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The Communication Trap

When does truly pervasive computing become really intrusive computing? For many of us, it’s arrived already, looking at the half dozen or so pieces of assorted and explicit junk mail that have appeared in my mail box during the last thirty minutes.

Every now and then I have to stop for a quick reality check. Very soon, according to the prophets, anything with an electric current passing through it, will have an IP address of its own. This will of course include our microwave oven, the freezer and my electric toothbrush. Humanity is now facing a future which holds the promise of the intelligent frozen chicken.

Embedded or should I say stuffed with a tiny microprocessor and don’t ask me if this involves Java or Windows, this miracle of domestic engineering, will alert your deep freeze as it approaches its ‘Sell-by date’. The freezer, which of course comes complete with its own wireless Internet connection, will then inform you by SMS or by email that your chicken is in need of attention. For many of us, this may prove to be the most interesting email conversation of the day and perhaps Microsoft will even have a monopoly on frozen poultry in the future.

I’ve talked about the concept of ‘tele-presence’ before in Computer Weekly. Through Instant Messaging (IM), wireless and mobile telephony, any sense of privacy is rapidly disappearing. Sometimes it’s not such a bad thing, after all, I tell myself that I need constant access to my email and my mobile phone from anywhere on the planet and Instant Messenger keeps me constantly engaged with my friends and colleagues and of course, the delightful ‘Pussycat-1’, in Vancouver, who I chanced upon while researching on-line dating for another story last week.

The trouble is that I’m becoming an information junkie and I’m not alone. Now that many of us have wireless-connected PDAs like, