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Ambient Findability by Peter Morville

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Chapter 4. Intertwingled

Intertwingularity is not generally acknowledged—people keep pretending they can make things deeply hierarchical, categorizable and sequential when they can't. Everything is deeply intertwingled. —Theodor Holm Nelson

As a sociology student at Harvard in the early 1960s, Ted Nelson enrolled in a computer course for the humanities that changed his life. For his term project, he tried to develop a text-handling system that would enable writers to edit and compare their work easily. Considering he was coding on a mainframe in Assembler language before word processing had been invented, it's no surprise his attempt fell short. Despite this early setback, Ted was captivated by the potential of nonsequential text to transform how we organize and share ideas. His pioneering work on "hypertext" and "hypermedia" laid an intellectual foundation for the World Wide Web, and his views on "intertwingularity " will haunt the house of ubicomp for many years to come.

We experience Nelson's intertwingularity every time we click a hypertext link. We move fluidly between different pages, documents, sites, authors, formats, and topics. In this nonlinear world, the contrasts can be dramatic. A single blog post may link to an article about dinosaurs, a pornographic video, a presidential speech, and a funny song about cabbage. We routinely travel vast semantic distances in the space of a second, and these dramatic transitions aren't limited to the Web. Our remote controls put hundreds of television channels at our fingertips. Terrorism on CNN. Click. Sumo wrestling on ESPN. Click. Sesame Street on PBS. Click. And our cell phones relentlessly punctuate the flow of daily life. One minute we're playing soccer with our kids at the neighborhood park. Seconds later we're in the midst of a business crisis half way around the world. The juxtapositions are worthy of shock and awe. Business and pleasure. Reality and fiction. Humor and horror. And yet, we're not shocked. We've become accustomed to dramatic transition. We expect it. We enjoy it. We're addicted.

Hypermedia technologies permeate our environment, shaping a bizarre hyper-reality that delivers information and commands attention. And even as we complain of information anxiety, we're about to elevate intertwingularity to a whole new level with the advent of "ubiquitous computing." The late Mark Weiser, formerly chief technology officer at Xerox PARC, coined the term in 1988 to define a future in which PCs are replaced with tiny, invisible computers embedded in everyday objects. So, whether we call it ubiquitous, pervasive, mobile, embedded, invisible, ambient, or calm computing, the vision is nothing new. What's new is the rapid transformation of this vision into reality. It's really happening, right now. Where Moore's Law meets Metcalfe's Law , we've reached a tipping point, and there's no going back. Faster, smaller, cheaper processors and devices. A rich tapestry of communication networks with ever-increasing bandwidth. A constant stream of acronyms tumbling into our vernacular: GPS, RFID, MEMS, IPv6, UWB. We don't need a crystal ball to see the road ahead. As William Gibson warned us "The future exists today. It's just unevenly distributed."

My fascination with this future present dwells at the crossroads of ubiquitous computing and the Internet. We're creating new interfaces to export networked information while simultaneously importing vast amounts of data about the real world into our networks. Familiar boundaries blur in this great intertwingling. Toilets sprout sensors. Objects consume their own metadata. Ambient devices, findable objects, tangible bits, wearables, implants, and ingestibles are just some of the strange mutations residing in this borderlands of atoms and bits. They are signposts on the road to ambient findability, a realm in which we can find anyone or anything from anywhere at anytime. Of course, ambient findability is not necessarily a goal. We may have serious reservations about life in the global Panopticon.[*] And from a practical perspective, it's an unreachable destination. Perfect findability is unattainable. And yet, we're surely headed in the general direction of the unexplored territory of ambient findability. So strap on your seatbelts, power up your smartphones, and prepare for turbulence. Beyond this place, there be dragons. Or is it streets paved with silicon? Either way, we'll soon find out.


In April 2001, after the agonizing process of closing my former company, I managed to escape into the sanctuary of Yosemite National Park. I enjoyed the romantic notion of figuring out what to do with the rest of my life while hiking in the wilderness. So, armed with a bottle of water and some beef jerky, I headed for the snowy peaks in search of transcendental moments and healing visions. Upon reaching the summit, I found myself alone, amidst the most breathtaking panorama I have ever seen. I sat for a while, enjoying the beauty and tranquility of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Then, I reached into my pocket, pulled out my cell phone, and called my mom. Can you hear me now?

