In among what’s undoubtedly the world’s densest concentration of pixels, clamouring for attention across the impossibly vast halls of the annual Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, it is hard to remember the quiet promises of pervasive, ambient, ubiquitous computing. The dream of what’s now called the Internet of Things was of specific devices for specific purposes, discreetly tucking themselves into pockets of your life.

“The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it” — Mark Weiser, The Computer for the 21st Century, Scientific American, Sept 1991

Around 10 years after Weiser’s seminal article, Roy Want el al noted that the hardware was beginning to “disappear”. Since the development of Bluetooth, Wifi and improvements in processing and storage, our tasks are less likely to be interrupted by connection issues or capacity constraints. As they pointed out:

“The hardware components for many applications are reaching the point where a user is less likely to be distracted by the medium than by the interaction with the controlling software” — Roy Want et al, Disappearing Hardware, Pervasive Computing, Jan/Mar 2002

The designers and researchers building early prototypes hadn’t quite anticipated that the “interaction with the controlling software”, far from disappearing, would go on to become the playing field for the ravenous mobile industry. The box of tricks at the disposal of a modern-day app and ecosystem builder — the behavioural psychology, game design, understanding of flow, social dynamics, economics — leaves us helpless to resist. We are far from the original vision of pervasive computing. The world of connected products exists now, but many of them are connected to smartphones, their gorgeous widescreen retina displays demanding constant attention. Fitness bands are graduating to smart watches with their own touchscreens. And cars, suddenly the connected cars are everywhere. An ergonomic set of controls — steering wheels, gearsticks, pedals, levers — being supplanted by another touchscreen, another HD display.

The average UK smartphone user is on it over 3 hours every day according to Tecmark. The word “mobile” has become meaningless (note there’s no “desktop world congress” — everything is mobile now). As touchscreens invade our wrists, our cars, our appliances, we won’t even be able to measure “usage” of mobile technology any more, our attention increasingly fractured among the demands of each health app, entertainment feed or social network, split into glances, idle swipes, haptic alerts. Apart from causing traffic accidents (see the recent road signs from the city of Hayward) or ruining Valentine’s day, our ability to live offline is being eroded. As Sherry Turkle says “We are all cyborgs now”.

Where will it end? The next logical step is already among us. The smartphone strapped to your head, filling your field of vision with immersive virtual or augmented reality. You are plugged in, entirely connected, a node in the network, a thing on the internet. And you are fully disconnected from the real world around you. You’re the disconnected connected.

“There is more information available at our fingertips during a walk in the woods than in any computer system, yet people find a walk among trees relaxing and computers frustrating. Machines that fit the human environment instead of forcing humans to enter theirs will make using a computer as refreshing as taking a walk in the woods” — Mark Weiser, The Computer for the 21st Century, Scientific American, Sept 1991

Originally published at on March 4, 2015.

Technology at Our Future Health; Non-exec director at NHS Digital

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