Computational ubiquity

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I've been re-reading The Third Wave, by Alvin Toffler. Though first published over twenty years ago, there's still some serious predictive mojo left in that book. The basic concept is this: there have been two previous "waves" of civilization. The first was the agricultural wave, which spread across the world over the course of several thousand years. About three hundred years ago, the second wave of civilization began—the industrial revolution. Now we are in the middle of the next wave, the information revolution. Each wave brings with it change, and upheaval, and uncertainty, and increased power and wealth to those who embrace the change.

I won't further summarize the book here. I'm merely suggesting it as potential reading for those who might be interested, and to provide a bit of background for some thoughts I've been mulling over in response to the book.

I get the feeling we are heading towards computational ubiquity. Already computers are watching some of us on a daily basis. Many of us use computers as our sole source of income, or computers have become the main tool of our job. Programs like the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project aim to spread the reach of computers throughout the world, into the lives of those who may never have had access otherwise.

Bring on the universal literacy

The first and best thing to come of ubiquitous computing will be universal literacy. I don't mean just reading and writing, though I believe that will be a part of it. The ability to control almost all aspects of your life will require the knowledge of using and programming a computer.

Of course, the definition of "programming" will change. It will probably not mean grinding out C, or Perl, or Squeak (the primary language of the OLPC environment). It will mean interacting with your environment, whether in the real world, or in a simulated world such as Croquet. But the fundamentals of logic will still apply. The ability to logically manipulate data constructs is the basis of all programming, whether using punch cards or virtual reality gloves.

There is another option, I suppose. Perhaps we'll all just end up on the couch eating corn chips and being endlessly entertained by our ever-present computers. That is not a future I like to contemplate.

Leave your privacy at the door

"You have zero privacy anyway," Scott McNealy said famously in January of 1999. "Get over it."

At the time, I thought the CEO of Sun was out of his mind, that we shouldn't give up on privacy so easily. Eight years later, I'd have to agree with him.

He's completely correct. Whether it's cameras in London scanning every face, or on-line credit card transactions, or the information we intentionally reveal on MySpace, we willingly give up our privacy for safety and convenience. In retrospect, it's probably inevitable that privacy disappears as computers become more powerful and pervasive. Soon, we can expect to see our outward public lives monitored constantly by cameras and microphones.

The libertarian portion of me doesn't wish to let go of privacy. It isn't so much the privacy itself, which seems impossible to achieve while out in the public, but the concentration of power constant surveillance represents.

Unfortunately, this is an issue for which I have no solution, and seems unsolvable. Some days I am resigned to the seemingly-inevitable lack of privacy. Other days, I am outraged all over again. Whichever way the world goes, though, the word "privacy" is destined to change.

Your house says, "Hello."

Computers will not live up to their potential until the day we no longer notice them. They will be there, constantly monitoring our lives, adjusting our environment for us, providing us information when we need it, perhaps even interacting with us in a naturally-human manner. They will politely ask us questions, wait for the response, and handle our desire. This was once science fiction, but is now close to reality.

Like flying cars, though, this reality constantly seems a decade away. Artificial intelligence research seems to be stalled, at least from the outside. Perhaps there is a seething vitality within the halls of AI research. But considering the dramatic increase in raw power of computers over the last twenty years, it seems we are no closer to a truly smart computer.

We are closer, though. Face recognition software is routinely employed in surveillance settings. There are even systems that use voice patterns to determine if a person is about to become aggressive. Voice recognition is getting better, though it is still too computationally-intensive for everyday personal use.

More importantly, our computers don't really know what to do with our speech once it has been processed. We need AI good enough to respond in a contextual manner. We need software strong enough to synthesize multiple query results into a coherent whole.

It is coming, though. I firmly believe it.

Those who control the computers control society

Society is based on information. The agricultural first wave was founded on the information that grain can be planted, and it will grow. The more we understood about domestication of plants and animals, the better we fed ourselves. The industrial wave was based solidly on the knowledge gained by science, and resulted in even greater crop yields, greater efficiency, and fewer people working shorter hours feeding the planet. This left others available for the creation of watches and roads and things that whir and buzz and roar.

The information wave allows us to achieve even better efficiencies. We can now build things just as they are needed, and we can predict when they will be needed. This saves time, money, and effort in distribution and storage. On a personal level, I can get on Google and look for answers to questions like, "How do I fix the thermostat on my dryer?" or, "What is the difference between Saaz hops and Cascade hops?"

In the industrial age, those who controlled the gears of manufacture controlled society. Good things came of this, like widespread literacy and a strong transportation infrastructure. However, we also ended up with pollution, and highly-concentrated wealth in the hands of a very few, and slums, and sitcoms.

Now we have the chance to turn the tide back again. Projects like OLPC are a good start, educating the next generation about software, and computers, and the joy of tinkering. The laptop itself runs GNU/Linux, and uses Squeak as the primary programming language. All of the source code is not only available, but is modifiable at run-time. The system not only allows modification, but invites it.

This is important. As the ubiquitous computing world is assembled, we need to think about who controls the system. We need to plan on giving everyone a chance to participate, to contribute, to benefit.

Really, that's it. I have been wondering where we are going, trying to sort the desirable from the undesirable, the inevitable from the avoidable.

