For the entire history of computing to date, and even dating back to the advent of television, glowing screens with a board-like form have been the primary and ever-more-dominant way people consume information. This “glowing screen” or “glowing board” paradigm reached its culmination in the advent of the smartphone as the organizing technology of computation and information; by the 2000s, if one wanted to be connected one flitted from the glowing screens of the television and the personal computer at home to the glowing screen of the smartphone abroad. One could easily fill and was via the information technology available incentivized to fill every hour of life with staring at a board-shaped glowing screen.
Although one might get a contrary impression from popular discourse, this paradigm is actually past its peak, the definitive movement away from the glowing board paradigm having begun with the advent of the smart speaker in the form of Amazon Alexa in the mid-2010s, since then followed by several competitors. Although Alexa was the first truly popular implementation of voice assistant technology, having been responsible for the majority of the population adopting it, Apple Siri was introduced in 2011 and was (and still is) widely popular among the rather large population of Apple users. Interestingly, Amazon, who also introduced the Kindle in 2007 (a device that removed the glow from the glowing screen), led the introduction of devices dedicated to voice assistance; Siri was still wed to the glowing board, being accessible through the iPhone.
Indeed, the iPhone itself, at least during its era of peak popularity, might represent something of a high-water mark in the glowing board paradigm, having exerted a homogenizing influence on user interfaces for most of the early 21st century. Interestingly, the peak of the iPhone’s influence in the late 2000s and early 2010s also corresponds to the time when cathode ray tube (CRT) televisions, with curved screens, were completely replaced with flat-screen liquid crystal display (LCD) televisions. Thus the flat glowing screen as an informational interface reached its all time height across all devices around 2010 or so.
Beyond a Life staring at glowing Boards
Since then we have seen a noticeable increase in diversity in computing devices, from smart speakers to wearables, though only smart speakers represent something entirely different from the basic design of the glowing board. A post at the great blog Solarpunk Station points out that technology companies, having exhausted most of the smartphone’s potential at least in terms of sales, are once again experimenting with different form factors. Why is this so important? It is worth noting amid all the justifiable joy at all the world’s information being at our fingertips that the price of accessing and interacting with all this information to date has been spending one’s life hunched over staring at a glowing bluish screen with glassy bug eyes. This is a profoundly uncomfortable, unnatural, and physically, mentally, and spiritually exhausting way to interact with mankind’s knowledge base. A better way can and should be found.
An interface much more similar to how man interacts with natural objects and with other men would in my view be the ideal. A truly “naturalistic” interface would likely combine physical movements of the body (known as “haptic” or “kinesthetic” technology) and voice commands, since this is how we communicate with each other and interact with natural objects. While voice assistants are by now common enough and reliable enough for simple tasks, they pale in comparison to a keyboard or touchscreen interface, though the gap will likely close substantially in the near future. Haptic technology is in an even more primitive state, reminiscent of where voice was a decade or two ago; while simple haptic devices such as joysticks are common enough, no one has yet created a definitive or popular haptic interface that can execute the wide range of commands personal computer and smartphone users demand.
A major obstacle for haptic interfaces is the lack of a standard for which physical movements, for instance the raising of a particular finger, correspond to which command. This could be remedied by a proprietary implementation becoming very popular or, more ideally, the adoption of a common and open standard for such interfaces. Voice doesn’t have quite as much of a problem, since natural language constrains to a large extent which commands correspond to which words.
Toward naturalistic visual Displays
Of course, even if a perfectly “naturalistic” interface were to be designed, where something like a magic wand or a staff could talk to you and sense your physical movements, including your movement of the device itself, to execute commands, visual information will still need to be served. After all, it is said that a picture is worth a thousand words, and even if artificial intelligence could be used to describe pictures there is no substitute for seeing it yourself, not to mention the fact that looking at a picture is far more efficient than listening to a voice assistant describe it to you. Less obviously, videos lose a lot of information if only the audio can be served, and graphical representations of data are far more efficient and enlightening than line-by-line descriptions of the data. Clearly even a perfectly naturalistic interface will need some way of displaying visual data.
The most obvious method, and the one that will be used in the immediate future, is to resort to glowing boards for displaying visual information, while leaving the rest to voice and haptics. This, however, just won’t cut it in the long term, where we want our information technology devices to become, as this 2015 TED talk implies, indistinguishable from nature, or at least indistinguishable from traditional objects.
