Thursday, June 11, 2009

What if everyone had a convergence device?

The convergence device (ConDev - currently available mostly in the guise of the smartphone) is emerging an object with some proto-human and many transhuman capabilities. Like the wristwatch, it is becoming a permanent accessory, an indeed, a prosthetic extension to ourselves. At one level, it is means of communicating with others without being bound by the existential constraints of time and location. As an extension of this capability, it is a means of forming and maintaining membership in such unconstrained communities, doing whatever is needed to keep that community intact. At another level, it provides extensions to our organs of sensory perception, being able to access information in places remote from us and in forms that don't occur naturally in the world.

In a very real way, the ConDev is making real some aspects of the world portrayed in the movie, The Matrix. Increasingly, people may have the choice of being grounded in the natural world with occasional forays into the Digital Reality, or they may find the Digital Reality to be far more compelling, given its plastic nature; in this Reality, one may be able to fashion whatever world that emerges in one's consciousness. Indeed, the Digital Reality will blur the distinction between imagination and expression for if practically anything imagined could be expressed in this alternate universe it's possible that the direction of flow could also be reversed. I won't yet go into the possible troubling consequences of such an eventuallity but it does merit some speculation, for that Digital Reality may creep up on us stealthily and take over our lives before we know it.

But yes, what if everyone had a ConDev, like the cellphone portrayed in The Matrix? I strongly believe that a world based on such a device necessarily will transform the institutional as well as physical structures and processes of our lives, and not merely the manner of our communication and information access. 

Actually, if we remove communication and information access, what else is there about us that is essential the our nature of being human? While practically all organisms above the unicellular level likely engage in some sort of intra- and interspecies signaling, humans alone have developed intraspecies communication to levels far beyond that required for mere survival.  

ConDevs will emerge as the platforms and media for entirely new forms of communication and community as well as the construction of new, plastic Digital Realities in which such communication and community will be located.  Imagine what it will be like if people can have one existence in Physical, and one or even several distinct existences in Digital Reality.  As it is, we have virtual spaces such as Second Life where people trade in virtual goods and services in addition to engaging in social interaction.  MMORPGs have existed for decades and real money is paid for virtual goods and services. MMORPGs have been mostly about entertainment (although there is a small fraction of players who make living there); Second Life began as entertainment and still mostly retains that character, but many businesses have moved into the space to promote their wares and also to conduct some part of their business activities, if only on an experimental basis.  But ConDevs will likely help enlarge the Digital Reality space far beyond its entertainment origins and it may one day be possible for many to conduct much of their life activities -- particularly those founded largely on information acquisition and exchange -- nearly entirely in that intangible world.  

The rapid spread of ConDevs into human society may allow people to live and work where and when they wish.  The growth of the World Wide Web marked the beginning of this change in human affairs, but desktop computing still chained the individual to one location.  Laptop computers did remove some of the tethering, but they still require one to be in the vicinity of an internet connection, wireless or otherwise.  Further, one needs to plan ahead in order to lug one's laptop along -- carrying a laptop involves a conscious choice and it constrains one's movement and activities in many ways due to its bulk and fragility.  Again, using a laptop involves planning -- one needs to stop at a suitable location with appropriate horizontal space for setting up the laptop; then you need to open up the machine and fire it up.  This takes time, and effort. 

A ConDev, on the other hand, given its compact nature, is more likely to be carried around without a predetermined plan, like a watch or a cellphone.  Since it is 'always on' and easy to check into, much like cellphone, far many more opportunistic uses for it will be possible.  Using the ConDev will likely become automatic and Second Nature - it will be an extension of ourselves, and in turn, will extend -- and liberate -- us from the 3+1 dimensions of space and time in which we are otherwise bound.  

[UPDATE:  Funny how these things happen -- minds apart but thinking alike simultaneously: this dude had the same thought -- it's the smartphone and not the smartbook/netbook that has a future: the smartbook is just a smaller notebook; the smartphone is an entirely new thing - the ConDev (my words, not his).]

Many bring up the 'problems' of being 'always on' and 'always accessible' wherever and whenever.  Given our own cognitive and physical limitations, human society will evolve new sets of norms for engaging with others through digital means.  One can guess at what some of these might be, but the future has a way of surprising those of us who harbor the conceit of trying to uncover it.  I, for one, look forward to this emergent future if only because I am tickled by the possibilities of anything new and different.  When problems emerge, we'll find ways to deal with them rather than shoot down nascent and potentially exciting ideas.  

Business, education, entertainment, work, communication -- I see ConDevs transforming all the important domains of human endeavor and interaction.  I can't wait.

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