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<nettime> pervasive computing
bruces {AT} well.com on Sat, 11 Dec 1999 05:34:58 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> pervasive computing

     [orig to the viridian list]

Key concepts: pervasive computing, smart garbage, product 

Attention Conservation Notice:  A speech from a design 
conference sponsored by IBM.  Some topic drift, much 
handwaving, weird ideas.   Over 3,000 words.

Speech at IDSA/IBM Designabout on Pervasive Computing
Palisades, New York, December 3, 01999

by Bruce Sterling

Let me get right down to virtual brass tacks here, and 
tackle the issue at hand. I want to talk about my favorite 
variety of so-called "pervasive computing."

    This is a new, young concept, still in search of its 
identity.  It's yet another little electronic frontier, 
but there seem to be two main parts to it.

    The first kind of pervasive computing is the kind 
where data falls out of the sky, and oozes out of the 
walls, and I've got some kind of hardware device on me, 
and I'm computing with it.  The data is the pervasive 
part, and I'm focussing it for my own purposes with some 
GUI gizmo.   That is the high-bandwidth  wireless 
Internet.  I have no problem believing in that.  It's not 
at all farfetched.  A lot of money is going there, and 
impressive things will be done.   But since I'm a science 
fiction writer, I don't find it all that attractive.

     Then there's the weirder junior version, the  second 
model of pervasive computing, the "things that think" 
version.  In this model, there is some limited bandwidth, 
but basically, everything's got its own chip in it.  
Everyday products have processing capacity as a matter of 
course.  Onboard computation is inherent in all 
postindustrial products.  As a futurist, I'm attracted to 
this version because it's farther away and the 
implications have been less explored.

    There are no hard and fast lines between these two 
models.   They're not exclusive, they could combine.  You 
could have a zillion little chips marinating in a giant 
wireless Internet.  But we already have a good running 
start on the first version. The second model is still 
mostly talk (though there is some great talk, such as Neil 
Gershenfeld's book WHEN THINGS START TO THINK).

     You cannot have pervasive computing without pervasive 
power.  If my smallest source of practical electric power 
has to be recharged and replaced all the time, then we're 
living in laptop world and palmtop world. Cheap, smart, 
ubiquitous objects would be out of the question.

      There is a very stiff entry fee for a things-that-
think world.  I have to  deliver a fraction of a watt to a 
few k of circuitry, dependably, for years on end, without 
ever having to pay any attention. No wires, no plugs.  
That's just not possible now.  But it may become possible.  
Then we're living in world where forks can be smart. Where 
bricks can be smart.  As for shoes,  shoes are extremely 

     For the sake of my speculation, let's just assume 
that we've somehow beaten the battery problem. Let's 
forecast how this technology might develop.  Basically, I 
envision three stages.  Since this is a design conference, 
let me sketch them for you.  There's a nice haptic 
interface standing over here on this easel.  No one else 
has used it.  But novelists like to run their demos on 
paper.  (((Speaker uncaps a green marker.)))  Look!  It 
affords greenness!

Step One.  The chip is detachable.  It glues on the 
product as an afterthought.
Step Two.  The chip is a component.  It's built-in.
Step Three. The whole product has been re-designed around 
the chip.  (((illustrations)))

Here's  how this trend  plays out in, say, the housing 

Step One.  You buy a home computer.  It comes in the 
house, it goes out the house, big deal.
Step Two.  You're living inside a wired house.
Step Three.  You build a house because you decide you need 
to shelter your network.

Here's how some physical devices fit in.

Step One. An antitheft tag.  Inventory tag.  A barcode.  
Dumb, simple, uses an outside power source and outside 
computing. You use them to tell where things are, what 
they are, and how much they cost.  Available now.
Step Two. A GPS navigation unit in the dashboard of your 
car.  It uses an outside signal to tell you where you are 
and how to get where you're going.
Step Three.  The tires call you up on the phone and tell 
you that their tread is wearing low and they ask 
permission to have themselves replaced.

