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We don’t need a computer at home

August 3, 2011

Historically, computers were invented to solve issues in the factory or the office (university office or company office) but recently invaded home and are becoming ubiquitous.

IBM System/370 Model 145

At the beginning of this invasion, computers for home were (and are still) very similar to the ones for the industry/office: a CPU, a keyboard to enter data or commands and a screen to see what was happening. Artifacts to be attached to the computer were first invented for the corporate world and then progressively entered into homes. I still remember the first mouse we had at home: it was like a mini-revolution. After years there were still some software that could not take advantage of it or its usage was implemented but in a rudimentary way. Idem for the first webcam we acquired: only the provided software was able to use it. Now it comes embedded in most computer screen and can be used for various purposes (video chat, take pictures, read bar codes, art, …).

More and more, computers are now declined its various avatars like calculators, mobile phones, game consoles, car dashboards, ATMs, cashiers, … All of them affect our daily lives in a way or another. But in my opinion the computer shouldn’t have left the corporate world. Its home avatars should have directly been via adapted technologies. Because Mr. and Mrs. Everyone don’t need any computer at home.

Although some bosses want their employees to behave differently, the factory/office is were we work and home is were we don’t work. At home, we read, eat, sleep, play, interact with other family members and neighbors, perform personal care, watch the television, etc. None of these activities requires a computer as we know it (CPU, keyboard, mouse and screen). However some of them can be enhanced or at least affected by it.

Whatever how it is materialized, a “computer” can enhance your reading experience. It can monitor your sleep while you snore or, more broadly, it can monitor your health while performing your daily activities. Computers can enhance your movie experience (by linking to related content, e.g.). They can help you improve your cooking skills and watch your savings.

Without pretending to know the future, I think miniaturization is and will put thing back “in order”: you will no longer have a computer on your desk but a bunch of small devices, each of them responsible for a small part of your daily life activities. You probably already have a mobile phone or a smartphone, i.e. a mini portable computer allowing us to phone. You probably already used a calculator, i.e. a mini portable computer specialized for calculus. Computer-like devices are becoming more and more small and powerful. They are also doing more than one simple thing at a time.

Another interesting trend is that computer-like devices are becoming more and more transparent, i.e. becoming more and more hidden or at least embedded in our daily lives. This is obviously allowed by miniaturization. The soda distributor contains a small computer-like device. Your electronic watch contains more electronics than ever. Your television screen is flat and is more capable but takes less space than your grandma’s television (relatively to the size of the screen of course).

To go beyond that, people started to experiment with wearable devices and electronics. These devices are part of your daily clothes. Currently these artifacts are merely gadgets and most of them are monitoring devices, just collecting and sometimes displaying information to the outside world. But other applications can be found like being able to carry your electronic documents (without the need for a USB key or CDs) or actually being your receiver/transmitter (“phone” without the actual plastic object we always lose somewhere when we need it). Without becoming cyborgs these guys below won’t soon need cellphones anymore:

Suits & Cells

Now is this an praise of closed platforms like the iPad, the iPod, etc.? No. I don’t say that no computer should be allowed at home: some people are working from home and they obviously need a computer. On top of that, in order to become part of our everyday habits, these devices would need to be transparent, open: people should be aware of what these devices are doing, what are their benefits and potentially what are the drawbacks of using / wearing them. One of the main concerns about these closed platforms and future platforms is privacy: how much of you do you agree to reveal “in exchange” of being empowered by these devices? I think people should be able to refuse to reveal anything and still be able to use these devices.

Photo credits: IBM System/370 Model 145 by John Keogh (CC-by-nc) and Suits & Cells by Alexa Clark (CC-by-nc), both on Flickr.

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