These days, people use cell phones everywhere: in planes, trains, automobiles, grocery stores, golf courses, and bathtubs. During a half-marathon last summer, I saw a fellow runner with a cell phone held to his sweaty ear. In today's society, such behavior barely raises eyebrows. Conspicuous consumption is hip. Leather holsters, swivel belt clips, colored faceplates, and personalized ringtones transform consumer appliance into hi-tech fashion statement: everyware for everybody who's anybody. Until yesterday. Haven't you heard? Cell phones are passé. GSM smart phones are where it's at. Web, email, calendar, contacts, stereo, camera, television, and global positioning system in a single device. Moblogging from a ski lift in the Swiss Alps? Now that's cool. Checking email while driving? Not so cool, though I'm guilty as charged. As William Gibson says, "the street finds its own use for things." And that's part of the fun. The search space for novel uses of mobile devices is immense and stretches well beyond findability into art, business, education, entertainment, healthcare, politics, and warfare. We can read, write, buy, sell, talk, listen, work, play, attack, and defend.

In Smart Mobs, Howard Rheingold emphasizes the potential of mobile communications to create a social revolution by enabling new forms of cooperation. He describes the emergent behavior exhibited by thumb tribes of connected teenagers: "the term 'swarming' was frequently used by the people I met in Helsinki to describe the cybernegotiated public flocking behavior of texting adolescents."[*] Rheingold notes that mobile devices enable groups of people to act in concert even if they don't know each other, and cites numerous examples of peaceful (and not so peaceful) public demonstrations from Manila to Seattle in which tens of thousands of protestors were mobilized and coordinated by cell phones and waves of text messages. In his book, Rheingold tends toward the sunny side of this future by asserting the wisdom of crowds:

The right kinds of online social networks know more than the sum of their parts: connected and communicating in the right ways, populations of humans can exhibit a kind of collective intelligence.[]

Of course, there's also a dark side to these technologies of cooperation. Smart phones don't always make for smart mobs. Groups of uninformed, agitated individuals can be dangerous and dumb, whether wielding pitch forks, flaming torches, or Nokia 7710s.

Fortunately, our mobile devices also enable us to become smarter (or at least more informed) individuals. We have instant access to an astonishing array of news sources, from CNN, Aljazeera, and the Hindustan Times to http://slashdot.org and http://rageboy.com. We can look up almost any fact from anywhere at anytime. Second and third and fourth opinions sprout like mushrooms after a rainfall. We have an unprecedented ability to choose our news and to see all sides of a story before making an informed decision. We can learn, and even better, we can remember, for our mobile devices also serve as outboard memory. They memorize schedules, names, addresses, phone numbers, passwords, birthdays, and grocery lists, so we don't have to. And increasingly, we rely on them. Our gadgets become part of our lives. The transition from nice to necessary can happen surprisingly fast, as novel use becomes expected facility. Consider the following:

  • Student use of wireless laptops during classroom lectures for real-time reference (e.g., to fact check the professor's claims) and backchannel communications with fellow students (i.e., the digital equivalent of passing notes).

  • Calling your spouse from the video store to gauge interest in a specific movie or from the grocery store to ask where to find the hot chocolate.

  • Googling a new acquaintance while waiting for him to arrive at a restaurant (he just called from the road to let you know he'd be five minutes late).

  • Using a smartphone to check Amazon customer reviews (and prices) of books found while browsing inside a Barnes & Noble bookstore.

  • Distributed, collaborative shopping by teenage girls using picture phones. How do you like this dress? Does this color look good on me? Should I buy one for you?

All of these uses and many more are becoming commonplace. Sometimes our mobile devices simply make us more efficient. Sometimes they cause fundamental and surprising changes in behavior. At the ragged edges of meatspace and cyberspace, the intertwingling has just begun. The users are inexperienced, the applications are immature, and the interfaces are exacting and temperamental. Tiny screens and keyboards don't make for optimal usability under the best of conditions. Even a teenager with nimble fingers and good eyes will interact better with a desktop computer than a smartphone. But mobile computing involves imperfect conditions: poor lighting, limited power, erratic motion, divided attention, and fractional connectivity. Try reading a white paper or typing an email message on a Treo while walking on the beach on a sunny day with your three-year-old daughter. Watch out for seagulls and hold on tight. Treos aren't waterproof, yet.

