Invisible miracles

Originally published 2003 in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


When you ask someone about the technological advances that've shaped society, they tend to think of big-ticket items. Jumbo jets. Nuclear medicine. And, of course, computers.

Big-ticket technology certainly is influential, of course. But things that you do, use or see so often and so automatically that you hardly consciously perceive them at all are often more influential. You only notice the ubiquitous and invisible when it changes.

And it's going to.

Some data processing technology is now ubiquitous and invisible. People don't really notice the featherweight standalone computers that run many traffic lights, for instance, unless they're making sure that their car is directly over the induction coil, or wondering why the darn lights never change for their motorcycle.

E-mail isn't quite ubiquitous and invisible, but it's getting there; the complexity and scope of the e-mail system's certainly well concealed from the user. As any Australian like me, who regularly sends mail using a server in the USA to be received by a server in Finland and then picked up by a user on the other side of the house, can tell you.

Invisi-tech of this sort is sneaking into life everywhere, but we'll be waiting a little while for common everyday low-cost goods that include solid state movement sensors, close-range wideband ad hoc networking and self-location capabilities using fractal multiresonant antennae and arbitrarily reconfigurable software radios, all connected to printed-on reflective or even illuminated displays and distributed-mode loudspeaker technology. When we have that, then a light bulb, a can of beans or a shoe will be able to talk to you.

All this sounds about as sensible, right now, as tying a P4 motherboard to every bunch of broccoli. But using a laser to entertain a cat didn't sound too rational in 1963, when lasers were neither man-portable nor affordable by most of the world's corporations.

Dirt cheap diode lasers, though, enabled the whole of optical disc technology, as well as being useful in builders' levels, bar code scanners and cat toys. Once the tech gets cheap enough for input, output and processor to be stuck on or in a product as cheaply as anti-theft tags are today, Stuff Is Gonna Change.

The very definition of "invisible" will change, too. Computer user interfaces will become invisible, partly because gangs of disgruntled users carrying firebrands and pitchforks will storm the homes of most interface designers (hey, I can dream), and partly because users will consider even quite obscure interfaces to be as obvious as a steering wheel is to most of us today.

There are now kids in second grade who weren't yet born when Windows 95 (or, if you prefer, Mac OS 7.5.2) was released. Command-line-only computing is to them as the Apollo moon landings are to a 25-year-old, but the unspeakable ghastliness that is the text messaging interface of a mobile phone (even with predictive freakin' text, if you ask me) is, to them, perfectly sensible. Throw an interface at them, and they'll master it in minutes, no sweat.

To them - and, with luck, to the rest of us too - lots of things that're ubiquitous and invisible today will seem intolerably quaint, because new and easier ways to do them will have arrived.

Take keys, for instance. Well, mechanical keys, anyway.

"But, Grandpa, what if you dropped the key down a drain? What if it broke in the lock? What if someone stole it? What if someone glued the lock shut? What if it was dark and there were 23 keys on your key-ring?"

"Well, all of those situations pretty much sucked."

"What does 'sucked' mean?"

Mechanical keys will be with us for a long, long time, but digital solutions will encroach on them more and more.

Keys will still, I think, generally be a physical object that you carry with you; biometric authentication systems (fingerprint, retina pattern, voice ID...) have some serious basic problems. Not the least of them is that if it's at all possible for someone to pretend to be you, biometrically - to "copy your key", so to speak - then you face the not inconsiderable problem of running out of fingers, retinae, voices and so on.

But your "key ring" may well be just one ring, which you wear on a finger. Heck, look at iButton; we're practically there already.

If rings, brooches or necklaces don't do it for you, there's always implants. Implantable ID devices may get the Revelations Chapter 13 crowd very excited indeed, but little rice-grain implants used for the sorts of jobs that metal keys currently do have considerable appeal. You'd never forget or lose one. Let's not think too hard about what it'd be like if someone decided to steal one from you, though.

Another example: Magazines.

I originally wrote this column for Atomic: Maximum Power Computing magazine.

Of the non-subscription copies of Atomic, at least half never get read.

It's a basic paper-publishing rule of thumb that if you're selling more than half of the magazines you print, you need to print more, because a significant number of newsagents are statistically likely to be running dry. Distributors try their best to get a sensible number of copies to each newsagent based on past sales, but the stats aren't available quickly or very predictive. Hence, a whole lot of unsold, and then pulped, magazines. It's hideous.

Right now, electronic books are not a general purpose alternative to paper books and periodicals. Not enough screen resolution, not durable enough, too expensive, not enough battery life.

When all that's solved, though, the advantages of magazines and of Web sites will all be available in one device, and your room full of back issues will be able to fit in your, um, "E-Mag". Whether they actually will or not depends on how this current damn fool copyright debacle shakes out; for all I know, e-books will end up being classified as illegal "paraphernalia". But let's assume sanity will prevail.

So: Room full of back issues in little e-book thingy.

Which'll leave us all with a room free.

Which we can fill with more hardware.

Anybody got a problem with that?

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