Ubiquitous Computing
by Jeffrey D. Shaffer

About ten years ago, when I realized that computing was getting smaller and smaller, I had a revelation of what I called “Ubiquitous Computing.” In my mind, computers would be everywhere, and yet out of sight. They would be waiting quietly to answer our questions, provide useful information, and help us efficiently, easily organize our work and lives.

I envisioned waking up to find a tablet-like device ready to show me a summary of all my most important messages, the world’s headlines, today’s weather, my necessary calendar events and to-dos — perhaps even a joke of the day. All of this, I imagined, would be pulled together, sorted, and formatted automatically by some type of computer-powered “personal assistant.”

I pictured, as I went about my day, I would be able to receive or record any piece of information I needed quickly, easily, and without causing me to discontinue what I was working on. Need to head out the door for a meeting, but it looks like rain? Just ask for the current radar map. Want to hear the tail-end of a political speech last night? Just ask for it to be repeated. Or perhaps I had a sudden brainstorm for a project I was working on. I would just ask my “assistant” to bring up the research paper from last night. Oh, and maybe play a Bach concerto quietly in the background while I’m at it.

I imagined a world where technology — everywhere present but conveniently hidden — would form the backbone of a faster, easier way to live, work, and play.

So, what happened?

Obviously, many of the things I was dreaming about have come to pass — anytime and anywhere we want, we can pull out our smartphone and ask it to search for almost anything we can think of. Want that radar map? Yahoo! Weather’s got you covered. That speech from last night? Probably on YouTube by now. And the Bach concerto? Yeah, your phone can do that now, too.

But it’s not the same. Where’s the context-sensitive, PERSONAL assistant I was expecting to find? And where’s the “hidden, but available” aspect? Instead of fading into the recesses of our day-to-day lives and becoming tools at our disposal when we wanted them, technology has become in-your pocket, in-your-hand, and in-your-face. Technology has evolved into a form where it actively DEMANDS our focus and attention. Our tools are no longer a means to reach our goals; they have become a PART of our goals. They’ve become toys looking to be used.

Of course, this isn’t a new problem — it’s been with the human race as long as we’ve had tools. Give a boy a hammer, and everything looks like a nail. Give a teenager the keys to the car, and he’ll look for places to go. Give a man a smartphone, and he’ll look for more ways to use it.

The problem with such “technology on demand” is that the new tools have almost unlimited uses. It’s nigh on impossible for us to expend the possibilities. The new generation — like the teenager or the boy — is looking for some place to go; it’s looking for a problem that needs hammered.

I’ve personally been exploring this problem since the original idea struck me so many years ago. As the technology developed, I did my best to try it out. I searched for ways to wake my computers faster, get my notifications instantly, and have immediate access to the Internet. At first it was keeping a desktop online 24-7, then it was smaller, compact PDAs, then it was NetBooks, and now it’s Smartphones.

In my own way, I pretty much found what I was looking for. In the smartphone, I could have everything I wanted, when I wanted, and all hanging unobtrusively at my hip. And I began to play: I tinkered; I experimented; I looked for things and thought of interesting questions I could ask. I enjoyed all the little dings, beeps, and buzzes; but if I didn’t hear one of them every few minutes, I worried that maybe I had “missed something.” And I started checking my phone… often.

I’d fallen into the “tool without a purpose” trap, and when I realized it, I wasn’t sure what to do about it. How could I work my way back out from where I had ended?

I spent the next year working toward that answer — moving back to a flip phone, disabling all the beeps and dings, and purposely spending longer and longer uninterrupted periods of time simply reading a book.

But time marches on. I simply cannot give up email or throw my digital calendar away. No, too much of my life — too much of the world around me — has gone digital, and I find that I must take part in it, at least some degree.

But to what degree? And in what way?

Herein lies the compass that should drive our ship as we navigate through the uncharted waters of modern “ubiquitous” computing — unlike our forefathers who knew what they needed, when they needed it, we have to PURPOSELY ask ourselves, frequently, “What is it that I need to accomplish?” Then (and perhaps only then) will we be safe to ask, “And what tool is the best to accomplish it efficiently?”

Far too many of us today have been running around, smartphones in hand, thinking, “What CAN I do now?” But what we really need to do is stop and ask ourselves (before we ever pick up our phone):

“What do I NEED to do?”