when he introduced the iPad, or did the market buy tablets because a charismatic and influential figure anticipated them? After all, tablets of various sorts existed a long time before the iPad: Apple itself released the Newton in 1992, while Microsoft introduced Windows for Pen Computing in 1991 and Windows XP Tablet PC Edition in 2002.

Now, it could well be that technology just wasn't up to the task of making tablets work in the days of the Newton and Windows for Pen Computing, and advances in technology have now made it the right time to try again. Sun Microsystems and others were eager promoters of "network computing" and "thin clients" in the 1990's, for example, but the networks of the time didn't have the capacity or connectivity to support what we now call "cloud computing". With increased network capacity and connectivity, the 2010's might be a more fertile ground for similar ideas.

Whatever the case, it's hard to see us escaping from the boring old paradigm of using the right tool for the job. Henry Jenkins refers to imaginations of a single, unified computing/communications device as "the black box fallacy" in Convergence Culture. As several of the comments on Sussex's article observe, it's not that tablets lack the technological sophistication of Jenkins' black box, it's that ergonomics dictates different tools for different tasks. And even if some future tablet -- or smartphone or wearable computer or microchip implant -- could somehow meet all of one's computing and communications needs, would it make a very good refrigerator?

Another step sideways for electronic cash

2012-09-13 by Nick S., tagged as commerce, mobile computing, prediction

In his contribution to the September 2012 issue of IEEE Computer Magazine, Neal Leavitt asks Are Mobile [Computer] Payments Ready to Cash In Yet?

A few years ago, I participated in a workshop on future technologies during which my discussion group was asked to answer the question "When will cash be replaced by electronic payments?" I, and a fellow group member whose name I forget, quickly gave the answer "Never". Of course "never" is a long time, and history is well-supplied with infamous statements that heavier-than-air vehicles would never fly, that the world had a market for about five computers, and that home users wouldn't need more than 640 kilobytes of memory.

Nonetheless, I think Leavitt (probably unconsciously) tells us something in his summary of why mobile payments have not yet superseded cash. According to his "industry observers", such payments are hampered by "inadequate security, a lack of standards, and limited interoperability between systems".

I'm sure these are all genuine difficulties with mobile payments, but the industry observers seem to have forgotten to ask: in what way do mobile payments improve upon cash? Why switch to payment by mobile computer when cash, EFTPOS and credit cards already provide effective and convenient methods of portable payment? (The mobile computing industry presumably considers getting a cut of the payments to be reason enough.)

Towards the end of the article, Leavitt summarises the thoughts of a market analyst by the name of John Shuster. Shuster, as paraphrased by Leavitt, conjectures that users "may see no compelling reason to adopt them", and I think this might actually be the most significant reason for limited interest in payment by mobile computer.

Electronic cash looks to me to be one of those science fiction ideas that futuristic writers always assumed would come about, but somehow never did. Like videophones, flying cars and talking computers, it's not that electronic cash is necessarily beyond us, it's just that it isn't particularly useful compared to the established alternative. This is why we haven't replaced our telephones with Skype, our cars with helicopters, or keyboards with microphones. And why I think few outside the mobile computing industry are rushing to replace cash with gadgets.

On what technology would you like to depend?

2012-09-07 by Nick S., tagged as dependence, freedom

While I was still thinking about technology-dependence last week, I happened to read an assertion in Jonathon Lyons' The House of Wisdom (p. 32) that "Accurate timekeeping would one day free society from the dictates of sunrise and sunset and recast the day or the hour as an abstract notion distinct from daily experience." This seemed a fairly peculiar idea of freedom given that, in Lyons' own words, it resulted in "the regular ringing of monastery bells" and "the tentative beginnings of an organized social order". Did we simply exchange slavery to the Sun for slavery to the clock?

Lyons goes on to claim that timekeeping enabled people to see "the universe as something that could be measured, calculated and controlled." I assume that Lyons was thinking about the "controlled" part when he wrote about the freedom brought about clocks, even though a clock by itself obviously contributes only to the "measured" part.

Kevin Kelly's What Technology Wants makes much of the idea that technology gives us choices. Kelly has some vague idea that technology is important, and I have no clear idea of what he thinks it wants. Nonetheless, I can see the point that the invention of clocks, for example, gives us a choice between organising our days according to the Sun, or according to clocks.

I think "us", as opposed to "me", is an important word here. I like to rise with the Sun and get to work as soon as I have eaten my breakfast. But we Australians have made a social and economic agreement that shops and offices will open at 9am, or thereabouts, irrespective of what the Sun and I like to do. Being part of this society, I have to co-operate with it.

So perhaps Lyons isn't so peculiar, given that he refers to "freeing society" and not necessarily freeing individuals. As much as modern society is dependent on clocks, electricity, telephones and the rest, we at least arguably chose to depend on those technologies rather than the Sun, human muscle and smoke signals. So long as society chooses its technologies, rather than let its technologies choose it, society's freedom seems to be intact.