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Bruce Sterling, JCR Licklider, and Mobile Computing

Reuters has a nice piece about the changing digital landscape, as PCs, game consoles and digital devices begin to merge into one giant mediasphere. I’ve spent quite a bit of time debating this issue over the last few years, most…
May 29, 2005

Reuters has a nice piece about the changing digital landscape, as PCs, game consoles and digital devices begin to merge into one giant mediasphere.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time debating this issue over the last few years, most recently with TR senior editor Wade Roush, Denver Post writer Dave Thomas, and Linspire CEO (and former MP3.com founder) Michael Robertson. I don’t want to speak out of turn here, since these folks are all very capable of speaking for themselves, but this piece certainly painted a picture of a world where there are convergence devices (phones and mobile devices that connect to PCs, while also having multiple functions built in) alongside single-use devices.

Clearly, this is the future: a mix of single- and multi-use devices which allow us to tap into a variety of information sources. The story, though, is only interesting to me right now because I’ve just finished up reviewing Bruce Sterling’s latest book, Shaping Things, for the August issue of Technology Review. In the book, Sterling moves forward an argument first presented by J.C.R. Licklider in 1960 in his paper “Man-Computer Symbiosis” (pdf). From the introduction:

It will involve very close coupling between the human and the electronic members of the partnership. The main aims are 1) to let computers facilitate formulative thinking as they now facilitate the solution of formulated problems, and 2) to enable men and computers to cooperate in making decisions and controlling complex situations without inflexible dependence on predetermined programs.

In other words (and here is where Sterling picks up the argument), we are heading towards a time when computers and networks house infinite information about everything around us, essentially freeing humans up from having to “remember” everything (a mind like still water is how we refer to it around the TR offices) and instead allowing them to dip into the information stream as the zeros and ones fly by. In other words, it is just-in-time processing, enabled by these single- and multi-use devices. (My friend Jim Griffin calls it Tarzan processing, since the ‘vines’ show up just in time to keep the Ape Man from falling to the ground.)

We are at the edge of a new reality (Sterling has a name for this age: Spimes), an enhanced reality, where our devices become our agents.

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