Futurological speculation might reveal a path forward in this case. Corning’s A Day Made of Glass video from 2011, and the 2012 sequel, hold out the possibility of screens being made transparent, as does Microsoft’s Productivity Future Vision video from 2009, the 2011 sequel, and the 2015 sequel. The 2015 video features an interesting bracelet where hand movements control the visual display of data, and the 2009 video features transparent thin screens’ ultimate form: completely flexible and foldable sheets that resemble paper but have all the capabilities of today’s touchscreens.
While these sort of devices still lie in our future, Polytron demonstrated a nearly transparent smartphone as early as 2013, and devices with foldable screens are already being commercialized, indicating that the long-held dream of transparent, paper-thin, and completely flexible screens may not be far from commercial realization. This will represent a major advance in reuniting the information technology user experience with traditional aesthetics and with nature. Paper is a very traditional object, after all, and transparent sheets are even found in nature, from the famous jellyfish to the more-obscure glass-wing butterfly.
Once these sort of devices are commercialized, transparent paper-thin screens that you can fold into your shirt pocket, that of course would come with a voice interface, could display visual information when needed, with no bluish glow necessarily required. This alone will greatly diminish our devices’ tendencies to disrupt our circadian rhythms and interfere with the conditions required for a good natural sleep; filtering out blue light is already helping to mitigate this. It will also greatly reduce the need for artificial light to accomplish computing tasks; although it is not often noted, users can comfortably interact with voice assistants even in complete darkness, a feat impossible with a smartphone or personal computer. This is a preview of what our devices will be capable of in the near future; down the road volumetric displays, colloquially known as holograms, will be integrated into this ecosystem just like other display devices, and will be used to achieve a better simulation of natural reality than any two-dimensional display ever could.
A digitally enchanted Physical World
Glass boards, paper-thin “sheet” devices, and wands and staffs won’t be the only sort of devices in this future, of course. Smart contact lenses and glasses are already being commercialized; Amazon, Snapchat, and most famously Google all have a smart glasses product. Amazon’s Echo Frames once again dispense with a screen interface altogether in favor of pure voice, perhaps leading to a future where voice interfaces are built into more everyday objects. Mirrors, shower heads, faucets, doors, and household appliances such as ovens and laundry machines are among the most obvious candidates for voice interface and connectivity to visual-display-capable devices. Objects that can be worn on the body are of course known as “wearable technology”, and today range from smart watches to earbuds and smart rings, these devices likewise permitting a pure voice interface.
In this way the physical world may be animated and even enchanted, with people able to talk to a wide variety of everyday objects and get a response that uses the full power of man’s knowledge. Something as simple as a decorative hair comb or even an earring might connect its wearer to the Web. It is sometimes overlooked that they can also connect to the wearer’s personal network of devices: the digitally enchanted wands, staffs, paper sheets, watches, bracelets, armlets, glasses, and rings will all be able to wirelessly interface with each other and collectively attain a high degree of computing power.
Even without any connection to the Web, this network, if peer-to-peer, would likely have computing power similar to a modern smartphone without any one device needing to have such bulk. Jewelry with large internal volume, such as decorative hair combs, would be good candidates for harboring servers for such personal networks in a “naturalistic” way, indistinguishable from traditional objects. A Raspberry Pi Zero might be configured for such a purpose even today; after all, it’s about the right size to fit inside a decorative hair comb.
All these devices put together all in one network will at last realize the dream of “ubiquitous computing”, also known as pervasive computing or ambient intelligence. The ideal is for the presence and availability of computing, and by implication the Web, to be as ubiquitous and taken-for-granted as air is today. While the devices hitherto mentioned are one pillar of ubiquitous computing, other obstacles to realizing the dream are the privacy implications of these devices and the lack of ubiquitous connectivity.
A Vision for a ubiquitous Dark Web
Ubiquitous devices need to ubiquitously gather and log data in order to work. This is often rightly raised as an obstacle to or a drawback of truly ubiquitous computing, although this can be kept to a minimum in the devices’ normal course of operation; Amazon Alexa devices, for instance, only record audio when the wake word is spoken. The potential damage from hacking or even malicious use by corporations or governments, on the other hand, is very large compared to personal computers or even smartphones, since not just parts of your life but almost everything you do in your whole life can be monitored and exploited. This potential will be a magnet for all manner of criminals and tyrants.
