Are we catapulting ever closer to the ‘Singularity’ with recent releases for our most personal, most intimate, device, our phone? As connectivity and uptake expands globally, use of mobile internet devices is forecast to overtake the PC within five years. Business is racing to adapt with technologies like the NirvanaPhone, the Citrix Receiver, hypervisors for mobiles, Windows Phone 7 Series, Android, iPhone/iPad, cheap Android Laptops, and much more. An innovation battle for this new medium is well underway.
What fascinates me however, is just how transformative our ubiquitous mobility can and will be. This transformation extends well beyond the business sphere and intrudes into every aspect of our personal and social lives. Our culture is changing and I am contemplating the directions ahead of us in a series of posts. Today’s topic is device intimacy. What will it mean to us when our phone is a critical part of our sensory experience?
Part of You
Andy Clark says that we are “Natural Born Cyborgs”. This is very true. Every technology that enters common usage becomes a part of the culture, a part of how we interpret and interact with the world, from books, to cars, to email, to web search (Google or Bing). For most of us, reading is more than an unconscious skill, it is part of who we are. The same can be said for ‘Googling’ 20 times a day or instant messaging as an alternative to chatting over the office partition. We build our technologies into the very fabric of our minds.
In a very real sense, the modern SmartPhone acts as a set of extra senses – letting me communicate with people anywhere – letting me find out how my friends are feeling – helping me to locate myself in space. Not only that, but the device can be context-aware and to provide me with prompts such as “school zone, slow down now” to aid awareness. Indeed the device is with me 24 by 7. It is just about as ubiquitous as my physical senses.
What does this mean? For a start, the area of Neuroplasticity, shows that our minds can adapt to new tasks by repurposing large numbers of neurons. This is a quite remarkable new view of the mind. (For more on Neuroplasticity I recommend the book “The brain that changes itself”.) Neuroplasticity has a huge range of implications, in some cases for sensory substitution, in others for addressing brain damage, or learning difficulties. It shows that focused effort (such as learning to use a new device), can significantly reshape our brains.
Every new task we undertake, every new interface we learn, implies some level of neural reorganization. With a device that is with me 24 by 7, that is context aware, and helps me to navigate in physical or virtual worlds, I am effectively learning new senses.
One longer term projection on this is in the science fiction novel “Rainbows End”, in which shared augmented realities are commonplace, driven by worn personal devices, with gestural, haptic interfaces and contact lens driven graphics.
A shorter term projection is that the mobile phone becomes our cultural shortcut to ‘ubiquitous computing’, where rather than computer enabling every object, we achieve similar goals through powerful individual objects mediating our world.
So is my new phone part of my mind or just a gadget? What about tomorrow’s device? At the least, these devices will reshape the world (and us) just as much as the car changed every map and rebuilt every city.
Dr Michael Harries