Jul. 6th, 2014

problems

Jul. 6th, 2014 07:50 pm
Irreplaceable things and the transitory nature of the world.
The fashion over recent years pushing handheld displays to larger and larger dimensions is a red herring. The real breakthrough was and continues to be miniaturization. Of course, modern markets thrive on obscenity, on spectacle and the most banal illusions of acceleration, so of course people walk around with these giant slabs bulging from pockets, pressed to faces, held up to catch the souls of their children at recitals and t-ball and holidays. Imagine going to a Christmas party with one of last year's 4 inch displays! We'd be laughed out of the neighborhood association.

The big screens are a dead end, a brief segue, an anachronism even in the midst of their success.

Spending big money on a huge phone is sort of like buying an 84' black and white CRT television a few days before 4k displays hit the market. The breakthrough here is a flat panel, super HD display that looks more like a window than a screen- a larger black and white image is just an iteration on playing with rocks at this point.

The integration of reasonably functional touch interfaces with personal screens is an important moment in the evolution of our relationship with technology. I suspect it will eventually be looked back on as having similar gravity to the invention of radio and television, if not the printing press.

This may be difficult for many of us to see clearly from inside, but consider:
Sitting next to my keyboard is a small rectangular device I can hold in my hand. It is a computer, self contained, linked to the largest collection of knowledge ever assembled in the history of humanity. This computer is (approximately) fifteen times more powerful(faster, better able to perform calculations, and various other nuanced valuations) than the first desktop machine I had in 1998, which weighed over twenty pounds and cost more than ten times as much. Of course, my teenage IBM was itself a vast improvement over the room sized behemoths that came earlier (punch cards, vacuum tubes, get off my lawn &c.), and home computers have continued to grow enormously in capability- far outstripping my smartphone in terms of raw computing power. But they haven't changed substantively. The handheld touch interface was the biggest change since the advent of the desktop, it's far more important than increases in processor speed or storage capacity. It was one of those charged moments in history: not so much a turning point as a sign post.

Miniaturization isn't exactly the right concept to emphasize here either- it's a symptom of a trajectory and not the trajectory itself.

Think about the word 'interface.'

inter-

— prefix
1. between or among: international
2. together, mutually, or reciprocally: interdependent ; interchange


and

face
-n
8. the main side of an object, building, etc, or the front: the face of a palace ; a cliff face
9. the marked surface of an instrument, esp the dial of a timepiece
10. the functional or working side of an object, as of a tool or playing card


People from my generation and earlier typically interacted physically with computers through peripheral devices: mouse, keyboard, and display(1). Don't forget your monitor, it is just as much an interface device as the other two and even more important: An interface has to work both ways! For many years this was the way of things. Input and output, the game got more efficient, the toys got shinier, but the rules didn't change much.

Until they did.

The first step was the unification of machine and interface. The device and the ways we interact with it became one piece. The screen is now something we manipulate more directly. Miniaturization made this possible, but it was a means to an end.

I used to often say, "The screen is disappearing," meaning that as these devices become smaller and smaller they will eventually be invisible. I've realized over the past few weeks that the statement is doubly inaccurate- it isn't the screen, it's the interface; it isn't disappearing, it's becoming ubiquitous. This is the trajectory I referred to earlier, becoming clearer and clearer as things become smaller... not simply smaller, but complexly smaller- miniaturization allows the screen to become closer and closer. The interface becomes more and more integrated, more intuitive, ubiquitous.

This is not as simple as the scifi VR trope, where in the future we put on goggles or get jacked in and enjoy virtual sexscapades and live the movies and so on. This is not a trajectory towards simulation as recreation, not a trajectory towards the putting on of goggles, not a trajectory of brief excursions into fantasy. While that is coming, it is another sort of red herring like bigger screens or high definition black and white televisions.

This trajectory is not towards putting anything on, but towards the inability to take it off.

And I'm not being, you know, techno fascist apocalypse here. I'm not saying there will be a physical inability to disengage... Any more than there is a physical inability to disengage from any of our sweet modern albatrosses. You don't have to drive a car, or work for The Man, or contribute to slave labor in third world countries. You don't have to eat imitation food and watch bad television every day.

There will be continued iterations, refinements, small changes over the next few years. Our handheld devices will become thinner, foldable, stretchable, disposable. There will be glasses and iterations on glasses(contact lenses, for instance). This is like the 80s and 90s for desktop computers. There will be fads that marketing will tout as the Next Big Thing.

Eventually, step two. The device disappears, becomes disembodied, ethereal. The World becomes the screen, and we ourselves become interfaces- infinitely thin lines barely giving shape to the border between wish and fulfillment.





1. software, operating systems &c. deserve some depth and elaboration here but I'm afraid I'd be tempted to stray too much. And yes, printers and all manner of other things and so on.

2. And speech recognition continues to improve, moving the interface out of the physical realm

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