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Awe or Awful?

Published
  • March 15 2002, 1:00am EST

Lee Capps would like to thank Thea Durfee Polancic for this month’s column. Thea is a managing consultant with The Revere Group, focusing on innovation, business strategy and cultural change.

“The exciting thing about pervasive computing is just that…it’s pervasive.” Nate Burgos, Design Manager, Data; Morningstar

The idea of computing is quickly moving from individual people using a single interface to an abundance of networked and embedded computing devices that individuals and groups use across a variety of needs. Computers are becoming increasingly mobile, and the information they store and provide to us is becoming more accessible and available. Interfaces are more familiar in appearance and ease of use. And we are bombarded by information – pervasive information, if you will – during every waking second. At the same time, the regular man’s definition of a “computer” is changing. Everyday devices are becoming more “aware,” like the smart refrigerator that calls your mobile phone to remind you to pick up milk on the way home. These devices are sensing our presence and, as we include more chips and circuits, they’ll be able to act on our goals and needs. Pervasive computing is coming into its own, but the question remains, will the rewards outweigh the drawbacks? Does more information mean we are more informed?

On the contrary, “information angst“ is a real possibility. The Internet made the largest library on the planet available to us, to be viewed through the equivalent of a pinhole. As anyone who has used a search engine to seek information on a general topic knows, nonessential data can be as much a barrier to understanding as total ignorance. It is context that raises information to the level of knowledge and understanding. (Portal technology is one example of an attempt to meet the need for context by reconciling reach with richness.)

Then there’s the “innovation dilemma”1 of pervasive computing. We know how to make amazing and technologically complex things, the number of which will increase exponentially over time. But who really needs a smart toaster? Are we going to end up increasingly at a loss for what to create that will be of value? The resulting no-man’s land that lies between the two diverging curves of increasing technological intensification and decreasing perceived value is where the consumer is trapped – with more demand on his or her attention and the promise of less value. Springsteen hit the nail on the head with his song “57 Channels and Nothin’ On.”

What is the impact on privacy? In order for many of the proactive benefits of pervasive computing to be possible, systems such as location tracking or smart spaces monitor user locations and activities on an almost continual basis. You’re already making the privacy for convenience tradeoff if you use I-Pass or similar tollbooth reader technology in which you install a reader in your car that is triggered as you pass a tollbooth in the express lane, automatically subtracting the toll from your account. Fact is, if you want to experience the benefits of some technology, you must give up information on your behavior patterns and personal habits. Could this information be used without your knowledge in the future?

The future is not all dark, however. Information increases the likelihood of enlightenment, empowerment and entertainment. With information comes choice, intelligence and somewhat paradoxically, the possibility of longer attention spans being available for higher purpose. We are able to spend less time seeking information and more time determining what to make of it.

Pervasive information will add a convenience and ease to our lives in a way that is transparent. Consider the examples that are already integrated into our everyday world – anti-lock braking systems, air traffic control and pace makers. These are all cases where the computer’s ability to multitask outpaces a human’s ability to comprehend and create meaning, allowing the computer to master environments where our ability to synthesize information and respond is insufficient.

What’s the answer? How do we strike a balance between pessimism and possibility? Perhaps the answer is responsibility. As design manager of Data at Morningstar, Nate Burgos specializes in providing financial information to people in innovative ways. In his view, both the provider and the consumer of pervasive information have responsibility for the quality of the user experience. “As providers of information, we have a responsibility for our information to be sound, sensible and relevant. As consumers, we should challenge ourselves to understand what we want technology to do for us.” 2

As computing migrates from the box on our desk to suffusing everything around us, a new relationship will emerge between those who seek to inform and we who seek to understand. One thing is for certain; the future will be a collaborative one.

References:
1 Thackara, John. "The Design Challenge of Pervasie Computing." Doors of Perception. April 2000. www.doorsofperception.
2 Interview with Nate Burgos. Design Manager, Data; Morningstar. 2/22/02.

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