Saturday, January 23, 2010

To Be, Or To Do?

It used to be that word processors were machines that people used for the single purpose of preparing documents. Then personal computers came along, absorbed the functionality of those dedicated devices, did the job better, and did other things, too.

Appliances like word processors, telephones, fax machines, GPS navigators, scanners, calculators, games, televisions, radios—and even computers—aren't just discrete gadgets anymore. Not necessarily.

They are functionalities that are built into myriad devices. They are capabilities, not contraptions. They are things that are done, not gizmos that do a thing. Their physical forms have dissolved away into the digital soup of possibilities; their potential floats freely, to be sucked up into other, more complex forms.

Making voice calls is only one functionality of the smart phone, and it's a function that's available as well in computers and automobiles—and will be in your television, too, if it isn't already. Television isn't just a box in your living room; it's a function that's available in your computer, your phone, and your game console.

It isn't just computers that can connect to the Internet. So can a cell phone, a refrigerator, a home irrigation system—anything that's equipped with digital communications functionality and the necessary software.

A doorknob can be connected to the Internet. But there's no reason to do that, unless connecting to the Internet makes it in some way a better doorknob—or provides some valuable benefit: increased security, or useful information. In many buildings, doorknobs connect to security systems, and some of those use the Internet to send information about who's entering, when.

So this raises questions: If your computer can be a telephone and your telephone can browse the Internet, what is a telephone? What is a computer? What is a calculator? A game? A radio? A television? Or a doorknob?

What they are not (or no longer need to be) is single-purpose, stand-alone gadgets. They are functionalities that are absorbed into other things; they are things that can absorb other functionalities. That's the result of information of all kinds in digital form, of the ubiquity and power of microprocessors to deal with that information, of software to tell those microprocessors what to do, and of communication networks that connect discrete systems to others.

I doubt there's any reason to connect my toaster to the Internet, any benefit that's worth the effort or expense. I don't need a hammer that can find a hardware store through Google when it knows I'm running short of nails. Some tools will continue to be single-purpose and rather dumb gadgets that don't connect to anything—or need to.

But devices that communicate and deal with information are dissolving and becoming functionalities of other things. It wasn't so long ago that people wondered what computers could possibly be used for. Many of us struggled to justify buying the things. Now that they have sucked up so many capabilities from the digital soup, we wonder how we ever lived without them.

At one time, we thought that "digital convergence" meant that you could handle just about any kind of information on a computer. We thought it was a threat to industries that delivered information through other means: publishing, broadcasting, telephone and cable companies.

I made a movie for Bill Gates (see "Digital Convergence") to explain this perception in humorous ways and describe how the media and communications industries were reacting to the menace.

Now we know better: that convergence is not so much a threat to these industries, as to their old business models and product lines. It is an opportunity to transform both and add value to their offerings.

Television can get out of the box in the living room, and has done so. Telephones run applications and games; know where they are in the world; retrieve, store, and present information and entertainment. They have become re-defined, and much more useful and valuable. Books and magazines, even in their present ink-on-paper form, can be interactive communication systems of greater value and relevance—if publishers embrace and promote technologies that are already available and ask the question: What is a book? What is a magazine?

The only threat is to those who persist in the old definitions of what things are, and who think that things are and will always be just things—objects instead of functions, nouns, rather than verbs.

Ulysses S. Grant and Buckminster Fuller both said, "I am a verb." The objects around you are saying the same thing. Are you listening?

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