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Social Machines

Computing means connecting.

(Editor’s note: While writing this feature for the magazine, senior editor Wade Roush added notes to the story. He also solicited reader feedback, which was incorporated here. Throughout the article, readers can mouse over the bold text to see what early readers contributed. If you are unable to click on the link in the contribution, simply click on the bolded word in the article, which will take you to the appropriate page.)

My boss, Jason Pontin, caused a minor ruckus in May while attending D3, the Wall Street Journal’s third annual “All Things Digital” conference outside San Diego. The editor in chief of Technology Review, like many executives, entrepreneurs, engineers, and students these days, doesn’t go anywhere without his wireless gear–meaning, at a minimum, a Wi-Fi-enabled laptop and a cell phone. At D3, Jason was using his laptop to file blog (or Web log) posts “live” from the conference floor, summarizing talks by Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy, and other computer-industry celebrities. But on the third day, he couldn’t find a signal. The Wi-Fi network he’d been accessing was on by mistake, a conference staffer told him. She explained that the hosts of the conference–Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher, two of the Journal’s technology writers–had decided that no one should have Internet access from the main ballroom.

Jason, naturally, wrote a new blog post about the incident (from the hallway this time). Forbidding live blogging at a technology conference, he remarked, “seems a very retrograde move.” Mossberg responded hours later. “It is untrue that Kara and I banned live blogging at D3, from the ballroom or anywhere else,” he explained. “We merely declined to provide Wi-Fi, to avoid the common phenomenon that has ruined too many tech conferences–near universal checking of e-mail and surfing of the Web during the program.”

Other bloggers soon pounced on the minicontroversy. Some commended Mossberg’s decision and warned against the perils of continuous partial attention,” the state of mental blurriness thought to be induced when information is constantly pouring in from multiple sources. Others extolled the social benefits of “always on” connectivity. “During conferences the back channel can and does enhance the fore channel, especially if I’m able to look up information that would be too tedious, basic, or digressive to ask about during a Q&A,” wrote Gardner Campbell, an assistant vice president for teaching and learning technologies at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, VA. “I can also share the experience, and be newly energized, by being in touch with staff and friends and family who are not able to attend with me.”

Both sides had a point. But the most telling thing about the debate was that it happened at all. Without much hoopla, many conference centers and university and corporate campuses–even entire metropolises, in the case of Philadelphia and a few other cities–are being turned into giant Wi-Fi hot spots. Trains, planes, airports, and libraries are also installing wireless networks to serve customers carrying wireless gadgets. As a result, many businesspeople, students, and Starbucks addicts now expect cheap, easy access to the Internet as a matter of course. Losing it can feel like being stranded.

Constant connectivity has changed what it means to participate in a conference or any other gathering. Using chat rooms, blogs, wikis, photo-sharing sites, and other technologies, people at real-world meetings can now tap into an electronic swirl of commentary and interpretation by other participants–the “back channel” mentioned by Campbell. There are trade-offs: this new information stream can indeed draw attention away from the here and now. But many people seem willing to make them, pleased by the productivity they gain in circumstances where they’d otherwise be cut off from their offices or homes. There is meaning in all of this. After a decade of hype about “mobility,” personal computing has finally and irreversibly cut its bonds to the desktop and has moved into devices we can carry everywhere. We’re using this newly portable computing power to connect with others in ways no one predicted–and we won’t be easily parted from our new tools.

Blog post: See pontin.trblogs.com/archives/ 2005/05/d3_suppressing.html. [back]
Other bloggers: Including me. See www.continuousblog.net/2005/05/ disconnected_at.html. [back]
Continuous partial attention: A phrase coined by Linda Stone, a former Microsoft vice president and a widely respected authority on human-computer interfaces. [back]
Wikis: Web pages that allow users to add content or edit existing content. [back]

Continuous Computing
To grasp how rapidly things are changing, consider all the things you can do today that would have been difficult or impossible just a few years ago: you can query Google via text message from your phone, keep an online diary of the Web pages you visit, download podcasts to your iPod, label your photos or bookmarks with appropriate tags at Flickr or Delicious, store gigabytes of personal e-mail online, listen to the music on your home PC from any other computer connected to the Net, or find your house on an aerial photograph at Google Maps. Most of these applications are free–and the ones coming close behind them will be even more powerful. With more and more phones carrying Global Positioning System (GPS) chips, for example, it’s likely that companies will offer a cornucopia of new location-based information services; you’ll soon be able to find an online review instantly as you drive past a restaurant, or visit a landmark and download photos and comments left by others.

