Pervasive Computing

Pervasive Computing

Imagine, if you will, giving up your Mac. Imagine having no smiling face at
boot up to greet you as you sit down to start your project or write an email.
Imagine no “Sosumi” sound or error beep when you click outside the dialogue
box. No drag and drop. No “Think Different.” Imagine your Mac being replaced
by the new catch phrase in the high-tech industry, “Pervasive Computing.”

That’s the catch phrase these days in the world of computers: Pervasive
Computing. Scott McNealy, CEO of Sun Microsystems and a longtime critic of
Microsoft, talked about it recently at Comdex. Even Carly Fiorina, the new
CEO and President of HP, mentioned it. Everybody is talking about it. A
friend of mine that works at Intel even read about it recently in that
ultimate “high-tech” magazine, Reader’s Digest.

The theory behind Pervasive Computing is that the traditional Personal
Computer as we now know it is destined for obsolescence. In its place, most
or all of the electronic devices we use daily will not only have their own
processors, but will be also be networked into the Internet. At that point,
computing will no longer be something we sit down to “do,” but will end up
being in everything we do. Our cars, our homes, our refrigerators, our
offices, our telephones, our ________ (Fill in the blank, ’cause nobody knows
for sure just where these “smart” devices will stop) will all have some form
of computer logic built right into them. Computing will then be as ubiquitousl
y pervasive as the phone is now. Access to information will be available
nearly everywhere; you’ll only notice when it isn’t present.

So? What’s the big deal? Isn’t this what we want, where we’re going? To put
perspective on this, allow me to share two personal experiences where I feel
this ubiquitous trend has already become too pervasive.

I was in the restroom at work the other day when the serenity of that
necessary refuge was disturbed by the insistent, intrusive sound of a ringing
cellular phone echoing loudly off the tiled walls. A more inappropriate
place for a cell phone is hard to imagine. Two seconds later I was shocked
to hear a “Hello?” from the next stall as the person actually answered his pho
ne! Now, if I can’t even stand a cell phone answered by someone else in a
workplace toilet, why would I want one that I would have to answer?

My second example happened a few days later. While working at my desk, I
heard someone making a call from their desk on the other side of my cubicle.
He was trying to locate someone in the field to ask him to check on a problem
that was being reported to the control center via computer.

This is the ‘one side’ of the conversation I heard:

“Hey Dave, we need you to run out and check on this trouble signal we just
got on the air pressure system. Can you run over and check this out for us?”

“Uh huh? Yep, that’s the one. We need you to verify the pressure.”

“Hey, where are you? What’s this echo I’m hearing? You sound like you’re in a
tunnel or somethin’.”

“Huh? You’re kidding!?”

The caller obviously then turned away from the phone in his hand and turned
to his coworkers and proclaimed loudly, “Hey guys! Guess what? I caught Dave
on the can!” Peals of laughter ensued.

The phone has become too pervasive and has come to the point where it has
become annoying. Now do you see why I don’t own a cell phone? When I’m away
from my phone I’m doing something else. I don’t want to be reached. However,
like many technologies, cell phones have entered every aspect of life.
Unfortunately, not everyone knows how to turn them off. No wonder there are “C
ell Free” sections in restaurants these days and reminders at the theater to
turn your cell phones off.

I had successfully resisted wearing a pager until just a few weeks ago when
the requirements of my job made it unavoidable. But I assure you that it is
only on from 8 to 5; no more, no less. But will we be able to turn “Pervasive
Computing” off? And even if we can, will we? It doesn’t appear that many of
the users of cell phones have as much discipline.

Pervasive computing may become as intrusive as the cell phone has. Have you
seen the IBM commercial that shows a “wearable” computer that is coming soon?
For computing to become “ubiquitous” it will also have to make liberal use of
“push” technology, meaning it will interrupt you, or otherwise notify you
that something “important” has come up. This could be stock prices, email, a
breaking news story, business contacts, or requests for some kind of action
on your part. And you’ll get those messages wherever you are, regardless if
you’re driving, talking with your doctor, going to the movies, or just
answering nature’s call. Pervasive Computing means “always on.” Turning the
device off defeats the entire concept.

I don’t think I’m a likely candidate for Pervasive Computing. I like turning
off my computer and talking to friends and loved ones. I like being able to
sit down and read a good Sherlock Holmes mystery. I like listening to my
stereo system. I even like to sit down, close my eyes, let go, and meditate.
Not much room in that for a ubiquitous computing solution. Yes, I know it
will probably be possible to turn these devices off… but will anyone
actually do that? I don’t see many people turning their cell phones off. Not
when the battery is still charged, anyway.

Has the cell phone made life easier? I don’t see many people with cell phones
lounging by the pool with all the time they save. Know what I mean, Vern?

People with cell phones are some of the most harried, hurried, and busy
people I know. While they do allow us to get more things done in a day, not
many people are satisfied with merely getting more done and then quitting. Ins
tead, most people just end up doing more and more. Rather than enrich our
lives, phones actually rob us of some important moments.

I had a day off and went to the DMV to take care of some business. While I
was there I noticed a woman that was constantly making and receiving calls on
her cell phone. Certainly that was pretty efficient.

While the woman was talking, a young girl returned from a driver’s license
test drive. I could see she was excited about passing her driver’s test. It
was a big moment in her young life. But the simple beauty of the moment was
lost when her mother, the pervasive cell phone user, finished one of her
“important” calls. By the time her mother was off the phone her excitement
was virtually gone. The moment had passed. The technology of the cell phone
had provided the woman the ability to get more done, yet robbed her the
ability to celebrate a pivotal moment with her daughter. By its very name
Pervasive Computing may be even more intrusive in our lives. Will we soon be
too busy getting email and stock updates to celebrate special moments with
our family, friends, and coworkers?

Pervasive computing doesn’t really appeal to me. I’m just not interested in
getting email while I sing at the top of my voice on my drive home. Can you
imagine wailing out your own highly personalized version of your favorite
Fleetwood Mac tune, say, “Blue Letter,” when the great beat and the guitars
are interrupted by “You’ve got mail!”

“Nooo!!!!!! Nooo!!!!! I hate you, I hate you!” you scream at your car email.
Especially when you open the file to have your synthesized voice read the
subject, “Make your millions overnight on the Internet with our new
software!” UUUGGHHHH!!!

But it could happen. You could be listening and writing email someday soon on
your commute home just as some folks get and receive calls now. You could one
day end up finding your refrigerator amending and then sending a grocery
request when you take the last diet root beer off the rack. You could someday
end up going camping only to get an email from the boss asking you where you
left the all-important McKraken file. UGH!

I’m just not ready for this. I don’t own a cell phone and I’m not going to
buy one any time soon. When I’m away from my phone, I’m away from my phone.
When I turn off my Mac, I don’t want to be on the Internet, I don’t want
email and I don’t want to be disturbed. I want peace and I want quiet. And
when sitting on my throne? Forget about it. Pervasive Computing be damned;
I’m going to be on the Internet when I choose to be.

Pervasive Computing means more than you think it means. It also means all
those files and bits of information that will be flying about will be tracked
by some computer somewhere. And if it’s on a computer, someone will pay to
know what it is you’re viewing, saying, writing, and viewing. That’s when
Pervasive Computing may become truly “Invasive Computing,” which will be the
title of my column next month.

Bob McCormick

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