We are all part of the evolution of our world. Our decisions will help shape the power structure of the future. I don't have any suggestions or guidelines. I don't have any words of wisdom or comfort. I just know that our actions now are very important in the outcome.

Projects like OLPC are a good start. It just seems we could do so much more.



Terry Hancock's picture

An intriguing thought which relates to how much computers have changed over the last 40 years:

One of the main plot points of the movie Apollo 13 (and of course, one of the main problems of the actual mission), was the need to shut down the computer in order to save power for life-support and recovery operations once back at Earth (there is, for example, a scene in which the crew has to make a seat-of-the-pants burn, because the computer is simply off -- this was actually done, by the way, though I'm not sure how accurately it is depicted in the film).

Today, this is an absolutely insane idea. A computer capable of doing what the on-board computer on Apollo 13 could do would, today, fit in the palm of your hand and consume a negligible amount of power (it could run off of a photovoltaic cell that would need only about enough light to read the LCD display by -- if you can see it, there's enough power to run it!)

We now take this for granted, and we use tiny embedded computers all over the place (count the devices with CPUs in your home: microwave ovens, conventional ovens, some refrigerators, certainly your TV, VCR, DVD player, wrist-watch, and so on). It's a far cry from Apollo era small-scale integration chip transistor-transistor logic computers (SSI TTL) which sucked down huge amounts of power by today's standards, not to mention having to dissipate that power as heat. We're about as far beyond those computers as they were beyond vacuum tubes (or maybe further).

I think about this every time I watch the movie, along with other evidences of the "stone knives and bearskins" we used to get to the moon in the 1960s. Those spacecraft were actually made out of metal, because modern engineering composites hadn't been invented yet (you know, things like the carbon-composite rods you'll find in any ordinary camping tent nowadays?). Yet, most people continue to think that space has to be developed through huge, para-military government projects because it's "high-tech".

But I digress... ;-)

Nice article. I do hope we will begin to see a re-personalization of technology through the commoditization of the hardware and the freeing of the software. The centralization of power is worrying, and the best way to counter it is to get that power back in the hands of the people.

Mauro Bieg's picture

I hope we can turn back the power to the people. But those wich are wealthy try to stay powerful in the time coming, with any means they can think of. Look at Microsoft, AOL/Time Warner, etc...

Anthony Taylor's picture

That is very true. And that is the main point I learned from The Third Wave: during the start of dramatic change, it is those who embrace and take advantage of change that gain power. Whether this is true or not, I can't say, but empirically it seems true. I believe we geeks have the power to "ride the wave," as it were.

The book predicted drastic reaction against change from those who are entrenched in the old ways. This has resulted in war in the past, and may bring war in the future. But at a minimum, I believe it explains the over-reaction of the RIAA, and patent trolls, and those who seek to extend copyright for eternity. Notice the pattern: each of these seeks to control the flow and use of information.

Toffler also states that those reactions are doomed, because the changes brought by each wave are inevitable. It's like building a sand wall against the advancing tide-- you might be able to slow it down, but eventually the wall will be overcome.

Again, you'll have to judge the validity of that conclusion on your own. Part of it assumes you buy into the whole "wave" concept of civilization. For me, it empirically seems correct, or at least modestly accurate.

I see Microsoft as a hybrid old-school industrial / new-wave tech company. Notice how slow Microsoft is to adopt new technology or new ideas. They tend to follow the lead, rather than lead themselves. This is an excellent business strategy, as long as the lead-time is long, and development time is short. But, in the end, they stick with an old-school approach, with central control, and a factory-line method of development.

I could be wrong. I hope not, but I could be wrong.

Daniel Escasa's picture

I've been working on a model where a community owns the utilities -- I think Internet access is the easiest to handle, and I'm looking into electricity, mass media (although a community Internet may take care of that as well), waterworks, etc. The idea is that a organization of all the residents of a community owns the infrastructure and, if they don't have in-house expertise, outsource its operations and maintenance. For instance, they'd purchase a computer to serve as their Internet gateway (plus associated other equipment), a wireless router, and Wireless Access Points as last-mile devices. They'd either operate and maintain the equipment themselves, or hire a group to do it for them. If they're not satisfied with that group, they can fire them and hire another one.

The way things work now, if you're not happy with your Internet Service Provider, you either put up with them, or vote with your wallet in the hopes that your next choice is at least marginally better. I know of several people who are serial ISP subscribers -- they sign up with one, cancel after some time, sign up with a second one, cancel again, and again, and again. If, on the other hand, the community owns the infrastructure and controls the management, they'll have the true power. That would include making decisions about computing ubiquity (to put the discussion back on topic :) Seriously, I don't know how much the big commercial interests are willing to invest in that regard.

Oh, and to keep it on the topic of the magazine -- I took my inspiration for the model from Free Software.

Still working on my model :)

Daniel O. Escasa
independent IT consultant and writer
contributor, Free Software Magazine (
personal blog at

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

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- nikatiwi -

vinay Shukla's picture

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Vinay Shukla

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Anthony Taylor's picture


Tony Taylor was born, causing his mother great discomfort, and has lived his life ever since. He expects to die some day. Until that day, he hopes to continue writing, and living out his childhood dream of being a geek.