Technology's Invisible Future

Friday is tech time for me, so here's the question of the day: What will happen when computers are so ubiquitous—and have become so seamlessly integrated into the objects that surround us—that we don't even think of them as computers anymore? It can often be hard for us to imagine what life with very different technologies might be like, particularly for those of us who are extremely dependent on current technologies. I spend most of my day staring at my computer; if you asked me how I'll do my job when computers act in fundamentally different ways from the way they do now, I'd have no idea.

The possibility of computers becoming essentially invisible is raised in this BBC article:

The consequences of all this will be profound. Consider what it means to have a primarily spoken rather than screen-based relationship with a computer. When you’re speaking and listening rather than reading off a screen, you’re not researching and comparing results, or selecting from a list – you’re being given answers. Or, more precisely, you’re being given one answer, customised to match not only your profile and preferences, but where you are, what you’re doing, and who with.

Google researchers, for example, have spoken about the idea of an "intelligent cloud" that answers your questions directly, adapted to match its increasingly intimate knowledge about you and everybody else. Where is the best restaurant nearby? How do I get here? Why should I buy that?

Our relationships with computers, in this context, may come to feel more like companionship than sitting down to "use" a device: a lifelong conversation with systems that know many things about us more intimately than most mere people.

We still think of our computers as "technology," but they've come a long way toward that invisibility. Fifty years ago, there were a fair number of computers around, but you would have needed a substantial amount of training to use one. These days, most people can use a computer, but you still need to know what you're doing; it isn't like on Star Trek, where you can ask computers all kinds of vague questions and they know exactly what you mean and supply you the answer.

The differences in how the computers of 50 years from now work will be a product of both technology and its partner, design. And as such, our ideas about what things are going to be like decades hence are shaped by how things look and feel now. When Star Trek was made in the 1960s and they tried to imagine future computers much more powerful and smarter than what they had at the time, they assumed they'd still be floor-to-ceiling cabinets with banks of lights, dials and switches on them, just, you know, more. Today, due in large part to the influence of Apple, we envision technological design becoming smoother and less visible, or at the very least less visibly technological, because that's the defining technology design aesthetic of our time.

Apple's influence in contemporary technology design is hard to overstate. You're familiar with some of its hallmarks, like curved edges, smooth surfaces, and solid colors. That design vocabulary has spread to thousands of industries, only some of which have anything high-tech about them. But there's something else Apple does very consciously, which is try to separate the user from the technology. They try very hard not only to make you not worry about the hardware and software that undergird your iPhone, but to make it next to impossible for you even to access it. They talk about making products that "just work," the unspoken corollary of which is that you have no idea how they work. To take just one small example, on most cell phones, you can take off the back and replace the battery if it goes bad. Not on iPhones—you aren't allowed inside.

There's an oft-repeated quote from science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke that applies here. "Any sufficiently advanced technology," he said, "is indistinguishable from magic." Apple wants you to think of their devices not as technology but as magic. They want you to love it, but they don't want you to even ask how it works.

That, I think, is why there's been something of a backlash in recent years to the advancement of this kind of inscrutable technology. You can see it in the "maker" movement, where people are rediscovering how to fix and build things themselves, but even in things like the "teardown," which is what some tech blogs do whenever a new device comes out. They get one, rip it apart, and show you what's inside (here's an example). There's something almost pornographic about the teardown, but mostly it's a kind of rebellion: here's what the companies that make your stuff don't want you to see.

When I think about what technology will look and feel like decades from now, that invisibility is a big part of it—it'll be seamless, smooth, and smart, not requiring endless commands and choosing from lists and effort on your part in order to use it. But that might just be because my imagination is imprisoned by the way things look now.

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