Forgive me, this gets a little geeky in a few places. But that isn’t the purpose, and hopefully the geek factor doesn’t scare too many people off.
After Glen wrote a piece about Microsoft possibly failing as it announces its latest foray into operating systems and hardware marriage, I sparred a bit with Nathan over Apple and the hardware mod community. I don’t actually think that the things I was discussing with Nathan in that thread are particularly meaningful, but I didn’t want to discuss what is to me a more important topic until I let the idea stew a little. I wasn’t, and am still not, entirely sure how I feel about the larger matter. Still, I thought it was about time to tackle the topic.
One of the reasons I was, and remain, a fan of Apple (even when they were not producing products I wanted I was still a fan, and watched what they did as a company) is that they seem to implicitly understand that the best tools work well because they work with human nature rather than against it. From the time that our first humanoid ansestor used a stick to bring something just out of reach to within grasp, we have used tools that work with our understanding and thought processes. The better they mesh with the way we work, the better the tool. We had telephones rather than telegraphs installed in our homes, in part, because it is more natural to the human brain to translate thoughts to words (if that even requires translation) than to translate words into taps and pulses. We invent tools like blenders, again in part, because the machines mimic methods we already use when doing the same tasks by hand.
One of the reasons the personal computing explosion happened is the desktop metaphor. We were already used to organizing the information in our lives, our personal tasks, our work, on a desk. The desktop metaphor made sense to us, we simply moved it from physical to graphical space. This is possible because it actually exists primarily in mental space. We don’t actually need a physical place where we gather our work and papers in one particular location. But it reassures us. It triggers our memories. It lets us set aside a place for a particular type of activity. We like that. It fits human nature. Or at least it did. Maybe that metaphor is going away though…
Ecommerce provider Monetate released a report for the third quarter of 2012. They found that tablet growth is eroding the marketshare of desktop machines to a pretty surprising degree. Monetate provides SaaS (or Software as a Service) tech to some fairly major retailers. Best Buy, QVC, people like that. This gives them a way to measure the e-buying activities of a pretty large cross section of the economy. When they break down web traffic to company sites by device, they saw browsers from traditional machines (laptops and desktops) drop from 92.33% to 81.60% in a single year.
Now 81.6% is still by far the lions share of internet traffic. But 10% in a single year is also a major shift. And I think the shift is even more significant if we place it in context.
Internet shopping is still a tremendously new concept. It wasn’t very long ago that the idea that you could search for, find, view, compare, and read reviews on a product all on a computer, was a new idea. Purchasing the product was a step even further. The concept of things like cyber monday, or Amazon, were still whisps of future ideas. In part because we still needed the concept of physical space to buy a physical product. This is comparable to the development of money. Early trades would be done as barter, because while the idea that your grain might have a similar value as the hog I just butchered is fairly basic. The idea of a symbol to represent that value was not yet accessable to our mental abilities. As the idea of value and similarity and measurement of value took hold, we realized that we could use something, coins for example, to “hold” the value. At first because the coins actually had value in themselves. We literally bartered a known value of goods or work for a known value in precious metal. But once the idea of symbolic trade had taken hold, the next logical step came easily. Why use money that had practical value when the symbolic value had more importance?
The idea of IOUs, checks, credit, paper money… all these things arise from the realization that money is only a symbol. It needs no intrinsic value.
In a similar way, as companies began to use catalogues and mail order purchases, the idea that physical goods had to have proxemity to us in space starts to seem quaint. Can I see a model in the store? Then why should I care that the model I get comes from another location?
The internet has taught as that an object doesn’t even have to have physical existence to have value. The continuing sales of virtual objects in video games for “real” money prove this. The realization that we no longer need a physical object is still dawning on us. But as it does, we no longer need a physical space metaphor for the non-existant objects.
Why use a desktop metaphor when the metaphorical documents no longer seem real in the physical sense?
But what metaphor do we use to place our non-real objects in?
It sounds like a Zen koan.
The metaphor is shifting due to this. Documents, movies, pictures, music. We are finally making the mental conection that all of these things are simply information. And that new realization is searching for a new metaphor. In some ways the metaphor has so far been books. We open apps, as if each application was a seperate text despite existing in a single “book” in the form of a tablet computer or phone. We refer to the new devices as tablets. We organize documents that don’t physically exist into sections, chapters, and files. We are still unsure about how to refer to non-existant things.
We can see this in the new windows system. The “live tiles” of the news windows metro interface is an example of this search for a new metaphor. Microsoft has attempted to latch onto a metaphor relating to art, or billboards. The concept seems to be that a live shuffle of information, like a flight board at the airport, can give us constant information updates and engage us more in the non-physical information we are browsing. Some people are unhappy with this. Many reviews of the software discribe the live tiles as overwhelming. Even for the ADHD society many fear we have become, a live update of all the information in our modern lives is overwhelming. Others praise the instant gratification the tiles provide. The jury is not yet back on the matter.
The real issue for me is not whether Micirosoft or Apple has a better computer, or better grasp tech. Rather I am eager to see what the next metaphor is that we will use to give meaning to the information we use. Metaphor, image and hierarchy are the secrets to our thought process. Understanding the images and layers and analogies we use will help us understand our thinking.
We have moved from a metaphor where our work and knowlegde happen in a particular place to one where we feel knowledge should follow us to any place. We expect to be able access last months sales figures in the office. But also in the airport, the train, the car, the plane, while we wait for our significant other to try on clothes…
And because we expect that information to be everywhere, anytime, it no longer counts as knowledge. We epect people to whip out the phone and check to see where Mecca is if that comes up in conversation. That is no longer important knowledge. Is is available to the world (or at least the world with technological access) at nearly all times in nearly all places. What counts as real knowledge or intelligence is increasingly the ability to synthesize knowledge. In a world where Watson, a computer program, can not only compete on a TV game show, but win by a huge margine, such trivia is not knowledge.
Since such access is not special knowledge, it is only a matter of time until we accept it as natural that such easy information access should be “built in.” The idea that such knowledge is not something seperate, and that it needs no physical location, will very soon imply that we should have access to that knowledge hardwired into our brains. The knowledge space will leave the external metaphors and become part of our “meatspace” as William Gibson might say.
To return to my first observation about Apple, the question then is “how do we organization all of human information in a way that it works with human nature, rather than overwhelming it.” Already we are watching people react negatively to the overwhelming flood of information available in this age. When we have even more access to even more knowledge, how will we react? Will we create a metaphor that allows us to manage this information? Can we?
The implications for what this means for how we define “human” and “intelligence” and “knowledge” are some ways in the future, and all of this is simply prognostication of the most basic kind, and may well be wrong. But making such predictions is the most basic function of human intelligence. Basic linear progression predictions are the primary driving force of the evolution of our early human intellect. Technology may well be the driving force for our future mental evolution. It is worth considering the directions we are headed in.