Running an enterprise:

Step One.  You have a security system to defend your 
store's perimeter.  The doors and windows scream when 
broken, and a silent alarm calls the police.
Step Two. You label all the items in your store with 
location tags.  Nothing can leave the store unless its 
legally purchased and logged out properly.
Step Three.  Anything you bring into your store is 
automatically given a name and a network address.  It 
knows what it is, where it is, who had it last, and what 
condition it is in.  Because it was all built that way.

   This product in step three is not a twentieth century 
product.   The twentieth century didn't have this kind of 
device at all.  It's unheard of. It's crying out for a 
brand new name.  In fact the whole pervasive computing 
field is calling out for a new terminology, because none 
of the terms we have are working properly.  Pervasive 
computing, ubiquitous computing, things that think, 
intelligent environment, peripheral interfaces.   These 
terms just don't get at the core of it.   Consider the 
functionality of an anti-theft tag: "smart" isn't right, 
"thinking" isn't right, "intelligent" isn't right.  But it 
can save your retail business, and if you're a shoplifter 
it can ruin your life.

     "Smart" is old-fashioned.  I'm convinced that 
intelligence is the wrong idea to apply to computation.  
It's  a bad metaphor to call a machine "smart." It's 
misleading, confusing, mistaken terminology.  To call 
machine processing "intelligence" is  just not an accurate 
description of the phenomenon.  It's like thinking that a 
jet aircraft is migrating when it flies south.

     This pervasive computing I'm describing is a reactive 
network of small interacting devices fully integrated into 
the physical fabric of products. It  keeps track of the 
status of things.  It has software in it. The chip in its 
core is programmable, and therefore capable of very 
protean forms of behavior.   "Pervasive computing" is not 
the best term for this. "Computing" is no good, because 
the word "computation"  is about crunching numbers, not 
about networked reactivity.  We need a  new 21st century 

      Maybe something completely out of left field, 
something like the term "polite."   A polite machine.  
Your elderly frail grandmother asks, can I sit in this 
chair?  And you answer yes of course, grandma, the chair 
will adjust to your needs, it's polite. The problem with 
the term "polite" is that  this pervasive  technology is 
likely to find some of its best applications in the police 
and the military.  Since they are objects that are 
mechanically aware of their status and their surroundings, 
maybe you could call them "wary."  They have software and 
hardware inside, they're wary products.

     Why would this imagined technology come into 
existence? Well, not merely because we can do it.  This is 
the Iridium fallacy.   It has to offer somebody some 
tangible benefits.  Let's start by imagining a military 
app. The military loves stuff that barely works.  They're 
famous early adopters.

    Imagine we've got two armies, the Balkan ethnic 
separatist army of hardened guerrilla fighters, and that 
soft, pampered,  high-tech army from the World Trade 
Organization's military wing.  The guerrillas don't have 
much equipment, just the occasional rifle and rocket 
grenade.  But in the high-tech unit, every military object 
has a unique ID, a location, a situation report, and a 
network address.  We know how many  rifles we have, where 
they are, and how far they are from the fire zone right 
now. We know where our mortar is and how many rounds it 
has left.  We know when a soldier is hit because his armor 
knows it's been affected, and it tells us where he's hit, 
and the direction the bullet came from.  We have much less 
of the fog of war than our opponent, because we know 
ourselves and our own capacities extremely well, and we 
can learn about him much faster than he can learn about 
us.  That's a critical military edge.

     To test this thought experiment, imagine that the 
guerrillas have all this pervasive computing and we don't.  
All we've got is lots of guns, and nice uniforms and 
helmets, and some big tanks.  How long do we stay alive in 
the streets?  Not very long, I'm figuring.

     Now a competitive angle in business.  I'm assembling 
products in a factory and shipping them.  All my parts are 
labelled, so I know all my inventory in real time.  The 
shipped products talk to me on their way in, through, and 
out of the plant.  They know whether they are complete and 
assembled, and what they are missing, and if some 
particular part has failed.   My competitor has a very 
neat physical filing and storage system. Crates, pallets, 
giant storage sheds, tarpaulins.  I've got this giant 
higgledy piggledy mess. But my disorder is merely actual 
disorder, it's not virtual disorder.  My virtual order is 
more effective than his actual order, because it 
searchable and reactive and wary and polite.  As long as 
the parts know where they are, why should I care where 
they are stacked?  It's not like anybody can steal them.  
They're all automatically theftproof.

