Is the technology available to make these human–gadget relationships a reality?
Devices don’t often know that they’re [near] your other devices. If you’re sitting in front of a television and tweeting about Breaking Bad on your laptop, your television doesn’t know that’s what you’re up to. And your laptop doesn’t know you’re in front of a television that’s showing you that show. There might be interesting things you could do if it did. Your laptop might have known not to show you any spoilers, for example. That stuff isn’t hard to imagine. It’s just that at the moment the devices don’t [work together]. Pieces of the technology needed to do this do exist.
How do we get the rest of the technology needed to create these relationships?
Partly, it takes time for people to start using the technology that exists. I was just reading a Pew Internet & American Life Project study [about that]. [Editor’s note: The study reports that that smartphones, broadband Internet and other technology aren’t as widely adopted as they might seem. For example, only 56 percent of all Americans even own a smartphone, much less have a relationship with it.] So there’s a cultural acceptance piece—it takes awhile for new technologies to settle in. There’s also a regulatory piece, where different countries have different regulations that affect how you experience the technology. The European Union clearly has a different point of view about personal data than they do in the U.S.
So, there is a lot more work to be done beyond developing smarter gadgets?
We talk about it as though it was one world, but we’ve truthfully been in a world of multiple Internets for at least a decade, even if you just talk about it in terms of physical infrastructure. [South] Korea has true two-way Internet—high-speed uploading and high-speed downloading, no throttle. On the other hand, in places like Australia download is a seven-to-one ratio to upload, which means it’s much easier to consume content than it is to create and share it. That means the Internet feels different [to people in different places].
When the pieces—infrastructure, content, hardware, algorithms—come together, when people start to have “relationships” with their devices, what will that be like?
The scenarios about smart context-aware phones are always like, “Oh, Genevieve, you’re in New York, we know you like coffee, and we’re going to take you to a place that serves flat whites because we know you’re ridiculously attached to your Australian coffee.” [What if your device said,] “Listen, there is a piece of art at the MoMA that is transcendental, and it will make you weep.”? I know that’s not what you’re expecting, but that’s where I’m going to take you now.” That would be a completely different notion, an object deciding at some level that coffee can happen any time but this piece of art is one-off and deciding that would be a time for delight and surprise and a little bit of magic, and that’s actually much harder to do.
That piece—the algorithm for delight, the algorithm for surprise—you crack that code, and I think it will be magic. I don’t quite know how to get there yet. I was joking with someone recently about that I thought Arthur C. Clarke got it wrong about any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, because I actually think we should be making advanced technology that is magic. The first photos, the first time electricity flickered on, the first time you touched a touch screen—not all technology has to be about problem-solving efficiency gains. In some of the most popular technologies over the last 100 years, part of what they delivered was magic. Television was about magic before it was about the Real Housewives of New Jersey.