Sunday, February 12, 2006

Technomen . . .

As part of my traveling around last week, I was cut off from the net for the several days. Not completely, of course. I mean I carry a laptop that can theoretically connect to open wireless hotspots -- but in practice that can take a while sometimes, and often there isn't a hotspot when you have downtime. That combined with the fact that stranger hotspots are sometimes hard to manage the first time, like the ones that want you to pay or give them a room number or whatever. I should probably just go EVDO and leave the 802.11.b issues behind . . .

Anyway, the end result of all this moving around was that everywhere I went there were people on the net, but for a host of reasons I was not among their number. I did have my blackberry of course, which gave me access to email, and a mini-browser. But the berry connection is kinda slow and you can only do so much with a 2 inch screen and two-thumb keyboard. I can consume a little content with my berry, and I can give short answers to simple questions, but the tiny screen and the mini-input device make me more passive than I like to be.

Once you're used to being wired, suddenly falling out of touch feels like losing a sense. Its incredibly frustrating to go from being completely connected to suddenly sipping through a straw. There's a document you want, a picture you need, an answer you can't recall. Under normal circumstances you're seconds away, but without your tools you're suddenly out of luck.

Every time I begin to doubt that ubiquitous technology is important, I have an experience like this that reinforces for me just how valuable packing major tech heat really is.

These days I figure the fully equipped technoman carries:

  • a blackberry, to allow immediate spoken and written communication with others similarly augmented and to allow mini-browser access to the Internet to get and give short answers to basic questions;

  • * an 802.11b or EVDO-enabled laptop to enable immediate access to the sum total of human knowledge, as well as one's personal digital archive. The laptop is also the tool to create meaningful and persistant content;

  • an ipod, to extend the carbon-based memory to allow immediate recall of high quality audio and video with perfect fidelity, perhaps augmented with a microphone to allow for high-fidelity audio capture;

  • a digital camera, to facilitate the capture of visual memories with perfect fidelity

On the backend, you need a monthly cell contract and a wireless high speed data connection where you work and where you live. You’re also gonna need a place to backup your personal digital archive, either on DVD or a backup disk, or a desktop system.

ASIDE: Speaking of personal digital archives, I notice Google announced an updated Google Desktop on Friday that allows a user to search for files on multiple machines.
My grad students and I outlined a system like this almost 3 years ago (see Tangle1, Tangle2, Tangle3), and two of my students, Jason Schneekloth and Brian Mila successfully defended theses on the model. Jason went on to Microsoft, and last I heard Brian was starting a company to create wall-sized lava lamps. If only we had patented .

Between the portable hardware and the backend, that's a lot of elements, but I think they each play a role. Leave out the cell phone and its hard to organize your life, hard to make arrangements with people and maintain your close relationships. You can even imagine using your cell to consume content, but try to operate with only a cell phone, and you're left with very limited access to the Internet. Any serious content creation is completely impractical. Leaving out the laptop means leaving out active content creation. The laptop is the most cost effective and convenient way to carry around your personal digital archive, allowing you to make the most of every minute of downtime. I guess the ipod and the camera aren't critical. But it is really cool to be able to add perfect fidelity visual and audible memories to your personal store. Sure you can do without an ipod maybe, but a lot of people really love music, and as video content and podcasts and other kinds of portable material become increasingly available, the ability to wear an iPod round your neck to give you access to lectures, explanations, and language tapes as well as vintage Zevon tunes is a compelling case. The sheer portability of the ipod lets you go light and fast a lot of the time, leaving the laptop in your bag unless you're really getting down to it.

I can't see how to do away with any of the elements and still be fully outfitted. I used to believe in convergence, but now I'm not so sure. I guess if the ipod and the phone fused that would work for me as long as battery life was good. Maybe the camera in the phone is good too, though the resolution of the pictures is not so great. I've given up predicting device futures anyway. Clearly every year the basic configuration will change as power gets easier to deliver, and things continue to nano-ize.
I know it isn’t everyone’s opinion, but personally I think all this tech makes life richer. Beyond that opinion there's a more fundamental competitive question though. If in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king, will technical augmentation become the price of admission? If augmented technoman has significant advantage over his un-augmented counter-part, then is augmenting yourself part of "being all you can be"? I wonder if we won’t start seeing various John Henryesque competitions designed to demonstrate the degree of knowledge advantage the wired have over the unwired.

Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel meets Ray Kurzweil?


waldo February 13, 2006 at 4:26 AM  

Aside: A note on desktop searches. Google and Yahoo are good and the price is right. However; I've found for my use the X1 desktop is superior (X1 is the search engine used by most desktop searches including Yahoo and Google). "" Granted it costs approx $ 75 but with more flexible control over what is searched, access to network drives, a wider variety of file types searched and a more effective user interface it is something worth looking into.

lparsons,  February 13, 2006 at 6:48 AM  

Tech is good, but there are limits... When you say we need a "...laptop to enable immediate access to the sum total of human knowledge..." I'd have to beg to differ here. While there is a tremendous amount available, there is something to the joke that "according to the web, the world started in 1994." The largest store of human knowledge is still buried in books, cutoff from the "connected" world. Google (and others) are well aware of this, and have started aggressively scanning books for search (

Also, while a camera, iPod, etc. are all cool and can be useful, they can also be distractions. Packing it all up, making sure you have the right cords, batteries, etc. takes time, energy, and money (resources). Granted, there can be payback that is worthwhile, but technology must provide a, strong, distinct advantage to be worth its "cost". Just adding another device that I'll "rely" on and that will (inevitably) fail me at some critical moment, does not necessarily improve my productivity. Sometimes, a little planning ahead can take the place of MapQuesting directions or using a cell to arrange a meeting. And sometimes it's good just to be where you are and talk to someone next to you rather than on a cell or listening to the same 10 CDs on your iPod for the 5th time.

That said, we are in the business of technology and we must find those items that will give students the greatest advantage and biggest “bang for the buck”. To me, that is certainly the laptop, as it provides an incredibly rich set of tools in a fairly mobile platform.

shauntu,  February 14, 2006 at 4:44 AM  

Aside: Another note on desktop searches done remotely -- Windows Desktop Search from Microsoft, working in conjunction with FolderShare (recently purchased by Microsoft) has allowed remote desktop searches (and accessing the files remotely, etc) for a while now...

One caveat -- unlike the Google one which indexes on their servers, FolderShare w/ Windows Desktop Search requires you computer to be running, as its a peer-to-peer solution...

Nate February 20, 2006 at 10:31 AM  

In seeing to it that the students are provided with the most appropriate technology we should consider at some point that the students don't have their own personal Paul Emerson (much to their unbeknown chagrin).

Clearly, making a case for the derided "common computing" model would be trumpeting a lost cause. When will we move forward to discussing how to ensure that the quality of service (particularly in terms of reliability) in the days of "ubiquitous computing" is not a precipitous drop-off from the quality of service provided in the current "common computing" model?

(Currently, I can guarantee with 99.999% certainty that we will have a working PC for anyone with an ASURITE ID during the extensive hours of operation in the computing sites.)

lparsons,  February 21, 2006 at 3:27 AM  

What constitutes a working PC? What if the computer functions, but Ethernet in the building is down? What if AFS fails? If Blackboard is down, do I care that the hard drive works? For that matter, what if Google or Yahoo is unavailable?

These scenarios are more and more likely to occur as we move toward digitizing and computerizing critical services. Access to those services becomes more and more of a priority and defines what it means to have a "working computer". As we expand and diversify our computing environment, we must keep reliability and quality of service a top priority.

gregw,  February 21, 2006 at 6:58 AM  

Just an FYI,

Concerning the ASIDE about Google Desktop and its allowing a user to search for files on multiple machines, there happens to be a security issue where many files inside an institution or company that should not be publicly shared could be made available. Here is an article and link from this weeks SANS Newsbites Vol. 8 Num. 14.

--University, Manufacturing Company Ban Google Desktop 3
(16 February 2006)
Cleveland State University and Johnson Controls, a manufacturing company, have both banned the use of Google Desktop 3 on their computer systems. The software has a new feature, Search Across Computers, that does what its name suggests while also storing copies of users' files on Google servers for up to 30 days. For the University, which is required to comply with laws like the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), the security risk of having data on public servers is too great. Similarly, Johnson Controls handles government contracts that include secure, classified information and its own intellectual property.

Story on ZDNET

[Editor's Note (Weatherford) This is more than just a bad idea because as the article notes, the possibility of violating federal regulations is not trivial and voluntarily losing control of your data and intellectual property doesn't look good on a resume!]