Thursday, April 2, 2015

Life without a laptop

My personal laptop suffered a massive stroke this past weekend. It is not completely dead, at least not yet. It powers on and the little Apple shows up, but not much productive happens after that. I am doing what I can to make it comfortable and save what memories remain, but it's only a matter of time before we pull the life support.

While tragic, this doesn't exactly leave me cut off from the virtual world. I have an embarrassing number of computers and tablets at work, and a few more at the house. But this is the machine that I commune with early in the morning, that keeps me company while I watch TV, and that sits with me when I am sick. It has been my near-constant companion since -- apparently -- mid 2009. Plus, it knows a lot of my passwords.

I have already learned something from the experience, though. I don't have the same relationship with my phone that the young people do, and the laptop has been my go-to device for killing time. Over the years, I have used the big machine more like kids use their phones, as a cure for boredom and an habitual source of distraction. Without it, I feel more focused, and I am spending more time out of my chair.

Much of my professional work involves Tangible Computing, and the Internet of Things, concepts so powerful that they defy explanation. Seriously, I can't explain them. I have been trying for years. What they promise is a future where -- let's say a decade from now -- Google will use your habits at home to adjust the thermostat in your office. They might even tweak the temperature based on what clothes you put on before you left the house. Your coffee cup will tell the robot at Starbucks what you want, and pay for the transaction. Your car may inform you that the restaurant you entered as a destination is frequented by your ex, and there is a 42% chance that they are there. And you won't have to do anything! It will all happen automatically. In fact, you won't be able to stop it.

If you are much over 30, this probably all sounds terrifying and horrible. Much younger, and your attitude is likely to be more positive. Either way, the future is coming, ready or not. The idea of computing as an activity one does with a machine will be as much a part of the past as talking on the phone in a specific room, tethered by a curly cord. The world of Star Trek will be with us much earlier than anyone believed, at least where technology is concerned. The social justice and peace thing will probably take much longer.

I was going to add an image of the inside of a computer, but this seems infinitely more appropriate.
Image from here

What is unclear is what this will do to the way people think. It is possible that technology will sink naturally into the background, allowing us to live a more intentional life. Some of our current research is in this direction, creating environments that change subtly with conditions, the way the sky changes color due to time and weather. Given society's history, it is more likely that our connected environment will attract and manipulate us in ways subtle and profane, and that we will become even more distracted than the kids who walk in front of my car every day, never looking up from their iPhones. Maybe that thermostat will cool the room an extra couple of degrees during the morning, so that I am a little more susceptible to the suggestion of a vente mochaccino.

My intellectual interest is in making sure all of this works together in some reasonable way. If my refrigerator is going to catch me up on my [insert favorite social media platform here] feed, then it damn well better remember what I came into the kitchen to do, because I certainly won't. I think this post is a good example of that phenomenon.

Which brings me to what will have to serve as the point of all this. I am going to fix or replace my laptop, but I don't think I will keep it so close to me. I need to understand this brave new world to the extent I will participate, and my MacBook is no more a part of it than a rotary phone, or cable TV.