World in My Pocket

My children will never know a world in which the sum total of human knowledge was not available to them at every moment. Smartphones and tablets—mobile computing—represent a disruptive event in how we use computers and in how computers affect the world. It is the powerful combination of touchscreens, low-power high-speed processors, simpified operating systems, and high-speed cellular data service, all at an affordable price, that makes this disruption happen.

I grew up reading science fiction stories; Isaac Asimov, E. E. “Doc” Smith, Orson Scott Card,1 Arthur C. Clarke. Stories where technology is so advanced it seems almost magical. Future settings where basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter are more than adequately addressed, so that the characters in the stories can get on with the more “interesting” things. Technology, it seemed, would make our lives fantastically better.

We’ve come a long way since I was a kid.

  • Then, we had just one phone in our house (a “new” Trimline phone2) and it cost enough money to use that making a long-distance call to Grandma was a special occasion. Today—just like in science fiction—I can call anyone in the country for cheap,3 and I can call anyone in another country for about what it cost to call someone in the next town when I was a kid, and I can do from wherever I happen to be.4
  • Then, video calling was a fantasy, something that had been promised “real soon now” for quite a while. Today, I can sit down in front of the family TV and do a video call to Grandma5 with the kids, or—if I’ll take the plunge and buy a new device with a front-facing camera—do a video call from anywhere.
  • Then, I treasured the books I was able to collect; I read them over and over again, and was excited to fill up a small bookcase and need more room. Carrying more than one book around was impractical; carrying schoolbooks around was back-breaking hard labor. Today, I can load a thousand books into a portable device that is the size of a single book, and have my whole library with me.
  • Then, doing “research” meant going to a library and spending hours sifting through material, hoping that the library I was at carried whatever magazine had the article I needed (it never seemed to). Today, such research can be done from anywhere, and faster, with vastly more information available.6

We really do live in the future. The technologies that make this happen have all been around for a while, but now they are becoming ubiquitous, inexpensive, and familiar. And with ubiquity comes new possibilities, things that weren’t practical before but now are (or will be soon).

We are entering a post-PC world.7 Thirty years ago we were in a transition, from computers as refrigerator-sized units that were accessed by dumb terminals to personal computers, where everyone8 could afford their own CPU and memory and monitor. Personal computers—computers that could be useful and could be purchased by people instead of large businesses—were extremely disruptive to the computer industry, and most of the old guard failed to adapt and were driven out of business.

Mobile computing is the new disruption. This time, it is not about cost; low-end personal computers are, in fact, cheaper than most mobile computers.9 This time, it’s about bringing computing with us everywhere, and about making our computers easy enough to use that the people who still don’t have one can finally use one and that people who only have one because it’s so much trouble can reasonably use more than one. Mobile computing is a disruption because the target market is much bigger than the current market for desktop and laptop computers.10

The disruption will not be limited to the developed world. Those of us fortunate enough to be part of the top 5% of the world’s wealthiest can enjoy such advances in a self-indulgent fashion. But the huge swaths of the world live in relative poverty, without clean water, sufficient food, or adequate housing.11 The problems they face will not be solved by the magical presence of new technology, as the immediate problems they face have deeper societal, systemic causes. How do you lift an entire country out of poverty? Certainly not by sprinkling a few tablets and watering with wireless connections.

…And yet, the introduction of new technologies can help. It allows for accelerated education, although education is not the goal but merely a tool to address the broader problems. By providing access to the world’s knowledge, they can bootstrap farming, manufacturing, and commerce more quickly. By communicating with the rest of the world (and each other) as a commonplace activity, corrupt social systems are exposed and removed. Technology is not the goal. Education is not the goal. A thriving economy is not the end goal (although it’s a helluva big step). Working to eliminate poverty12 is a goal.

There are a lot of blogs talking about new gadgets. I’ll admit it’s very tempting to focus on the gadget of the week, so I won’t pretend that I’ll never rave about one of them. But I hope that I’ll be able to focus more on the disruption caused by this technology, as we transition away from big PCs being the primary means of accessing the internet (which itself is becoming the primary means of communication). It’s going to be a really, really interesting ride.

1 At the time I was reading Card’s stories, I didn’t know anything about the man himself. Now I do, and I can see how it’s influenced his writing. I don’t agree with Card on a lot of things today, with what he’s said either inside his books or outside of them, but in terms of SF I loved as a child I cannot fairly omit Card’s books.

2 When I lived in the UK, it was a “new” Trimphone, for which I once got in trouble for accidentally bumping it off the hook.

3 As Americans we complain about our high costs of cell phone plans. In many ways they are high, but in comparison to what we used to have for landlines, not so much. Those who are nostalgic for basic $20/month landline plans should try to price a landline today, including all the taxes, fees, and add-ons.

4 Once I was traveling to Madrid. A friend called me on a Saturday morning (his time; it was lunchtime in Madrid) to ask if I could come over and help him with his computer. I declined. He had no idea I was out of the country, and I was surprised that the call actually went through. And yet such connectivity is routine.

5 My in-laws are incredibly tech-savvy, atypically so. They travel—often—with netbooks, portable storage, and all manner of gizmos. My mother, on the other hand, is stereotypically ignorant of technology and has little desire to learn about it. Video calling might persuade her to get a bit more up-to-date.

6 Oddly enough, many established print magazines do not want you to have access to their archives of material without paying a fee. This is an old-media philosophy, where the costs of distributing information were the added value. Today the added value is the content itself, which I’m sure I’ll be writing about later.

7 Yes, Steve Jobs said it and he’s right. He’s not right about everything (he was wrong about 7” tablets, for example) but I get the impression that he had vision for how the iPad was a new kind of computer, not just a laptop with a missing keyboard.

8 I use “everyone” here loosely, in the sense that ordinary American consumers with varying degrees of personal sacrifice could reasonably expect to purchase a personal computer. I don’t mean “everyone” in the global sense.

9 For years, laptop sales lagged behind desktop sales, in part because laptops were less comfortable to use and had much higher prices for the same horsepower. Laptop sales surpassed desktop sales in 2008 (source) and never looked back, because the cost difference shrank to the point where it matched the perceived value of having a portable computer.

10 This doesn’t mean the existing market of personal computers will go away. You can still buy refrigerator-sized computers, and large businesses still do (they are rack-mounted blade chassis computers with massive storage solutions and virtualized operating systems) because they still have those data-processing needs. But the personal computer market is huge in comparison (in 2010, $321 billion for PCs vs. $4.5B for mainframes).

11 Poverty statistics covering income, food, water, and shelter: source

12 There will always be someone who is poor, as long as people are people. No amount of technology or social restructing will change that.

Photo Credits: hand: Michelle Jones, Damien Jones; earth: NASA Visible Earth; compositing: Damien Jones