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When computers disappear and computing bleeds into the world around us, it also means that instead of interacting with separate small computing devices, we will essentially live inside one giant computer. (Photos.com)
When computers disappear and computing bleeds into the world around us, it also means that instead of interacting with separate small computing devices, we will essentially live inside one giant computer. (Photos.com)

Long Read

We live inside the machine now: The arrival of ubiquitous computing Add to ...

“We’re ready to take a deep breath and do it in a way that meets our goals as people a little bit better,” says Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor and author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other. “Technology can make us forget what we know about life. For a couple years there, [total connectivity] seemed like a good idea.”

These sorts of cultural affirmations suggest that different parts of the world might move into ubiquitous computing at different speeds. Some people are therefore resisting the pull of the Force – or perhaps the Dark Side, as it were – more than others.

When Intel initially hired Ms. Bell, a cultural anthropologist from Australia, in 1998, her initial mandate was to help the company understand women and non-American consumers. Her success led Intel, two years ago, to put her at the helm of an entire research and development lab, complete with a staff of 100 that includes social scientists, designers and fellow anthropologists.

They came to some surprising conclusions about how different cultures will react to ubiquitous computing. Ms. Bell found that in such countries as Japan, Singapore and South Korea, computers have achieved a higher level of natural interaction with humans because the public believes that machines are their friends.

Various cultural, economic and demographic differences – ranging from a higher proportion of elderly citizens to denser living environments resulting in less privacy and even more reserved personal conversation style – have generally resulted in a greater trust of technology in Asia than in the West. That’s why robots and other machines in your environment that monitor and talk to you are more advanced and accepted in Osaka than in New York or London. “If you go to Tokyo, everything talks to you and expects you to talk back,” Bell says.

Westerners, meanwhile, have been psychologically conditioned into a “Terminator mentality” of wariness by decades of apocalyptic science-fiction where machines turn on humanity, as well as by media exposés of the misdeeds of companies and governments. So while robotic tools such as Siri and Kinect are old hat in the East, in the West there have been considerable questions raised about how such devices and applications store and track biometric and voice data.

Such wariness may not stop the ultimate outgrowth of ubiquitous computing in the West, but it is likely to slow it. As Jared Diamond noted in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Guns, Germs and Steel, cultural differences towards certain technologies can have major ramifications in the success or failure of nations. Japan’s decision to give up guns in the 18th century came because its strong traditional Samurai class rejected them. The Samurai’s cultural dominance within Japan led the nation’s war-making ability to fall markedly behind other states with less wealth and social cohesion over the subsequent centuries. So, these national differences in cultural acceptance of ubiquitous computing could very well determine who the leaders – and the followers – of the next century will be.

Technologists like Mr. Cerf want to see the benefits of ubiquitous computing adopted, but they also welcome this cautious approach – as long as it’s reasoned and not based on irrational fears. The wine cellar in Mr. Cerf’s basement, for example, is wired to send him a text message if the room temperature rises above 60 degrees Fahrenheit. He hasn’t yet got around to setting the system up so that he can remotely restart the cooling system, but he intends to. If someone really wanted to, they could hack in and ruin his wine collection, so the question is not just to try and prevent that from happening, but also in understanding why anyone would actually do so.

“The more we rely on these sorts of systems, the more fragile we become,” he says. “But there is as much connectivity as there is disconnectivity associated with these mechanisms.”

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