Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Ready for an implant computer

Hardly a day goes by when I wish computers wouldn't get around to being so small and ubiquitous that I could just have one implanted. The eventual dream is one that's built in so that its abilities are in essence my abilities. Displays overlaid over my eyesight (and integral with it), input from my thoughts, and always online. Seems pretty faraway but sufficient money could get similar functionality, with key limitations, in some ways. A cell-phone-sized computer on your belt, with a 3G wireless connection (in places other than Vermont, where such things are available), a Bluetooth connection to hi-res video goggles displaying a transparent HUD, voice recognition, and maybe a portable Bluetooth one-handed keyboard or just a Bluetooth roll-up keyboard.

A lot of people would react to the idea of an always-on, always-available computer as a further intrusion. You have heard this story before. The harried overworked executive complaining that he can't get away from the cell phone, the pager, the fax, the laptop. That he's expected to be working on the presentation on the plane, to take business calls in the evening, to go to dinner meetings when he's supposed to be at his son's birthday party. Technology is now making him have no time for himself and while he wishes his laptop were lighter and more portable, at the same time he dreads the day it is, because then they'll expect him to work even more.

I sympathize, really I do. But I think that he's placing the blame in the wrong place. The problem is in his employer for expecting him to do such ridiculous amounts of work, and looking to the short term of getting a better next quarter rather than keeping their workforce sustainably sane. The problem is in him for accepting a job like that, rather than taking something that pays less (so he can't afford that BMW) or demanding that the job respect his private life -- though it's hard for him to do both of those things, because maybe he lives in Manhattan, or has to put his kids through school, and it's not like jobs that pay that well grow on trees. The problem is in a capitalist culture that encourages everyone to do all of these things without regard for the well-being of the gears in its machine, making it hard for any single person or employer to break out of it without great sacrifice, if they can at all.

That said, I've been fortunate enough (and I subscribe to the idea that luck visits those who create chances for it to visit) to have a life where I can go home after work and 99% of the time not have to think about work until the next day. And I keep that by choosing not to advance. I could make 50% more money if I took a higher position within my current employer. I could make 100% more money if I worked for the private sector in a city. But I'd rather have what I have and time to have my own life after work, so I don't pursue such opportunities.

Blaming the cell phone and laptop for our hypothetical overworked executive's dilemma is a frequent theme in the history of technology. Technology makes possible something that maybe shouldn't be done, and never was done because it wasn't possible before. Someone does it, perhaps looking for quick profit, perhaps because they don't agree it shouldn't be done, perhaps because it's not obvious it shouldn't be done, perhaps merely out of a sense that it's possible. (That last option is usually the one blamed in anti-technology screeds, but it's rarely the actual reason.) Maybe doing it becomes the standard thing out of competitiveness. And when people object, they object not to the bad decision, but to the technology that made that decision possible. They do that especially when useful applications of the technology are not obvious (like an atomic bomb) but they do it just as fast when the technology -- as in the case of a cell phone -- could do a million things, many good, only one of which (causing some poor guy to be overworked) happens to be bad.

If I had more ubiquitous computing, I might allow a small increase in the incursion of my work life on my private life, though you can be sure my private life would not be neglected, and if I felt like it was, then I'd put a stop to it. Instead, I'd be better able to use time that is wasted in waiting, plus I'd be better able to capture ideas when they came to me and thus preserve more of them. Not to mention all the things I could do more efficiently and better. I'm absolutely ready. I know the first few generations will suck, but I'm ready anyway.

1 comment:

litlfrog said...

I'm looking forward to implant computers as well--perhaps not with your frequency or enthusiasm, but it's certainly something I'd like to have one day. I think a fast, reliable computer controlled by thought and displaying data through our senses or a HUD is going to make its user a very different sort of person, and I do wonder whether people with implant computers could become a new upper caste of a stratified society.

Regarding the implications of technological intrusion into private life: you're right that employers' demands on workers' time has more to do with our corporate culture than the technology itself. But an implant computer is (or will be) a thing, a visible product selling at MicroGoogleNewTiger for $6,995. It's a lot easier to wish for something concrete like "If this thing didn't exist I could spend more time with my family" than it is to wish "Corporate culture should respect my private life." After all, we've all seen innovations that didn't work as promised, lacked funding, or just didn't pan out. We haven't often seen businesses choose to treat their employees humanely rather than make more money.