This explosion of new capabilities shouldn’t be mistaken for “feature creep,” the accretion of special functions that has made common programs such as Microsoft Word so mystifyingly complex. There is something different about the latest tools. They are both digital, rooted in the world of electrons and bits, and fundamentally social, built to enable new kinds of interactions among people. Blogging, text messaging, photo sharing, and Web surfing from a smart phone are just the earliest examples. Almost below our mental radar, these technologies are ushering us into a world of what could be called continuous computing–continuous in the usual sense of “uninterrupted,” but also in the sense that it’s continuous with our lives, in all their messy, social, biographical richness.

The arrival of continuous computing means that people who live in populated areas of developed countries (and increasingly, developing ones such as China and India) can spend entire days inside a kind of invisible, portable “information field.” This field is created by constant, largely automated cooperation between

  1. the digital devices people carry, such as laptops, media players,
    and camera phones,
  2. the wireline and wireless networks that serve people’s locations as
    they travel about, and
  3. the Internet and its growing collection of Web-based tools
    for finding information and communicating and collaborating
    with other people.

This information field enables people to both pull information about virtually anything from anywhere, at any time, and push their own ideas and personalities back onto the Internet–without ever having to sit down at a desktop computer. Armed with nothing more than a smart phone, a modern urbanite can get the answer to almost any question; locate nearby colleagues, friends, and services; join virtual communities that form and disband rapidly around shared work and shared interests; and self-publish blog entries, photographs, audio recordings, and videos for an unlimited audience.

The ingredients of continuous computing have emerged piecemeal. Japanese companies, for example, have long been testing new social and personal uses for cell phones. Model smart homesthat demonstrate how intelligent appliances will converse with each other are a perennial favorite in both Japan and the United States. But the final pieces fell into place only recently. These include the spread of Wi-Fi and other types of wireless access to millions of offices, homes, airports, and cafés; the enormous popularity of camera phones and mobile audio players; free or inexpensive voice-over-Internet phone calling; the rise of blogs as a means of both personal and political communication; personal and professional social-networking sites; tagging and social bookmarking; collaboration tools such as wikis and Microsoft’s Groove Virtual Office; new tools for gathering chunks of media “microcontent” into something resembling a personalized electronic newspaper; location-based services and other applications tied to specific geographic coordinates; and new computer languages and standards that make it easy to offer powerful, personalized software services over the Web. What makes all these tools different from the computing styles of the past is that they fit more naturally into our real lives–meaning, for example, that they adapt more readily to our locations, our preferences, and our schedules.

One analyst who writes about these issues is Alex Pang, a historian of science and former managing editor of the Encylopædia Britannica who now works as a research director at the Institute for the Future, a Palo Alto, CA, think tank. Software engineers, he says, have discovered that computer science’s decades-long effort to make computers smart enough to understand humans is simply irrelevant; they can make computing truly personal and social using simple Web-based programming tools. After all, we don’t really want to talk with computers–we want to talk through them. “The brilliance of social-software applications like Flickr, Delicious, and Technorati,” Pang says, “is that they recognize that computers are really good at doing certain things, like working with gigantic quantities of data, and really bad at, for example, understanding the different meanings of certain words, like ‘depression.’ They devote computing resources in ways that basically enhance communication, collaboration, and thinking rather than trying to substitute for them.”

Podcasts: Amateur radio shows without the radio. Podcasters produce MP3 recordings on whatever subjects interest them and publish the files on the Internet, where listeners can subscribe to shows, download files to their computers, and then transfer them to their portable music players, such as the Apple iPod. [back]
Flickr: The photo-sharing site of choice for many digital photographers. One of its trademark features is the ability to add descriptive words, or “tags,” to photographs, so that the photographer or others can find them more easily later. See www.flickr.com. [back]
Delicious: A “social bookmarking” site created by freelance software developer Joshua Schachter. Users can store URLs, personal comments, and descriptive tags that will help them identify Web pages they want to find later. See del.icio.us. [back]
Computing: Blog reader Hannu Leinonen comments: “I feel uneasy about the word ‘computing.’ It sounds like counting. In Spanish the word for computer is ‘ordinador’ and in Finnish it’s ‘tietokone.’ Tietokone translates to ‘knowledge machine.’ We are not there yet, but have we passed computing?” [back]
People: Blog reader Gene Becker comments: “In your definition of continuous computing, you might consider adding ‘4) and the devices they encounter along the way, such as situated displays, networked entertainment systems, printers, and connected vehicles.’ We are just around the corner from these situated networked devices’ becoming active participants in our digital experience. I wonder if you also want to pull in physical-tagging notions (RFID, bar codes, semacodes, visual tags, etc.) as the ‘physical hyperlinks’ that bring everyday objects into the digital mix. In the same spirit, GPS and other location technologies are starting to make physical place a first-class element of the digital experience. Oh, and can we all please work on a better term, one that doesn’t use ‘computing’? It’s so not about that.” [back]
Smart homes: A leading example in the United States is the Georgia Tech Broadband Institute Residential Laboratory, a three-story home outfitted with people-tracking sensors, gesture-sensitive remote controls, and other widgets. Part of the Aware Home Research Initiative funded by Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Motorola, and the National Science Foundation, the Residential Laboratory is a classic instance of computing research that starts with a perceived need–assisting the elderly with complex, information-intensive tasks, for example–and invents gadgets and software that supposedly address the need. But as we’ll see, continuous computing is an emergent phenomenon–a complex pattern of social behaviors that arises from the use of a variety of simpler digital tools. It advances in unexpected directions as people find innovative ways to put these commercial and open-source technologies to use in their social lives. [back]
Technorati: A search engine built by software developer David Sifry that scans millions of blogs and displays the most recent posts relating to any given keyword or tag. [back]

