21 January 2008

Intimate Computer: Description and Analysis

"Intimate computing" is a term I began using to refer to personal digital assistants (PDA's) and 3G cellular phones. PDA's are electronic devices that are designed chiefly for storing or retrieving printed information, which are also very small. The most common are the RIM Blackberry, the PalmOne Tungsten and (formerly Handspring, now PalmOne) Treo, and the PocketPC (all links are to image searches). Initially PDAs amounted to beefed up calculators (Sharp Wizard), but now your PDA is likely to come with cellular functionality. Likewise, 3G cell phones refer to cell phones with a lot of the features commonly encountered on PDAs.

The thing about intimate computing that I find interesting is not the amazing features that have been incorporated into these devices, but their social impact. My training is in economics, so naturally I've been interested in the way that the contemporary 3G/PDA/GPS affects people's behavior. An incidental feature of this particular branch of technology is that intimate computers are experiencing amazing technical ferment. In the early 1990's, Palm Pilots were essentially organizers; then, they and their competitors incorporated cellular telephony, digital cameras, GPS, musical playback, and television. Market penetration was much greater and the cultural influence of intimate computing has become significant.

The same usage was adopted by Lamming & Flynn (1994):
Our vision of the PDA is not confined to a device the size of a notebook, but includes something much, much smaller, perhaps the size of a watch or piece of jewellery — a device that can be worn and taken everywhere. Indeed, we expect to see elements of the PDA embedded in most current portable devices — cell phones, for example. These tiny PDAs will include wireless communication facilities allowing them to collaborate with other similar devices and nearby services. Our interest is in understanding the opportunities presented by a world in which we can rely on a large proportion of our users having a powerful computer with them at all times.

One possible consequence of wearing a computer is that it can be much more useful to you personally. Since it always accompanies you, and nobody else, it makes special sense to tailor its behaviour to your own special needs. Moreover, because it will be involved in many of your activities, it can become intimately familiar with them, and adapt to them like a personal assistant.
Crucial to this concept is an understanding of the term "intimate." The word is often used as a surrogate for "sexual," but it is also used for "personal" and "knowledgeable." A person can have a very personal relationship with another, in the sense that the two people share details of their private lives that are normally hidden from public view; or, conversely, someone can possess detailed and comprehensive information about someone/something else. A polymath well advanced in years might have a nurse who attends to her decrepit bodily functions, and yet not know that she developed a new branch of mathematics when she was in her thirties. She might have an admirer who knows all about the latter, but not about the former.

"Intimate" can mean either or both. Presumably an intimate computer can manage your triple life (as pianist, courtesan, and bank robber), because it can not only store information about performances, trysts, and swag, but because it is physically present at all times, small, and contextual. The GPS detects when you're in the Warsaw Philharmonic Hall, when you're in the Blue Angel Motel, and when you're in the basement of the bank, and provides you with relevant data accordingly. The data storage is designed around episodes rather than conventional branches. When the user is close to certain devices (e.g., a particular computer, printer, cellphone) the intimate computer records salient details of each operation the user performs using the device. For example, if the user makes a phone call, the calling and called numbers would be recorded along with the start time and call duration.

In the survey by Bell, et al. (2003), several writers are cited describing a less benign image of intimate computing:
"Intimate computing" has also occasionally been used to describe a different kind of intimacy – that of closeness to the physical body. In 2002, the term appears in the International Journal of Medical Informatics along with grid computing and micro-laboratory computing to produce "The fusion of above technologies with smart clothes, wearable sensors, and distributed computing components over the person will introduce the age of intimate computing." Here "intimate computing" is conflated with wearable computing; elsewhere intimate computing is even subsumed under the label of wearable computing. Crossing the boundary of skin, Kurzweil paints a vision of the future that centralizes a communication network of nanobots in the body and brain. He states "We are growing more intimate with our technology. Computers started out as large remote machines in air-conditioned rooms tended by white-coated technicians. Subsequently, they moved onto our desks, then under our arms, and now in our pockets. Soon, we'll routinely put them inside our bodies and brains. Ultimately we will become more nonbiological than biological."
Here, of course, the quotation from Kurzweil also conflates machinery with technology (RNL&A).

Bell (2004, p.2) makes the argument that what makes computing intimate is not the physical potential of the machinery involved, but the modality of its use: she cites the use of the internet for dating, erotica, and research of religious beliefs. She alludes to the familiar cliché that people often divulge personal details in the public space that they would hide from those who know them. But of course, people browsing for erotica online expect to do so anonymously; it's precisely the extreme (if illusory) anonymity of cyberspace that makes it so attractive. The other is, of course, that search engines are both efficient and emotionally inert. It's a bit analogous to inserting prayers written on scraps of paper between courses of the Wailing Wall. The prayer is anonymous in the sense that anyone who sees it will almost certainly be a total stranger, with no investment in the information it contains. Bell also cites cell phones available to SW Asian subscribers which help the user locate the direction of Mecca for prayer (One example is the F7100 Qiblah). This is actually something that Muslims have done for as long as there have been Muslims: use the latest technology to assist in their religious rites (aircraft for the hajj, astronomical instruments for establishing the moment Ramadan began, and so on). It seems highly likely that there are indeed culturally peculiar ways in which computing becomes intimate, but examples are hard to find.

(She sites other, more compelling examples of differing cultural norms. In some societies, people enjoy pornographic magazines in trains and cybercafes because doing so at home would insult their families and violate their homes. In the USA, of course, social sanctions against possession, not to mention public consumption, of pornographic magazines is quite severe.)

I've mentioned the idea of computers being intimate by
  • being useful for a broad range of personal uses (camera, phone, organizer, navigator);
  • using detailed context about the user to make themselves more useful;
  • and being culturally adopted for private functions that usually are hidden from public scrutiny.
Other senses of intimacy might pertain to
  • the increased use of haptic interface for PDA's and cell phones, not only for data input but also pleasure and output;
  • the implementation of ecologically sustainable/biologically appropriate technology, so that the bureaucracy associated with design, production, and sale of technically advanced products is not so immediately dependent on coercion.

Sources & Additional Reading:

Genevieve Bell, Tim Brooke, Elizabeth Churchill, & Eric Paulos, "Intimate (Ubiquitous) Computing" (PDF), Intel Research (2003)

Genevieve Bell, "Intimate Computing?" (PDF), IEEE Internet Computing (2004)

Mik Lamming & Mike Flynn, "'Forget-me-not': Intimate Computing in Support of Human Memory" (PDF), Rank Xerox Research Centre, Cambridge Univ., UK (1994)

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