My learned neighbour Mike Kuniavsky, on the ever-receding horizon implied by the phrase Ubiquitous Computing:
I see [ubiquitous computing] as analogous to "Physics" or "Psychology," terms that describe a focus for investigation, rather than an agenda.
Why don't others see it the same? I think it's because the term is fundamentally different because it has an implied infinity in it. Specifically, the word "ubiquitous" implies an end state, something to strive for, something that's the implicit goal of the whole project. That's of course not how most people in the industry look at it, but that's how outsiders see it. As a side effect, the infinity in the term means that it simultaneously describes a state that practitioners cannot possibly attain ("ubiquitous" is like "omniscient"--it's an absolute that is impossible to achieve) and an utopia that others can easily dismiss. It's the worst of both worlds
Mike also identifies Artificial Intelligence and Ambient Intelligence as having this problem too. In they eyes of your detractors you'll never get there, you're crazy for thinking it's worth trying, and the steps along the way don't measure up to the vision. I'd add that Virtual Reality also has this issue, since the reality part is unattainable (and if the uncanny valley is to be believed, steps towards it can actually make things worse).
I like the solution Mike offers to this. Rather than inventing new terms, he's simply asserting that ubicomp has already happened, and has been with us since around 2005. There's more on this in his talk from UX Week last August which was great, and no doubt also in his upcoming book.
I like the idea of framing these unattainable words as being about now, not some distant future, and working with that to see where we go next. It's fun to imagine a light misting of comp, that will steadily increase in saturation until it's ubi... a luminous bath, some might say. A version of Gibson's "the future is already here, it's just not very evenly distributed", perhaps.
I'm also wondering if there's something to these limitless phrases that attracts academics. I have degrees in artificial intelligence and in virtual reality so you might think I'd know, but I always felt late to the party in those circles, like I'd missed the initial buzz and arrived in time for the hard defensive slog. And hey, Web 2.0 feels like that sometimes too - arguably, whatever's next is already here and we should take a leaf out of Mike's book and start declaring it so. When Web 2.0 was first coined, it wasn't about the future!
Barclays have launched a combined credit, Oyster and cash payment card for travellers in London (a textbook Greenfield device if ever I saw one). At the moment there are ads for it all over the tube featuring a variety of mocked-up Minority Report-style futurescapes based on present day London. Thanks to Flickr I found that Ned Richards grabbed a couple of snaps of them; he's definitely right that the golf courses aren't as exciting as roller-coasters.
I love this kind of imagery, but my last year of travel has pretty much convinced me that you don't need to mock them up. I haven't been any of the cities that get the most attention for their present day sci-fi realities (Tokyo, Dubai, Shanghai or Singapore), but there are pockets of unevenly distributed future all over the place. Here's a picture I took last week from London's Docklands Light Railway:
And one of the same part of London from the 23rd floor of One Churchill Place:
(apparently it was one of the first skyscrapers to be completed after 9/11 and therefore one with a tough attitude towards security and structure stability, which is good because just over to the right of this photo is London City Airport's runway)
I started thinking about the future-now of Western cities in May when XTech in Paris placed us in a hotel overlooking a tried-and-failed Modernist complex near the Eiffel tower. References to Alphaville were inevitable, the French origins of Parkour were entirely explained.
I'm not the only one taking these snaps though, my friend Adam took this one in Chicago recently. As if the city-scape there isn't sci-fi enough, his phone camera was kind enough to accidentally filtr it into concept territory, just so:
Welcome to the future.
With it's vast geo-thermal energy surplus, Iceland is set to abandon any last dependencies on oil. This begs the question - what other dependencies does Iceland have?
Given an inevitable distopian Mad Max/Waterworld type future, then what things should Iceland be stock-piling now? Could they grow enough food? Should they be hoarding electrical components, battery acid, pipes for steam power, or are they doomed like the rest of us?
Come the apocalypse, nations/regions will play to their strengths - will places like Iceland become impenetrable fortresses of power, winning the energy wars by situation and living the 20th century's sustainable-unsustainable lifestyle against all the odds?
On the other hand, Phil Gyford sensed a "seductive illusion of self-sufficiency" about the Falklands in his recent trip. Would Fortress Iceland be like that? Is energy enough?
This seems like a good place to park some notes I've made on where I think the music industry should be headed. There's a long article or three hidden in there somewhere, but I'm not ready to write it yet.
General trends. Wherever I get my music, be it from a brick and mortar outlet, an online store, or direct from an artist or label I need the following qualities:
Retailers. They should be fixated by choice, but also by managing choice. Distribution is now easy, even high-street shops should be able to provide anything I want, instantly. I should never have to order, and wait. They could download the data, burn a CD and print the packaging in 5 minutes - so why don't they? Why don't black-market independent shops do this from iTunes or Napster - or do they already? If Amazon have a rich database full of recommendation material, why don't HMV or Virgin? Shouldn't I be able to pick up a CD, and find out what else I might like (maybe put it on a recommendation shelf, based on a barcode scan or something)?
Venues. All of them should be recording and distributing every performance, subject to artist approval of course. I know that instant post-gig CDs are in the works (and patent encumbered I believe) but that will only happen in the worst corporate-sell-out kind of a way, I'm sure. And only at the level where every show sounds the same, says the cynic in me.
Artists. They should be making their work available across the full spectrum - not just album tracks but also live/rehearsal/demo/acoustic/rare. They have the authority and sources of depth I was talking about earlier. Bands like Sigur Rós have already demonstrated online liner notes (onliner notes?) are viable with their untitled album, ( ), even if it was in the pursuit of absolute minimalism (no words, no titles, no stickers on the box...). Artists are aware that a loyal fanbase will pay for new material, especially if they get it first (before the radio, before the magazines and reviewers even).
Studios. Studios should be digital-distribution aware. Sound engineers should be too. It's the norm now for amateur and unsigned bands leave the studio with CDRs and immediately encode it at home to send to friends and promote online. Why don't the studios invest in professional quality encoders and use their mastering and mix-down knowhow to provide a range of good quality digital formats, optimised for the music in question? Ditto the standalone mastering people. Ditto CD pressing plants, who should be able to do mixed-mode CDs with a range pre-encoded tracks for sharing (free promotion).
Pricing. It's occasionally mooted that artists should give away recordings and make money touring. That's a poor excuse if people are willing to pay for recorded music, and we know they are. Artists will suffer from the volume and choice of alternatives, so the cost per track must come down. Actually, the cost per track must come down if iPod buyers are to be able to afford to fill their iPod. Likewise, if people want to pay per play, the cost must be negligable. Of course, steadily lowered prices reach a limit eventually. Unfortunately, that limit isn't 0, download fans. As cost-per-song reduces, it tends to a collective/blanket license. Otherwise there's no money in the system, and artists don't get paid. So, how should a compulsory license be paid? Could it be a digital music player tax? (Wasn't there a licensing levy on blank media?) Or should it be opt-in? (Wasn't there once a license which allowed people to record music from the radio in the UK?)
Fairness. The popularity of artists suffers from a power-law distribution, I'm sure. Should the proceeds from license fees use that distribution exactly, or should we work to flatten the distribution (progressive tax, in effect)? Are Britney Spears, Robbie Williams, Madonna and the Rolling Stones capable of making up the difference using the gravity provided by their own mega-brands? What about Elvis? Is making excuses for weighting towards the little guy the same as saying that artists should give away music and tour to make up the difference?