The Computer That Wouldn’t Disappear
While continuous computing is now a practical reality, it has been a long time coming. The first serious work on it began 17 years ago at Xerox’s famed Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). That’s where computer scientist Mark Weiser set out to study the notion of ubiquitous computing, which he defined as “activating the world”–creating networks of small, wireless computing devices that permeated the physical structures around us, where they would supposedly anticipate our needs and act without requiring our attention. Weiser’s earliest experiments, funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, involved a network of infrared sensors scattered around PARC. The sensors communicated with prototype “tabs”–small, wireless displays that functioned as labels or sticky notes–and with tablet-sized handheld computers and large display boards. Weiser envisioned hundreds of these devices installed in rooms, homes, and office complexes, where they would eventually become “invisible to common awareness,” as he predicted in a 1991 article for Scientific American. “People will simply use them unconsciously to accomplish everyday tasks,” he wrote.

Tragically, Weiser died of cancer in 1999, at age 46. But by then, others had taken up his call, including the famed product-design consultant Donald Norman, who squeezed an entire thesis into the title of his 1998 book, The Invisible Computer: Why Good Products Can Fail, the Personal Computer Is So Complex, and Information Appliances Are the Solution. People might be more efficient if their spaces, work flows, and communications were fully digitized, but this wouldn’t happen until improved technology relieved them of the sense that they were interacting with “computers” at all, Norman argued. He called for a new generation of “information appliances” that would facilitate specific activities–such as teleconferencing, shopping, photography, or exercise–without calling attention to themselves. Echoing Weiser, Norman wrote that these appliances would “become such an intrinsic part of the task that it will not be obvious that they are there. They will be invisible like the embedded processors in the automobile or microwave oven.

Researchers got busy building these appliances at places like MIT’s Laboratory for Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (since folded into one large lab). In 2000, the lab launched a five-year, industry-funded initiative called Project Oxygen, so named because the founding scientists believed that computation would eventually be “freely available everywhere, like batteries and power sockets, or oxygen in the air we breathe.” Like Weiser, the Oxygen researchers have focused on a combination of handheld devices and networks of sensing and communications equipment embedded in the environment–cameras, microphones, displays, wireless transmitters and receivers, and the like. Their most famous prototype is the Intelligent Room, a conference room rigged with sensors and displays that responds to voice commands, saves audio records of users’ discussions, and calls up presentations or recordings of prior meetings. The idea, according to the MIT researchers, is to automate as many aspects of human collaboration as possible.

Ubiquitous-computing research continues at PARC, where researchers are working on technologies such as embedded sensors trained to zero in on specific conversations in busy rooms so that people watching by videoconference can join in. And in Europe, a three-year, $28 million “Disappearing Computer” initiative from 2001 to 2003 resulted in several ongoing projects on “ambient computing,” the idea of augmenting everyday objects with small, wirelessly networked sensors.

But here’s the surprise: the tools that are actually bringing us continuous computing aren’t invisible. In fact, they are the very technologies Weiser and his successors were trying to sideline: off-the-shelf computing devices such as laptops and cell phones, both of which allow users to tap into Web-based social-software systems built in a largely unplanned way by people using common programming languages and shared, open communications protocols and development tools. These systems don’t have to be designed as unified, integrated systems, like Project Oxygen’s Intelligent Room, in order to be useful tools for social computing; they can just as well emerge from the bottom up, the way peer-to-peer networks and the Web itself did. (Indeed, one reason that projects at PARC, Project Oxygen, and other labs have never really blossomed into commercial systems may be that they are too heavily engineered for preconceived uses.) And we don’t really need computers to disappear into the woodwork, or to have elaborate spoken-word interfaces. In fact, today’s social-software boom rests on common devices such as mobile phones, computers, digital cameras, and portable music players.

