Real life: Weiser FTW

In Everyware‘s Thesis 03, I describe the array of devices that populated Mark Weiser‘s original vision for ubiquitous computing, devices he called “tags,” “pads” and “boards”:

[T]hese were digital tools for freely-roaming knowledge workers, built on a vocabulary of form universally familiar to anyone who’s ever worked in an office: name tags, pads of paper and erasable whiteboards, respectively.

Each had a recognizable domain of function. Tabs, being the smallest, were also the most personal; they stayed close to the body, where they might mediate individual information like identity, location and availability. Pads were supposed to be an individual’s primary work surface, pen-based devices for documents and other personal media. And boards were wall-sized displays through which personal work could be shared, in a flow of discovery, annotation and commentary.

Networking infrastructure throughout the office itself enabled communication among the constellation of tabs, pads and boards in active use, allocating shared resources like printers, routing incoming e-mails and phone calls, and providing background maintenance and security functions.

Well. We see where some of the emphases turn out to have been slightly askew, a little parochial; Weiser, after all, worked at Xerox PARC, and Xerox was and is an enterprise dedicated to office productivity. But this circa-’95 conception turns out to be stunningly prescient if you look at the ecology of objects we’ve wound up using.

I barely have to connect the dots, do I? Tabs. Pads. Boards.

OK, so it turns out the “tab” does quite a bit more than Weiser-era artifacts like Active Badge implied; the pen has by and large been superseded by the very thing it displaced, the human finger; and the network undergirding these things is more likely to be national in scale than something installed and maintained at the level of a particular building. This is to say nothing of the fact that we’re more likely to be watching 30 Rock on our pads than Working Industriously On Our Assigned Projects.

But that was inevitable. The street always and everywhere finds its own uses for technology, and who is this “street” if not us, you and I? The plain fact is that a few people working at PARC in the mid-1990s largely got it right — and someone, at least, ought to remember them for it as the very evaporation they foresaw becomes a reality, and we think less and less of “computing” at all.

I’ve been arguing for awhile now that there is no longer any utility in maintaining a distinct domain of inquiry or endeavor known as “ubiquitous computing,” unless by these words we mean to denote the historical study of Weiser and his intellectual progeny; I’d prefer that we simply speak of “everyday life.” Because that’s the degree to which these ideas have triumphed, right?

I don’t even wonder that Everyware itself seems to be slipping into obscurity. Why would anyone need to seek out a book on some arcane topic called ubiquitous computing, when the issues it treats — the slippages of identity, the hassles occasioned by thoughtless design and constant default in a pervasively technical world — are literally the stuff of front-page news and day-to-day concern for a great many of us?

No, it’s clear that in the main, in imagining the forms platforms for networked interaction would basically have to adopt and the scales they would operate at most naturally, Mark Weiser nailed it. Where he was wrong was equally profound, of course, and this lay in asserting that the existence of such an informational ecosystem would tend to entrain calm in its users. And this strikes me as easily enough forgivable, simply the enthusiasm and hope of a proud parent.

It may have taken fifteen years, several turns of Moore’s law and the application of designerly genius to the objects themselves, but here we are. Computing is finally, finally going away, the necessary objects condensing into infinitely less awkward forms as the things we use them for sublimate into the air itself. It’s a terrible shame Mark Weiser isn’t here to enjoy it, but then history teaches us prophets rarely live to see the day of their vindication. What counts, in the end, is not merely that he had the clarity of vision to imagine the contours of our contemporary ecosystem, but the charisma to enlist others whose efforts would call it into being, just like Sister Kay said. And as to what we now make of that ecosystem…well, that’s in our hands, isn’t it?

5 responses to “Real life: Weiser FTW”

  1. Jeremy Yuille says :

    Good point Adam, brings to mind the ‘disappearing computer’ projects that were running in the EU research framework a few years back.

    • AG says :

      I think it’s coincidence. It’s always interesting to me how very little of consequence comes out of those big EU framework projects.

      They represent upward of tens of millions of euros of investment, but not a one of them has ever produced a single commercial, practical or even theoretical milestone that I can think of.

      I know people can and do built entire practices out of sucking at that particular teat, and I can’t say I blame them, but you’ve got to know when you’re going in that the likelihood of the work ever leading to anything significant is slim at best. That’s not the life for me.

  2. AT says :

    My personal theory is that the mother umbrella of all industries is daycare for adults. An EU framework project is an awesome way to fund daycare for otherwise useless individuals, who might, when left to their own devices, turn violent.

    • AG says :

      Startlingly similar to my own feelings about a certain other large organization. (I think of it as “warehousing.”)

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