Fortunately there is a simple and practically off-the-shelf solution: connect the ubiquitous computing devices through the Dark Web instead of the Clear Web. Tor, the most popular Dark Web protocol, is free and open-source software that uses “onion routing” to shield all traffic behind multiple layers of encryption and bounce it between multiple randomly-selected relays around the world, thus obscuring the content and location of user requests, providing private and truly anonymous access to the Web. Any computer may host an onion service, an anonymous website accessible only through the Tor network, enabling truly anonymous and secure peer-to-peer connectivity. Unlike a Clear Web address, an onion address is randomly generated by the Tor software hosted on the device itself, needing no domain name registration or registrar.
By using the Dark Web, all the data transmitted by ubiquitous computing will be completely secure from surveillance by third parties monitoring Web traffic. Together with strongly encrypting all information stored on these devices, the risk of anyone else prying into your personal life through your personal computing network becomes negligible. So much for ubiquitous computing meaning the end of privacy.
As with many other innovations throughout the history of information technology, the sex industry is leading the way. Sex toys with connectivity features have been around for a while, and for obvious reasons privacy is dear to the users of these devices. Hacking and unwanted data collection, however, have always been rampant. Sarah Jamie Lewis, a privacy and anonymity researcher, has in the past few years pioneered the field of “onion dildonics”, as detailed in this interesting 2018 Wired magazine article. Technically the implementation of onion routing for these sort of devices is actually simple, but no one has yet manufactured a popular “Internet of Things” product that connects through the Dark Web. This can, should, and almost certainly will change in the near future.
Connection even through the Dark Web doesn’t prevent the server you’re connected to, such as those that run the major voice assistants, from collecting the data you send to them, but peer-to-peer connections based off locally-run software solves that problem. While it appears voice assistants need titanic amounts of computing power and widespread data collection to work optimally, that will not be the case forever; eventually it will become possible to run a voice assistant with a high degree of fidelity on your own network.
Even short of that development, however, it is technically feasible to more or less replicate the computing power of big centralized servers with a very large distributed network of personal-scale devices. This would enable a distributed network to operate a voice assistant that is competitive with the centralized versions. To my knowledge the only networks that currently do something like this are the ones that run blockchains for cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, enabling them to compete with traditional banks, something beyond one personal computer’s abilities. The future of ubiquitous and anonymous peer-to-peer networks looks bright.
Ubiquitous Connectivity: toward an Interstellar Dark Web
The other major issue preventing the realization of ubiquitous computing is the lack of correspondingly ubiquitous connectivity. The high-speed connections required for these advanced sort of devices to work aren’t available everywhere, especially in the most remote areas. This can be remedied, however, by high-speed satellite Internet beamed from low Earth orbit, providing latency as low as a terrestrial connection for Earth customers. If launch costs decrease by one or two orders of magnitude from 20th century levels satellite Internet will become the fastest and cheapest option for Internet connectivity; this is what Elon Musk and SpaceX, with their demonstrated ability to lower launch costs, are planning to do with Starlink.
The great advantage of satellite Internet is that it offers truly global connectivity, being as easily accessible from the remotest wilderness as it is the most populous downtown. This means that in principle a network of computing devices worn on one’s person could connect to the Internet anywhere in the world, providing truly ubiquitous computing.
Even better, a constellation of satellites in low Earth orbit would not necessarily be limited to connecting with Earthbound customers; satellites could also connect with spaceships, space stations, or even ultimately space habitats in orbit or beyond. This is a building block of the “Interplanetary Internet”, which will require due to the light-speed lag in communication new delay-tolerant protocols. For the same reason caching of data locally, storing copies of other planets’ Internet on-site instead of waiting minutes or hours to fetch other planets’ websites, will prove essential in this Internet of the spacefaring future. Eventually the same principles will be extended even to communication between solar systems, perhaps by taking advantage of gravitational lensing, to create the Interstellar Internet.
When man becomes a truly spacefaring race, living on other planets, in spaceborne habitats, and in other solar systems, the same ubiquitous and anonymous peer-to-peer connectivity through the Dark Web will be enjoyed, creating an Interplanetary and ultimately Interstellar Dark Web.
The possibilities of these developments, perhaps the ultimate stage of the Internet’s evolution, are profound and together with space colonization, among other technologies, have the potential and perhaps even the likelihood to revolutionize human civilization.