“One of the things that really blew my mind was a trip last year at Christmastime to a mall in the DC suburbs,” says Thomas Vander Wal, an Internet-application designer whose writings are widely followed by developers of social-software applications. “Which is, as places go, a little bit more technically advanced than the more rural areas at the center of the U.S., but it’s still not the Bay Area or New York. But I was seeing people 50 and older waiting in line to get their packages wrapped and staring at their mobile devices. I don’t know if they were text-messaging their kids or browsing the Web or what, but their mobile devices were being used for more than just calling somebody. It was at that point that I thought, ‘We’re almost there’–wherever ‘there’ is.”

Ubiquitous computing: Weiser’s original Web pages on the subject are preserved at www.ubiq.com/hypertext/weiser/UbiHome.html. [back]
Invisible: Blog reader Gardner Campbell comments: “These are compelling essays and concepts, but a small worry persists: will the grail of invisible, continuous, ubiquitous computing turn out to be a cognitive deadener, too? Some things work best when they’re visible and a little recalcitrant: writing, for example, or thinking, for another example. If we use symbols effortlessly, there’s a risk we’ll settle for the path of least resistance automatically rather than go for the more ambitious and difficult goals, the computer equivalent of a set of grunts and gestures instead of a language, which involves a fair amount of work to acquire and use well but has rich payoffs in terms of semantic density.”

Author’s response: I agree. That’s why I point out in this section and elsewhere that continuous computing is not about making computers invisible. [back]
Project Oxygen: See oxygen.lcs.mit.edu/Overview.html. [back]
Cell phones: They’re now constant companions for 1.7 billion people worldwide. According to market research firm IDC, more than 690 million phones were shipped in 2004 alone. In the first quarter of 2005, vendors shipped 8.4 million “converged mobile devices,” meaning phones that also function as PDAs and can run many types of software applications—an increase of 134 percent over the first quarter of 2004. More than 182 million people in the United States subscribe to cellular services, and in 2004 they spent more than a trillion minutes using their phones. [back]
Too heavily engineered: Blog reader Gene Becker comments: “I agree with your assessment and would add that in many cases, they are technology solutions in search of a problem. What is the question to which ‘ubicomp’ is the best answer?” [back]
Thomas Vander Wal: Best known for popularizing two concepts, the “infocloud” (the aggregate of one’s personal digital data, which increasingly resides on networks rather than on desktop PCs or permanent media) and “folksonomies” (the knowledge structures that emerge in place of hierarchical taxonomies when groups of people tag digital data using an -unconstrained vocabulary). [back]

The Enabling Technologies
Three broad technology trends are making computing continuous. The first, as noted earlier, is easy, inexpensive Internet access. The second is the spread of inexpensive, wireless computing devices. Above all, this means wireless laptops. Only a computer capable of running a full-blown Web browser allows access to the full range of Web-based software applications, which are, as we’ll see in a moment, the third major source of technologies making computing more social. But laptops can’t be carried everywhere, and smaller devices such as digital cameras, video recorders, voice recorders, portable CD and DVD players, MP3 players, PDAs, pagers, GPS receivers, and wearable gear like Microsoft’s wireless SPOT (for “Smart Personal Object Technology”) watches have the important function of maintaining the information field when there isn’t a computer at hand. Then, of course, there’s the smart phone–in essence, a miniature computer juggling tasks that formerly required half a dozen separate devices. The smart phone is “an ideal system for pervasive, supportive social computing,” writes Russell Beale, director of the Advanced Interaction Group in the computer science department at the University of Birmingham, England. It’s “a two-way device, creating and consuming information, is highly personal, and is almost always available… .”

The third trend nudging us into a new era of computing is probably the most important and the least expected. It is the emergence of the Web as a platform for personal publishing and social software. The examples are as diverse as informational sites such as blogs, craigslist, and Wikipedia and services such as Gmail, LinkedIn, Flickr, and Delicious. All of these are examples of what software developers and Internet pundits have begun to call “Web 2.0”: the transformation of the original Web of static documents into a collection of pages that still look like documents but are actually interfaces to full-fledged computing platforms. These Web-based services are proliferating so fast because they can be built using shared, standardized programming tools and languages developed, for the most part, by the open-source-software community.

