Genevieve Bell, anthropologist and top researcher at Intel, was star turn at a fascinating seminar run by the iSociety research group at the Work Foundation. The topic was ‘the smart home’. Bell’s current project is aimed at understanding the use of technology in homes across Asia. She understands how deep-rooted religious, social and cultural practices influence the reception of technology in homes.
If there was any conclusion it was that attempts to add intelligence to our homes had better be respectful of the needs and beliefs of their inhabitants, otherwise they’ll just join the long line of forgotten household gadgets – egg slicers, the thing with the plunger that makes cream. The whole thing reminded me of Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn, a book about the way humans adapt their habitations and continually turn them to new uses, usually despite the architects and planners. If we’re to augment our homes in the ways advanced by the technology vendors the kit will need to fit properly into the lifecycle of a home.
It should be cheap, reliable, modular, interoperable and easily replaced or upgraded. Homes exist on timescales measured in centuries, a family will occupy a home for decades and make continual, incremental changes. Wi-fi hubs, entertainment systems and central heating controllers can’t aspire to this kind of longevity but should aim to fit into these cycles unobtrusively, helpfully, without expecting families to bend to new ways of living.
Houses will get smarter in much the same way they acquired their current intelligence – looms of copper wire, electric light, telecoms, wireless and television, modern additions like insulation and heating, older ones like plumbing and drainage – piecemeal and over a long period of time. The best the smart home business can hope for is to get their kit onto the makeover shopping list, to become must-have lifestyle items and to slot into the cycle of home fashion… like decking and rag rolling, really.
Dave Birch, who should know, on the coming collision of wireless networks, GPS and RFID tags in The Guardian. Dave’s pretty level headed about the implications but I’m sure that this has the potential for a major technology panic.
As I’ve pointed out here a dozen times before, though, every new technology is born into a complex human context that almost invariably diverts it from its manifest destiny – in this case to close off individual freedom once and for all.
This is why, for instance, we’re still here after 60 years of nuclear proliferation, why the record industry is still here five years after people started swapping MP3s and why we’ll never be replaced by a race of robotic clones. Despite our fears to the contrary and the occasional nihilistic counter-example (Stalin, say), human beings universally and collectively tend to neutralise apocalyptic change before it can do too much damage. I predict that most RFID implementations will ship with only a fraction of the Big Brother features they’re capable of.
Michael Malone, top tech journo, says in The Herring that we should forget Moore’s law. The thesis is that, as the universe of chips expands, more buyers are sticking with older, lower-powered devices because they don’t need the extra power. The industry’s legacy chips – almost all of which are still being manufactured somewhere – are going to undermine the latest stuff and make it impossible for the chip makers to continue to make 67% annual improvements. He quotes Google’s Eric Schmidt: “We aren’t interested in getting maximum power for a high price. What we’re looking for is maximum functionality and that’s a whole different thing.” We should unwind our dependence on Moore’s law now before it’s too late. Difficult to see how we actually could, though, since it’s wired into the economy itself, determining investors’ expectations as much as techies’.
I could have been kinder to the big brains at Peppercoin I’m sure but someone had to say it. This week’s Guardian column is about the latest brilliant but doomed micropayments scheme to hit the net ? based on an exotic and genuinely innovative probabilistic approach to settlement that promises to make tiny transactions profitable for merchants by… chucking most of them away. The proposition to merchants is (literally): “trust us. You’ll probably get your money in the end”. I don’t think they’re going to like it ? it has the entire history of innumeracy against it.
Some more links on this story:
Pretty good overview from The Boston Globe (via Werblog)
Clay Shirky on why micropayments won’t work
Very good slashdot thread on the topic.
Should I tell the architects of BBC News Online‘s far-reaching redesign that, far from being confused, put off or even pleased by the redesign, I didn’t notice it at all until it was pointed out to me? I suspect that might actually be a tribute to the designers. Well done!
Good piece by Azeem Azhar in The Guardian about the mobile operators’ perilous leap into 3G.
My latest Guardian column is up today. It’s about the creeping reabsorption of the net by mainstream society and the end of our fantasies of living in a parallel world by our own rules.
Azeem alerts me to Tony Perkins’ latest project. Perkins is an interesting figure: a glamorous member of a Sand Hill Road tech VC dynasty, founder of the Silicon Valley bible The Red Herring (and certainly the most prominent supporter of Steve Forbes for President that I can think of). Always On is in trendy blog format and apparently intends to combine useful tech investment analysis with air-headed nostra like:
“The Semantic WebThe next generation web will be programmable and will search, process and transact for individuals and businesses 24 hours a day, seven days a week. People will benefit by this increased network efficiency, but it will mean consolidating your personal and business life on to the Web.”
What are they on about? Still, if The Herring in its heyday is anything to go by, we should probably give these guys the benefit of the doubt.
The last time The Economist ran a big survey of the Internet (1996?) I bought dozens of copies and sent them to all my clients and suppliers with a stern letter insisting that they read it cover to cover. The latest is not quite as exciting but strikingly keeps the faith. Many of the scenarios outlined are hardly rosey (privacy meltdown, big brother states, copyright overkill) and the ‘Internet Society’ described is hardly a paradise on earth but it will still change everything. You may need to subscribe to see the survey but, if you do, it’s well worth a read.
Is it just me or is it completely inappropriate to send a boy whose main crime seems to be a chronic case of adolescent alienation to jail for two years for the undoubtedly mischievous creation of a computer virus?