At the beginning of The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, the hero Howard Roark informs his architecture school dean that steel buildings ought not mimick buildings of older materials like wood and stone. Every medium has an entirely new set of opportunities and laws, and for a long time, we still use the rules of the old medium. In fact, it’s said that it takes a full generation to realize the impact of a new scientific discovery, because the existing scientific community grew up on the previous assumptions. It takes a generation unaccustomed to the old paradigm to discover the larger ramifications of a discovery.
For example, we’ve had touchscreens for at least the past 20 years. Microsoft has made touchscreen tablets running Windows since the 1990s, but they used a stylus or pen — only Apple iOS made the leap that you could run a computer with gestures on two fingers. Steve Jobs notes here that they were working on the iPad before the iPhone, but they realized that the cell phone market would be better launchpad for the digital touchscreen technology. But since the 1980s, Xerox machines had a touchscreen interface– although we used them like buttons, like the physical mechanisms of a machine. A digital version of the analog technology.
No one thought, “Let’s put a faster graphics processor to make that copy-machine touchscreen do flying animations and other dazzling things”. But the technology, in its entirety, was all there implicitly. Only later did we see that graphics processors are quite useful on a touchscreen. And now, billions of dollars in electronics and advertising is being spent to capture your eyeball for a few more seconds.
We don’t know where the future of computing will take us. The Xbox connect uses two webcams to make a stereo image and follow body gestures, and makes the Wii interface look primitive and cumbersome in comparison. Short of plugging wires to the brain, this is virtual reality. I don’t see how unhappiness could be possible if you can do physical acts of jumping or flying and see the results on a screen. This Xbox video blows me away.
My friend mused that one day we could program a computer screen onto a contact lens, and hook that up to 3G Internet, and we’d be walking around with iPhone apps on our eyeballs, reading ebooks on the subway, IMing friends in the same room (you wouldn’t even need telepathy, you would just pass a note to his contact lens in the middle of the conversation). We could also open doors, program toasters, accomplish tasks, and even drive cars with micro-gestures of the human eyeball.
The point is: “the medium is the message”. This is an old video which hammers that point, The Web is Us/ing Us. Even if you’ve seen it before, this is the final version, and it’s worth watching again.