Monday, September 17, 2012

My Mechanical Zoo

The Atlantic had a fluff piece about the future of mobiles (I make a conscious effort to call them 'mobiles' now, as opposed to mobile phones). I call it a fluff piece because: 1) any news article that is not about a scientific discovery is not really news, as in new information, and therefore, fluff; and 2) the fact that the majority of the article is speculation based upon current trends and events which, let's face it, will be viewed as quaint and uninformed 'zeppelin in every garage' kind of talk in ten year's time. Did I say ten? Four.

I'll try to avoid all of the gee-whiz-ain't-the-future-gonna-be-cool blather myself, and concentrate on the basic issues.

Back in the 1970s, when Bruce Sterling first started writing a series of science fiction stories about his Shaper/Mechanist universe, he foresaw a time when humans would enhance themselves either biologically or through cybernetics. He envisioned the Shapers, the modifiers via biological means, to be enhanced solely through genetic modifications. He can be forgiven that his observation that the Shapers had eliminated intestinal bacteria from their bodies, and looked down upon other who had not done so as 'primitives'. His limited vision involving modifications only to the human genome was a sign of the times. Now, we know better, or actually, are starting to know better, about the true and vital interconnectedness of life forms (via our own personal bacterial/viral/fungal residents - our microbiome, and also the shared health through the network-of-networks community of our ecosystem, up  to and including the whole Earth). Were Bruce to re-imagine these stories today, the plots may not have changed much, but the space habitats and inhabitants would be vastly more rich and varied. 

Likewise, his Mechanists were limited to machine enhancements and prosthetics, couched upon the human form. Though there has not been much 'new' (Moore's Rule of Thumb not withstanding) engineering in this field, one would think that Bruce would perhaps give the Mechanists something similar - a mechanical analog to the microbiome, a techniome

And that's where I figure mobiles are going. I really can't see a plastic box you hold in your hand ten years from now. Currently, at least as the vision of the future is shaped by Apple, the mobile is a toy, a Vegas distraction, a prelude to a Brave New World of easy control through consumption. Something to occupy your thumbs. Something to get your brain lazy. 

The Apple vision of the mobile is a toaster. Which is to say, do you really need toast? You can get by with bread. If you want toast, do you need a toaster? No, you can use an oven, or a toaster oven, or a stove, or a fire for that matter.  And that is where it stands at the moment. Commenting on his own site to comments I made upon this subject, Craig Nulan put it this way:
"There is a significant joke embedded in the name "I" phone,pad, pod, etc....,
The Android, OTOH, is an integrated utilitarian portal into the googlesphere. Having stood up a few hundred of each device in a mobile device management framework, the Android is virtually seamless instrument of borg orchestration and synthesis. The I-toy, on the other hand, is an infinitely personalizable hot-mess, never intended for any kind of coordinated collective use.
There is remarkable irony in the Apple vs Samsung, soon to be Apple vs. Google intellectual property lawsuits when you reflect on the profound differences separating the intended application and use of I-toys vs. the intended application and use of Androids."
And I think he's right. Google has very long-term plans that look beyond market share and stock price. That's my take. They are looking at things like mobiles, and banks and banks of server farms, Big Data living in the Cloud, the Internet-of-Things, drones, robots, droids, fablabs, 3D printers, printable electronics, open source living, not strictly in anticipation of the Singularity, but rather, defining the limits and protocols for the larger technological ecology for which we already have a very good model - Nature herself. 

And why not? This is all a product of biology, so it's just a continuation. But there are things coming soon not found in Nature, and I mean that in a good way.

I do see a future where, beyond just my personal techniome of repurposed jewelry and clothes, all packed to the gills with chips and sensors, and possibly a hat (or will it be Hat capitalized?) which I presume will contain my brain/machine interface connection, or even my mechanical zoo, ala Dr. Suess, in which I use any particular animal I need from the Internet of Things to do stuff, will be something larger than the sum of its parts.

What do I mean by that? Well, I sure don't need to own all sorts of things, but I see distinct advantages to partnering up with a mechanical bestiary (virtual animals that have a real-life mechanical opposite number). I don't need to own a bulldozer all the time, in fact, I barely use my electric drill, so why not borrow from the zoo? In fact, I start to question ownership of a lot of things that I use. (Clearly, there are some things I would keep to private use, but many I do not). So, why not share a zoo with other folks?

I don't see this heading towards the Star Trek Borg future. I do see it heading towards fairy tales, and magical creatures, and a return to the open fields system. Maybe that's not the way it will go. But I have a suspicion, if we wish to continue as a viable social species, we will have to learn how to share and play nice - a lot better than we are currently doing.

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