The list of popular social-software applications is almost overwhelming. The oldest examples include text messaging on phones and pagers, instant messaging between computers, and good old e-mail. But while these technologies may be familiar, they are being radically upgraded to work with the Web. Classic circuit-switched landline and cellular telephony, for example, faces growing competition from packet-switched systems, including Voice-over-Internet-Protocol (VoIP) networks such as Vonage and Skype. Calls placed within Skype’s peer-to-peer network are free, which has made the service a favorite among startup companies with employees in far-flung locations. Adam Curry, a former television-show host on MTV who coinvented the idea of podcasting, gushes frequently about Skype in his own podcasts, saying it’s the main way he conducts business at Podshow.com, a podcasting network he is launching soon. “Skype is going to be the phone company,” Curry intones.

Wi-Fi cell phones that let people use Skype even if they’re away from their computers may soon hit the market, and new techniques for handing active calls from a cellular network to a Wi-Fi network will allow people with dual-band phones to switch to the lowest-cost service available at any given location. Meanwhile, the Short Messaging System (SMS) for text messaging is giving way to the Multimedia Messaging System (MMS), which can handle pictures, sound, and video in addition to text. Then there’s Google’s Gmail service, which offers a practically unlimited amount of storage online and an extremely efficient search mechanism for rummaging through it. Some users consider Gmail to be at least as powerful as client-side e-mail programs such as Outlook and Eudora (which store e-mail locally on a desktop machine), with the added advantage that it is accessible from any computer with a browser.

Tools that turn private individuals into Internet broadcasters are another booming application. When blogs were first emerging, publishing one was a tedious and forbidding process that involved rewriting HTML code and manually uploading files to a Web-hosting service. But with the advent of Blogger, LiveJournal, Movable Type, WordPress, and other services, the task of blog publishing has been reduced to writing something cogent and clicking on a couple of buttons. As a result, blogs have become the personal launching pads for millions of Web users’ social activities online–the place where they gather their own thoughts and artistic creations, invite others to react, and share links to and commentary about content they find elsewhere on the Web. Lately, it’s become cheap and easy to publish audio and video blog entries. And new tools for transferring audio blog posts to portable digital-music players like the Apple iPod have created a platform for podcasting, an entirely new form of personal publishing. In 2004 there were only a handful of regular podcasts; now there are several thousand, ranging from the sexually graphic “Dawn and Drew Show” to “The Catholic Insider,” in which Father Roderick Vonhogen, a priest of the Archdiocese of Utrecht, the Netherlands, ruminates on the new pope, run-ins with airport security guards in Rome, and Revenge of the Sith.

But bloggers and podcasters wouldn’t have much to publish without a constant stream of incoming information, and another set of Web technologies is helping Internet users to personalize that stream. Even before the Web, futurists predicted the advent of the personalized newspaper. Nicholas Negroponte, the founding director of the MIT Media Lab, called it “The Daily Me,” a collection of items plucked from a variety of media outlets by your home’s main computer, which would supposedly learn your preferences by watching what you read and what you ignore. But Negroponte’s future has arrived: one of the most earthshaking developments in information management in the past half-decade is a straightforward Web-programming hack called RSS. It’s a way of packaging Web items such as blog entries in a stripped-down, XML-based format so that they can be imported into other Web pages. Most blog-hosting services automatically create RSS versions of blog posts. That means bloggers can “syndicate” their content across the entire Web, while readers can subscribe to RSS feeds from all of their favorite blogs or news sites, and view them in a single place using an “aggregator” service such as NetNewsWire, NewsGator, or Bloglines. These services make it easier than ever for people to monitor developments in their areas of interest. (On the downside, perhaps, aggregators also allow people to filter out news and ideas that don’t accord with their views.)

The most radical ideas in Web-based software, however, are flourishing in an area that might be called “social knowledge management,” represented in part by sites like Friendster, LinkedIn, and Ryze. Such social-networking sites generated a wave of venture investment and new users in 2004. At their best, they are like human search engines: they exploit the “six degrees of separation” concept to help people make connections with friends of friends of friends who may share similar interests or business goals. Now a twist is on the way: a Boston startup called Proxpro is testing a cell-phone-based service whereby a traveling businessperson can register a change in location with an SMS message; if a potential contact who matches the traveler’s prespecified areas of interest (say, Oracle databases) is nearby, both parties are notified, and they can use SMS to arrange a meeting.

