Welcome to 2008, the year we quit “using” technology.
This year, computers and their ilk will begin instead to serve our needs and interests.
This means the beginning of a long farewell to that stalwart department of institutional geekdom, Information Technology (y’know: “IT”), as society begins a more personable engagement with the toys and tools we currently love to hate.
The evolving technology environment, which I call RT (for “Relationship Technology”), will be all about computers and their ilk constantly cultivating an understanding of their human masters.
It’s a paradigm swap, really.
Under IT, the onus is currently on us humans to rifle through masses of largely irrelevant data in a quest for something we actually care about or require.
As RT evolves, technology will become permanently responsible for delivering a constant flow of subject matter that’s relevant to our current state of being.
And that’s where the demise of the IT department begins.
The basement-dwelling, introverted egoists that currently command too much power over an organization as the keepers of the tools and data that we use will be gradually supplanted by a socially-oriented team of workers constantly on the prowl amongst the workforce, actively seeking ways to make technology better work for us.
To date under IT, it’s been our responsibility as “users” to wring meaning out of generally dormant technology systems.
Probably the best example of this is the web.
The web is not a content-delivery medium, as many people consider it to be.
It’s an information extraction system that demands a high level of engagement and interaction from us, its users.
It’s a classic model of IT in action: here’s a pile of data, come and get it, and figure out for yourself what you actually want.
Of course, that mass of information is somewhat filtered by search fields and the design of a user interface that enables us to engage with it.
Web sites, in a sense, are the best guesses of IT designers as to what users want and need. They are structured and designed based on assumptions, conjecture, and a healthy dose of luck.
But the web site’s “user interface” is just a veneer that prettifies and vaguely organizes what is, essentially, a generally static collection of bits and bytes.
The user interface is helpful, but also identifies the fact that the underlying technology infrastructure really has barely any understanding of the people it is intended to serve.
So we, as users, must actively construct a meaning from any web site’s body of data.
Even the best designed web site actually knows very little about what we want at any given moment.
Some sites make some pretty good guesses, based on “fuzzy logic” and a slapdash collection of preferences we may have set up.
But, web sites are generally very ignorant about us as individuals.
And so it is with all IT systems, including desktop computers, mobile phones, and video game consoles.
That’s because IT systems are inherently dormant. Without human interaction, they generally do nothing.
It’s up to a combination of human activity and a user interface to extract meaning from the sedentary data they contain.
That’s where RT picks up. RT is naturally biological. That is to say that RT is a living, active system of technology.
This is similar, in a sense, to how scientists build artificial ecological systems within a computer environment to simulate real life systems.
The entities within these systems, whether they’re germs or giraffes, behave and interact of their own volition.
This is how RT will operate. It will be naturally active and operate independently of input or interaction.
And, as a result, rather than requiring the engagement of “users,” RT will seek out its masters and deliver relevance.
How might this work in the real world?
Say you’re in a meeting, discussing a particular project, and you need to access a file on your computer or server.
Within the IT paradigm you have to dig through a collection of folders, interpreting meaningless files names as you go, in a generally frustrating quest.
The RT system will be completely aware of your situation, may even be listening to your meeting, and will already have displayed the file on your screen by the time you need it.
This sort of sounds like artificial intelligence, but it’s not.
RT is all about your technology constantly nurturing a deep relationship with you and maintaining an understanding of your current real-world state of being.
The information system to support RT already exists.
Google, for example, has more data about each of us than we care to realize.
Each of our computers contains massive information about our lives and our lifestyles.
Our mobile phones know where we are and who we talk to.
Put it all together in an ecological fashion, and you get RT.
Standing at a bus stop with some time to kill? Here’s the newest episode of your favourite TV show.
Is this the time you normally eat, but you’re not at home? Here are some suggestions for some local eateries that serve your favourite food.
Late for a meeting and stuck in traffic? Your RT-driven mobile device will automatically compose a message with your current ETA (based on your location, current weather, traffic conditions, whether you have enough gas in the car) and prepare it for delivery in the preferred format of your client.
Of course, RT renders all contemporary operating systems, including Windows, Mac, and Linux, completely obsolete.
This current generation of computer environments was designed for inherent stasis activated only by human interaction.
Sure, they can be programmed for activity, but that’s not their natural state.
RT requires environments built for a constant, self-driven activity.
In fact the current model of network servers and desktop clients dissolves under RT as well. Instead, there would be a largely amorphous distributed environment of data caches working in a constant state of co-operation.
Each device we use — computer, mobile phone, video game console, retail of point-of-sale system — would act as a window into that environment, rarely holding anything locally as static information.
Similar to modern peer-to-peer file sharing systems, RT data would never exist in any one place at any one time.
It will be in a constant state of distributed disassembly, ready to be compiled for your individual local need at a moment’s notice.
Clearly, RT is rife with moral and legal issues related to privacy and ownership.
But as each new generation of people engages with technology, these matters become less and less important to them.
Like it or not, RT is on the way.
The good news is, technology will become less painful.
The bad news is, everything you’ve learned to date about technology will slowly be made irrelevant.
Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, January 4, 2008.