     As a professional thief my life is very difficult == 
a bicycle might rat me out.  A stolen purse probably has 
ten or twelve different objects,  all sending email to the 
owner and the cops.

    It's not that this world has no thieves or evil 
people.  Let me be very clear about that. If I'm a bad guy  
in this world, I probably live in a bad house with a bad 
network of many bad objects. My welcome mat bites your 
leg.  My broom gives your broom a virus.  I sell you wary 
products with chips that lie to you, cheat you, break 
themselves on purpose, misrepresent themselves, swindle 
you.   Design doesn't abolish evil intent.  Pervasive 
computing would be particularly well suited for 
concentration camps.

     The power to be your best is the power to be your 
worst. I don't want to be simplistic, but I must be brief. 
I  find myself  on the side of pervasive computing because 
I believe that increased awareness is a basic good.  An 
Information Society cannot properly seek security in 
keeping bad people ignorant.  The proper cure for bad 
information is more information, not secrecy or 
censorship.  Open systems good.  Closed systems bad.  
Tested algorithms good.  NSA algorithms bad.  If we're 
gonna trust our lives to this kind of stunt, we've got to 
get the guts of it fully out in the open. Open source 
code, good. Trade-secret code, bad.  Level playing field, 
good. Police state surveillance, bad.   Informed consent, 
good. Sneaky web cookies, bad.  I could go on, but I want 
to assure you that I'm not swallowing all this stuff  just 
because I think it's hip.

     Let's imagine that you've grown up with this 
pervasive tracking technology. You trust it, you 
understand it, you're at home with it.  If all your 
possessions are network peripherals, then you have a 
possible LINUX model for objects in the real world.   In 
this world, I don't buy a hammer. What I really want to 
own is the hammering functionality.  I might as well share 
the hammer with my neighbor == he can't steal it, and if 
he breaks it, I'll know immediately. A modern hammer in 
this world comes built around a chip, with a set of strain 
gauges that determine if it is worn or broke or abused.    
Let's network that hammer.  We'll agree that our home-nets 
will provide us with hammerability, and we'll pool our 
resources to web-search for  bargain tools.

     This ownership model might work better in China or 
India rather than the highly individualistic US.  But 
that's most of the human race. It's a form of social and 
economic behavior that truly pervasive computing might 
make plausible and workable.

     My personal suspicion is that we have an overly 
nervous attitude toward our possessions.   We are forced 
by their dumb nature to pay far too much attention to the 
things we own.   In this new world, if they're there, 
they're there.  If they're not, I ask around for one on 
the net.  If it doesn't exist locally, I rent it and give 
it back.  I change its ID to mine if I really like it.

      Now in my roundabout conclusion, I would like to 
praise the one quality that I most admire about pervasive 
computing,  possibly the first native computing form of 
the 21st century.  I like it because it is novel and 
powerful, but it is not metaphysical.  I like that it is 
not transcendant, mindblowing or beyond all human grasp.  
I like it that the people who've been discussing it here 
have been talking about fashion and attractiveness and 
attention, about the skin and the fingertips and the 
eyelids,  and not about superhuman intelligence or some 
kind of first-strike capacity.   This is a profound 
technology, but it seems very practical to me, 
refreshingly modest.  I like very much that it's not 
sublime. Charlatans are generally sublime.  This is not  a 
puffed-up hokum technology. It's not all self-consciously  
startling, amazing, stunning and fantastic. I think we 
have a chance here to create a powerful,  novel technology 
with a new approach which is more mature that the 20th 
century's approaches were. More tasteful and less 

     For contrast to what's been going on here, let's 
consider, say, a typically native twentieth century 
technology, adopted with stereotypical, definitive, 
twentieth-century motives and attitudes.  Nuclear fission. 
Atomic power.   Let's imagine ourselves at the dawn of 
atomic power, instead of at  the dawn of pervasive 
computing.  It's a meeting of the hush-hush Atomic Energy 
Commission.  We're being confidentially  briefed by our 
speaker, and he's a high-security egghead in a labcoat 
from a secret research base somewhere in the desert. He's 
got a cloud of dry ice fumes around him,  and he's deadly 
serious and kind of trembling with technological 
exaltation, and he says:

     "Behold the mighty atom!  Through our unprecedented 
mastery of cosmic forces, we have unleashed a fantastic 
source of limitless power.  Our goal now is to  bring this 
great boon to the masses."