We will overcome some of these limitations. Batteries, which today contribute roughly 35% of a laptop computer's weight, will grow smaller, last longer, and recharge faster. Evolutionary progress in traditional lithium batteries continues while micro fuel cells and 3D architectures built with nanotech promise revolution. And in connectivity, the patchy mosaic of Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and cellular data wireless (GSM/GPRS, CDMA) will inevitably be transformed into what we experience as a seamless utility. Already, Wi-Fi hot spots in offices and cafés are morphing into hot zones covering urban cores and in some cases entire metropolitan areas. And ultra-wideband (UWB) technologies promise effective wireless data rates of well over one gigabit per second, easily enough for feature-length films and high-definition videoconferencing.

Interface advances are a bit trickier. Screen resolution, brightness, and contrast will improve, but size will remain an inherent problem of mobile computing. Our pockets aren't getting any bigger. Here we must look to more exotic solutions like digital paper, head-mounted displays, and web on the wall. It's tough to predict when and whether these technologies will shift from prototype to product. For now, visibility is limited. Similar challenges exist with input. Fat fingers on tiny keyboards are a major obstacle to mobile productivity. Chorded keyboards like the Twiddler, shown in Figure 4-1, are unlikely to enjoy widespread adoption despite the efforts of wearable computing advocates.[*] And, voice recognition has gone nearly nowhere in over a decade, thanks to inter-and intrapersonal variation (we don't even speak consistently ourselves) and disruptive background noise.

The Twiddler 2 is a four ounce combination keyboard and mouse manufactured by the Handkey Corporation

Figure 4-1. The Twiddler 2 is a four ounce combination keyboard and mouse manufactured by the Handkey Corporation

Even major breakthroughs in speech-to-text software won't remove all the problems. Do you really want strangers listening to you write email? Speaking of which, we must also acknowledge the limits of attention. Can we truly focus on reading and writing while walking and talking? Can we be entirely productive in taxi cabs and noisy cafés? Inveterate multitaskers will answer yes. Others will argue they've no choice, and for many globe trotters and road warriors, this is true. But many of us will find that much of our work is still best performed in a safe, familiar office environment with an ergonomic keyboard, a mouse, and a big flat panel monitor. In other words, smartphones will not replace desktops and laptops, but their use will expand into a growing number of growing niches. We may use them everywhere, but not for everything. We may rely on them for ready reference, but not so much for research. Just because we can doesn't mean we will.

What's most exciting is the anticipation of unforeseen applications. In the Cluetrain Manifesto, David Weinberger notes, "We don't know what the Web is for but we've adopted it faster than any technology since fire."[*] At the crossroads of pervasive computing and the Internet, this sentiment only rings louder. Adam Greenfield, a pioneer of everyware and a passionate advocate for ethical ubicomp notes:

Ubicomp is here right now. It lives on your cellphone, or in a chip on your dashboard, and comes out to play anytime you turn down iTunes' volume with your phone or cruise through an EZPass lane. It is also, and simultaneously, what Gene Becker calls 'a hundred-year problem': a technical, social, ethical and political challenge of extraordinary subtlety and difficulty, resistant to comprehensive solution in anything like the near term.[]

Visions of pervasive computing and ambient findability ignite our imaginations, but we're a far cry from best practices for everyware, and the road ahead is neither straight nor narrow. But we should not fear this journey for we will not walk alone. As we wander the wilderness of ubicomp, our mobile devices will be our lifeline, connecting us as never before: indivisible and intertwingled. Can you hear me now?

[*] The Panopticon is a type of prison designed by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham. The concept of the design is to allow an observer to observe all prisoners without the prisoners being able to tell if they are being observed or not, thus conveying a "sentiment of an invisible omniscience." From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panopticon.

[*] Smart Mobs by Howard Rheingold. Perseus (2002), p. 13.

[] Rheingold, p. 179.

[*] Georgia Tech professor Thad Starner invented a four-inch strip of Velcro that sticks a Twiddler to a shoulder bag, enabling conversion from storage to use in two seconds, the optimal speed of access based upon his usability research. Are you ready for geek chic?

[*] The Cluetrain Manifesto by Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger. Perseus (2000), p. 43.

[] "Design Engaged: The Final Programme" by Adam Greenfield. From http://v-2.org/displayArticle.php?article_num=908.

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