The social-networking sites, in fact, were only a preview of what Web 2.0 technologies will make possible. Using a few basic building blocks such as XML, open-source database software, simplified programming languages and environments like Ruby on Rails, and protocols, like SOAP and REST, for exchanging data between Web applications, Web developers can build elaborate yet practical “social services” that collect and redistribute the knowledge of large communities of people. (See the box on page 52 for a tour of some of the most interesting new services.)

The more people who use the new services, the more powerful those services become. That’s because they’re all about cooperation: people are usually happy to share their knowledge, experiences, creations, schedules, and locations if it means that they can learn what the people who are important to them are thinking and doing. The most successful services are always about shared interests; Jyri Engestrom, a PhD student in the Department of Organisation, Work, and Technology at the Lancaster University Management School in Britain, calls this the rule of “object-centered sociality.” “The fallacy is to think that social networks are just made up of people,” Engestrom wrote in a much-cited entry on his blog, Zengestrom.com, in April. “They’re not; social networks consist of people who are connected by a shared object,” such as the photographs they upload to Flickr, the URLs they bookmark at Rojo or Delicious, or the articles they write for Wikipedia. Of course, social software can also be put to less community-minded uses: the same Internet-based services that keep businesses and families connected can be used to arrange casual sexual encounters, distribute pornography, or run terrorist networks. But in a way, the fact that the technology can support the full spectrum of human enterprises–whether socially productive or not–only underscores its power.

Separate devices: PalmOne’s Treo 650, for example, is styled like a phone but also acts as a still and video camera, an e-mail and instant-messaging platform, an MP3 player, a game player, a personal organizer, a Web-browsing device, an e-book reader, and a short-range communicator (using the Bluetooth wireless standard). [back]
Wikipedia: An online encyclopedia built using wiki software, meaning that anyone may add entries or edit existing ones. With1.8 million articles written by 51,000 contributors in 109 languages, it is the world’s most comprehensive (though perhaps not its most reliable) reference work. It may, in fact, be the largest collaborative literary work in history. (See “Larry Sanger’s Knowledge Free- for-All,” January 2005.) [back]
Static documents: Web 1.0 consisted largely of text files jazzed up with browser-readable HTML instructions on how to display the text and where to find related files. Web 2.0 is more like a collection of programs that talk to one another. [back]
Podcasting: Podcasters don’t agree on much about their craft—both Adam Curry and software guru Dave Winer claim to be the technology’s godfathers, for example—but they do seem to agree that the term “podcasting” was coined by Ben Hammersley, a writer for British newspaper the Guardian, in an article published February 12, 2004. [back]
RSS: There is some contention over who invented RSS and what the name actually stands for. In 1999, as part of the World Wide Web Consortium’s effort to build a Resource Description Framework (RDF) to support Tim Berners-Lee’s concept of the Semantic Web, engineers at Netscape created a document-mining tool called “Rich Site Summary,” but they abandoned it in 2001. Meanwhile, programmer Dave Winer wrote a script for publishing chunks of one site’s content on another, and called it “Really Simple Syndication.” This is now the most commonly accepted meaning of RSS, but the Netscape definition still has its proponents, and still others say RSS stands for “RDF Site Summary.” [back]
Feeds: An RSS feed can be created for just about anything. RSS is a key technology behind podcasting, which is essentially a method of delivering audio files via RSS subscriptions. And social-bookmarking services such as Delicious and Rojo let users subscribe via RSS to the links their friends save and annotate as they voyage around the Web. [back]
Social-networking sites: See “Internetworking,” April 2004. [back]
More powerful: This is one manifestation of Metcalfe’s Law, the observation by Ethernet inventor (and Technology Review board member) Bob Metcalfe that the value of a network increases as the square of the number of nodes in the network. [back]
Terrorist networks: See “Terror’s Server,” February 2005. [back]

Computing Is Real Life
It’s clear that new technologies are making computing continuous–meaning both “always on” and “smoothly shading into our real lives.” But what’s actually new about the experience of continuous computing? How is life changing for those with the money to buy a few mobile devices and the time to sign up for Web-based social services?

At bottom, the shift is bringing computing far closer to our everyday experience. We’ve just seen how social software can give us new ways to tap into the collective wisdom of the people in our social groups. But that’s only one consequence of continuous computing. On a more personal level, for example, the portable devices that sustain the information field are more respectful of our bodies and our perambulatory nature. No longer do we have to slouch over desktop computers all day to stay connected to the Net: computing devices have become so small, light, and ergonomic that we can take them almost everywhere. Visit any airport, beach, or city park and you’ll see people carrying laptops, cell phones, and dedicated devices such as cameras and music players as naturally as if they were part of their clothing. For people who must take their cell phones absolutely everywhere, there are even “ruggedized” devices like Motorola’s new i355 handset, which meets U.S. military specifications for resistance to dust and blowing rain.