    And what does the audience say?   Well, we were 
twentieth century people then, so we said, "Hosanna!  At 
last we have some source of hope to counteract the ghastly 
horror of Nagasaki and Hiroshima!"  Because Utopia is the 
psychic flipside of Apocalypse, you see?  They both come 
from the same deep wellspring in the human soul. A basic 
inability to deal with it.

     What we should have said in that circumstance was 
something else entirely. A better and more sophisticated 
response.  A very 21st century response. We should have 
said, "What about the garbage?"

     "What garbage," our speaker would have replied.

     "Radioactive garbage.  Spent fuel rods, dead uranium, 
labcoats that glow in the dark, that kind of thing."

     "HA!  I can only laugh and scoff at your mundane 
query!   Only a Luddite philistine with his tiny mind in 
the gutter could fail to see that splitting the mighty 
atom is civilization's way forward."

    "I'm cool about ways forward, man.  But you're not 
addressing my issue.  What about the garbage?  Do YOU want 
the garbage?  Can we put the garbage in your basement?"

    "No way!"

     "Can we store the garbage in your city?  Can we store 
the garbage in your state?"

     "No!  NO!"  He's starting to sweat now.  It's a kind 
of return of the repressed thing going on here, you see.

      Let me let you in on something.  The coming century is 
not an atom-science, rocket-science world.  It's a design 
world.  It may even be an atom-design world, with 
nanotechnology, or a rocket-design world, with way too 
many New World Order cruise missiles. But it's a world of 
intimate consumer technologies, not state-supported, mind-
blowing, Soviet super-projects.

    The first thing you ought to ask a wizard in an ivory 
tower is not "what wonders can you show us, Mr Wizard,"  
but "do you recycle?"

    Really.  That is a serious, crucial modern question.  
What about the garbage? What about the underside?  What 
part is technically obscure and what part is deliberately 
hidden?    Quit bragging about your cosmic mastery while 
you make that sudden lunge for my wallet.   I don't want 
you to run the world from behind the lead shielding.  I 
want to know that I can put my own hands inside the black 
box and mess about with it,  if I feel that I have to. 
Don't impress me; ask my real opinion, cut me in on the 
action, make me a stakeholder. Don't build your profit 
margin on the prim assumption that I'm stupid.  Stupid 
people don't have the money in an information society.  In 
an information society, smart people don't even want the 
money; we want the equity.

     With pervasive computing, we may create a system that 
gives us a new kind of stake in the physical world.   It 
is a genuinely novel relationship between human beings and 
their material surroundings.  For the world of design, 
that is a very big deal. It may even be a big deal for the 
world, period.

    Where is the garbage?  you may ask.  Excellent 
question! And what an answer I have for you.  Is a world 
of smart gizmos the garbage is smart! It's smart garbage!  
The garbage-can always reads the barcode when the junk 
goes in!  Smart garbage doesn't fester in darkness, 
ignorance and denial. It becomes  a resource.  Or it can 
be, if we handle it right. If we design it properly.   
Nothing fated about that.  We have to deal with it.  
Nothing is set in stone there.  The future is unwritten.  
An unwritten future is  good!

     The twenty-first century is dawning in a rather 
lovely and promising way.   It may become a terrible 
century, but I see no compelling reason for that.   Our 
worst dangers are not our new opportunities.  They are our 
bad habits.  Our bad habits can go.  We won't miss them as 
much as we think.

       This was a good conference. The material is great.  
This stuff is sincere, it's authentic, it's brand-new and 
full of promise.  And we're right up against it, we're as 
close to the future here as I've ever seen a group of 
people get.   We should be happy and pleased about this. 
We should have a really good time.

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