Of Toddlers and Big Brother

Last week my niece, Tugugin, and nephew, Kiiwadin, were over for a
visit to play with my son, Cole. The three were going ballistic in the
living room, tearing the place up and making the sort of mess that only
toddlers can make.

Kiiwadin picked up a toy cell phone and started strolling around the
house, pretending to be engrossed in conversation with some other
playmate somewhere else in the world. As I watched him, I reflected on
how even at the tender young age of 2, the cell phone is the most
natural of technologies.

I had an idea at that moment. I hauled my laptop down into the danger zone of the coffee table, hooked up a video camera and used the computer to call my brother-in-law, John, in Grand Forks. He’s a newly minted Mac geek and is addicted to the chatting program iChat. I knew he’d be online.

In a flash John’s face was on my laptop’s screen, his hair wet from a bath with his daughter, Lindsay. Every kid in the room was instantly engrossed and ran over to the laptop. John’s a card and hams it up well. His son, the newest Grand Forks cousin, 2-month-old Brett, was proudly displayed.

Then Lindsay took over the show at their end with her toothy grin and endless happy waving. It was a steady stream of single-syllable greetings back and forth for the better part of an hour. The adults managed a word in here and there. Both sides got popcorn going to enhance the experience.

I sat back and reflected on the scene. This was totally Jetsons, in a sense. To the kids, however, it was second nature. Cool, obviously, but not as amazing as it seemed to the adults.

I realized then that distance communications using image, rather than just sound like the telephone, will be normal for these kids as they grow up.

I could imagine the future question from Cole: “Geez, Dad, what was it like to phone people and not be able to see them? That’s crazy!”

Here’s the old man talking, but when I was a boy, the touchtone phone was about the funkiest thing since sliced bread. I had a songbook that contained sheet music for playing crappy little tunes like “Three Blind Mice” with the phone buttons.

Needless to say, my parents cut that musical endeavour short when they learned the origin of those strange calls on the phone bill to places like Burma and Chengdu.

As I watched the toddlers scream and yell with each other through the internet, my mind began to wander. What else do they have to look forward to?

A mobile phone in their pocket, even embedded under their skin, is certain. North American mobile carriers consider the grade school kid the next big market so they can prep them for a lifetime of a phone in their pocket. Mobile video chatting will certainly be a reality in the next few years.

I’m still a believer in the eventual death of the desktop computer as we know it. What will supersede it isn’t clear at this time, though likely something more environmental than local. By that I mean the methodology of the computer will be integrated into our overall environment rather than situated at a specific location like on a desk. Dedicated communication, probably for video, will be integrated.

Another future comment from Cole: “Dad, do you remember when you used to sit at a desk with that clunky laptop when I was a kid? That was so lame, eh?”

I could even see a time when humanity figures out “organic circuitry”, which would marry our concept of genetic modification with electronic engineering. We’d nurture fast-grow trees with the dual purpose of providing shade to picknickers and handling local communication transmissions.

The walls will have ears. And forget webcams on the street corner. Tiny eyes will be everywhere.

There is tremendous risk with this form of ubiquitous computing, or “ubicomp” as it’s commonly referred to.

Privacy as we know it will be the first basic human right to be swallowed by the new world of machines. If computers are everywhere, in all forms, how can we ever be sure how they’re being used and for what purpose?

No doubt by that time all humans will carry a genetically-imbedded identification system which will link into the omnipresent network. It will make personal monitoring both by authorities and jealous significant others child’s play.

Orwell’s vision of a world governed by Big Brother is still to come, he was just about 50 years early in his estimation of its arrival.

Another future Cole comment: “I remember, Dad, when you could jaywalk and not get caught. That was cool!”

Suddenly there was a great commotion on the coffee table as Tugugin experimented with the tactile possibilities of video chatting. My keyboard got a few good bashes, leaving it perched precariously on the edge, ready to swan dive towards hardwood heaven.

Luckily still not too old to be agile I tossed my limbs out across the floor and caught the precious device just short of impact.

My final thought on the future: those electronics engineers had best figure out durability before they get too far ahead.

Copyright 2005 Andrew Robulack
Originally published Friday, July 22, 2005 in the Yukon News