I have often written about the intersections between technology and pop culture, a contemplation that only gets more complicated and convoluted with each passing day. The springboard for this week’s column is a piece by Bob O’Donnell in the July 4 edition of USA Today online.
O’Donnell’s subject is the world of “invisible technology,” which is apparently a growing phenomenon. “At the midpoint of 2017,” O’Donnell notes, “ we’re about to enter an era of technology developments in which some of the most interesting innovations aren’t likely to be as visible as many of our high-tech gadgets and friendly apps have been. The real magic of many of these new tech advances will be nearly invisible.”
Examples of this invisible technology include “autonomous cars,” machine intelligence (the kind of thing that allows Amazon to create personalized wish lists for us), and the gadgetry behind those popular and at times annoying personal assistants like Siri, Alexa, and their progeny. “Besides cars,” notes O’Donnell, “we’re also going to see a lot of software and services that use artificial intelligence or deep learning to improve the usefulness of existing experiences–making better recommendations for music, movies, restaurants and even friends.” Yes, I know autonomous cars are very visible, but who can explain how they work or even begin to locate the parts that make their operation possible? Of course, most of us can’t rationally explain how our toilets work either–and before we can master that kind of knowledge, we will soon be installing intelligent toilets in our smart homes. And, yes, there will be apps for these appliances.
O’Donnell’s points dovetail with related ones I made during a recent presentation I gave at a conference in Asheville. Now that I am aware of invisible technology, I can add this to my list of technologies that will no doubt continue to shape our perceptions of reality.
The first item on my list was the subject of a column I wrote early last month about the emergence of the “phygital” generation–i.e. those individuals who are growing up in a world that makes no distinction between physical and digital realities. Gone are the days when we spoke about “virtual reality” as if it were some magical formula. Now we should get prepared for “Immersive Reality” and its erasure of the line that used to separate the real from the virtual. If we can believe the various rumor mills, this Fall’s lineup of new gadgets–particularly smartphones–will dazzle us with plenty of immersive reality features that promise to make Pokemon Go seem as outdated as the original PacMan.
“Ambient Computing” describes the world being populated by a seemingly endless stream of assistive cubes and hockey-puck-like devices that only require your voice to activate. No more screens and keyboards. Like a modern-day “I Dream Of Jeannie” scenario these ambient devices, along with countless other Internet of Things (IoT) thingies, will make computing as ubiquitous as the air we breathe and will grant you more than three wishes.
“Digital Shapeshifting” (have I perhaps coined a word here?) refers to devices that have altered their former identities and now present us with options we probably never dreamed of only a short while ago. For example, our old (and I do mean old) friend the Desktop has morphed into the laptop, the smartphone, and the tablet (all of which share many attributes of ambient computing). As we continue to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the iPhone, we are constantly reminded of how this device–along with its many close cousins–is a true digital shapeshifter. Here is a good time to contemplate the following passage, written by Brian Merchant in his fascinating new book, THE ONE DEVICE: THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE iPHONE: “Radical, civilization-scale transformations aren’t usually rapid and seamless. They tend to be one or the other. But smartphones took over the world quietly and completely in a matter of years, and we barely noticed. We went from having a computer in the household or at work to carrying one everywhere. . . .The iPhone isn’t just a tool; it’s the foundational instrument of modern life.”
The last (for now) item on our list is what I call “Old School Analog,” and the inspiration for this term comes from a book I reviewed not long ago: David Sax’s THE REVENGE OF ANALOG: REAL THINGS AND WHY THEY MATTER (2016). The plain and simple truth is that the digital world hasn’t made the analog world extinct. We have, in fact, witnessed a resurgence of analog with things like the return of vinyl albums, the Moleskine paper notebook phenomenon (I am hooked!!), and the continuing presence of bookstores. And, as I pointed out in my presentation, the definition of “mobile devices” should include plain old pencil and paper. A pencil and a yellow legal pad are both mobile devices. In reality, we have always lived in a world of mobile devices–the definitions have changed, of course, along with the addition of more and more tools that can be included in the category. This point is brought home to me in every class I teach–the quintessential example is the student who is taking notes with a pen and a spiral-bound notebook while being surrounded by her smartphone, tablet, and laptop. So, there is no reason why analog and digital can’t peacefully co-exist.
I will leave you to contemplate how invisible technology, ambient computing, immersive reality, digital shapeshifting, and old school analog are changing our perceptions of reality (whatever that might be).
See you next week with another old school analog column written with an assortment of shapeshifting tools.
HOMEWORK: Read Thomas Rid’s thought-provoking book, RISE OF THE MACHINES: A CYBERNETIC HISTORY for suggestive ways of thinking about the stuff we’ve considered this week.