Mobility, in turn, has created a demand for software that’s sensitive to our ever changing locations. Already, many cell phones sold in the United States contain systems such as GPS receivers that report users’ whereabouts during 911 calls. So far, few carriers have created ways for third-party software developers to put this location information to other uses, but in time, navigation tools and automatic-access location-specific shopping or dining information will become standard fare for cellular subscribers. In this area, Japanese and South Korean companies are, as usual, showing the way. Tokyo-based cellular provider KDDI, for example, sells phones that use GPS and onscreen maps to guide urban pedestrians to their destinations.

The new technologies also allow people to create more-detailed, true-to-life online identities. A decade ago, it was common for consumers opening online accounts to disguise themselves behind fanciful usernames like “Sk8rdude.” But today it makes little sense for a blogger or a member of a photo-sharing or social-networking community to stay anonymous; after all, taking personal credit for the viewpoints we express or the creations we share is often a way of gaining clout and attracting new acquaintances.

The best continuous-computing applications also mesh with our lives by understanding our preferences. Think of Amazon.com’s recommendation engine, which suggests products based on the purchase histories of other customers with similar tastes. Newer Web tools apply the same idea to other types of content; for example, Bloglines, owned by search company Ask Jeeves, analyzes a user’s RSS subscriptions to come up with a daily list of new feeds that might be of interest. The creators of Backpack, meanwhile, built in many ways for users to adjust the site’s behavior to their needs. For example, users can publish files and to-do lists from their cell phones if they aren’t at a computer, make their pages public or restrict them to specified associates, and program the system to send SMS reminders to their phones at general times like “next Tuesday” or at specific moments like “30 minutes from now.”

Which leads to a final feature of continuous-computing technologies: they adapt to the chronology of our lives. Shared calendars like EVDB and Upcoming make it easy to synchronize our activities with those of our friends and colleagues. Soon, our mobile devices may even track our activities, extract patterns, and predict what information or services we need at specific times of day. That’s an area being explored by Nathan Eagle, a postdoctoral student at the MIT Media Lab. “There are patterns in when you go to Starbucks, when you go out to the bar, and when you call your mom, to the point that you can start predicting what the person is going to do next,” Eagle says. A phone sensitive to your schedule and your location might realize, for example, that the office is always your next stop after the coffee shop and would start gathering your e-mail and voice-mail messages from the Internet as you take your first sip of latte.

Of course, you don’t need futuristic gadgets like this to create a personal information field. Just look at Ross Mayfield, CEO of Socialtext, a company that sells Web-based collaboration software based on wikis. The 34-year-old serial entrepreneur lives in Palo Alto with his wife and two children. Until Socialtext obtained venture-capital funding this spring, Mayfield’s office was entirely virtual. But even though the company now has a real headquarters, Mayfield still carries a small armory of digital devices around with him, including a Treo 600 smart phone, a 17-inch Macintosh PowerBook G4 laptop (“It sounds like it wouldn’t be portable, but it is,” he says), an Olympus 5060 digital camera, an Apple iPod with an iTalk attachment for recording voice memos, a Jabra wireless headset, a Wi-Fi network detector, an Apple Airport Extreme Wi-Fi base station, a USB memory key, and, of course, the obligatory tangle of power cords and chargers.

Together, these devices ensure that Mayfield is never out of touch with his colleagues or his family. For one-to-one communications, Mayfield says, he uses the Treo, Skype’s free VoIP service, and the e-mail system built into Socialtext’s own software. To conduct company meetings and client calls, he uses the conference-calling services at FreeConference.com. When he’s at a convention, a hotel, or a rented meeting room, he connects the Airport to the local network, which creates his own Wi-Fi zone and gives him access to the Web, Skype, instant-messenger software, and his company’s always-on IRC channel. He also advertises his whereabouts by registering his temporary Wi-Fi zone with a service called plazes and by describing on EVDB the events he’s attending. He uses Movable Type and TypePad to maintain multiple blogs, including one for his employees, one for the public, and several restricted to his customers. He bookmarks interesting Web pages on Delicious and sends them out on his personal link feed, titled “Linkorama.” He reads the news and follows his favorite blogs using the NetNewsWire and NewsGator RSS aggregators, which also supply him with regular podcasts. Almost daily, he uploads photos from the Treo and the camera to Flickr, where anyone can view his photo stream. He even has a dedicated wiki for his family.

Though Mayfield is a self-confessed early adopter, he isn’t using all these socialcomputing technologies just for the sake of being wired. They’re “rewarding in all kinds of ways,” he says. He uses Skype to save money on long-distance calls; he announces his location to increase the chances of meeting useful business contacts; he posts photos on Flickr because he wants his family and his friends to know what he’s been up to; and he blogs because it’s an efficient way to keep his employees up to date, care for his customers, and get his message out to the larger world.

And this, in the end, is what’s truly new about continuous computing. As advanced as our PCs and our other information gadgets have grown, we never really learned to love them. We’ve used them all these years only because they have made us more productive. But now that’s changing. When computing devices are always with us, helping us to be the social beings we are, time spent “on the computer” no longer feels like time taken away from real life. And it isn’t: cell phones, laptops, and the Web are rapidly becoming the best tools we have for staying connected to the people and ideas and activities that are important to us. The underlying hardware and software will never become invisible, but they will become less obtrusive, allowing us to focus our attention on the actual information being conveyed. Eventually, living in a world of continuous computing will be like wearing eyeglasses: the rims are always visible, but the wearer forgets she has them on–even though they’re the only things making the world clear.

Wade Roush is a Technology Review senior editor based in San Francisco.

Money: It must be said that in many parts of the globe, low incomes and political restrictions mean that citizens are very far from achieving a state of continuous computing. At the same time, however, cellular networks cover an increasing portion of the planet, efforts such as Nicholas Negroponte’s Hundred-Dollar Laptop project may bring cheap computing to many markets currently underserved by major manufacturers, and countries without an entrenched infrastructure of landline telephones are often leapfrogging to broadband wireless networks. [back]
Almost everywhere: There is, however, one limitation still tethering us to the grid: battery power. Even today’s best nickel-metal-hydride, lithium-ion, and lithium-ion-polymer batteries will keep a laptop running for only eight to 10 hours, and a cell phone for about five hours (assuming continuous talk). Compact fuel cells could quintuple these times, but they aren’t expected to be widely available until 2010. [back]
Little sense: Blog reader Erik Karl Sorgatz comments: “I disagree to the extent that there is an old maxim about the system: ‘If you build it…they will hack it!’ Disguise, deception, and outright identity theft are also amplified by the very same tools that can bring us together in our creative phases. In some ways, this dependence upon a technology-based infrastructure makes us both stronger and weaker. It might be better to blend this all with a little self-reliance, some non-computer-based learning, a little apprenticeship involving real mechanical skills—they don’t even teach the kids shop classes anymore.” [back]
Patterns: Blog reader Ian Wells asks, “How do we teach ourselves and our children to develop a rhythm of communication that is helpful to our relationships and our human pace of life? What patterns of communication will drive us crazy? What helps our families? What helps our relationships? Why do so many people spend so much time watching TV instead of doing something active with real people? We had part of the same issue with cheap phone calls, with continuous TV, with broadband Internet. Now we go up a level of choice. Because we can communicate continuously, should we? What do conscientious parents teach their children about healthy continuous computing? Are there healthy limits?” [back]
Futuristic gadgets: Blog reader Jim Haye comments: “Very interesting, but I’m surprised at the lack of coverage of the devices we interact with each day that have the most computing power of all—automobiles. The typical car today has numerous microprocessors operating over several networks and runs incredibly complex software in a highly risky environment. Sure, you don’t carry them in your pocket, and they’re transparent to most users, but automotive information systems are a big computing application.” [back]
Always-on: Blog reader Daniel Barkowitz writes, “This ‘hands-on’ participatory back channel even now pertains to the world of college admissions. At MIT, we are conducting our own social experiment with blogging about the college admissions and financial-aid process with our incoming MIT freshman class. The experiment has been a tremendous success, providing students a much more interactive way to get their questions answered and their issues addressed. As the director of financial aid at MIT, I walk around with my AIM channel always open on my cell phone and constantly am monitoring the blog for feedback. Not only does the technology exist to allow this, but the next generation of customers is expecting it.” [back]
Plazes: A Web service based in Cologne, Germany, that allows users to set up new “plazes”—representations of local networks complete with pictures, maps, comments, and lists of the people online —wherever they go. [back]
Being wired: Blog reader Pete Sulick comments: “Are we taking the first steps toward digitizing our lives, or is this just an inevitably more efficient way to share information, like e-mail, TV, the telephone, radio, the pony express?” [back]

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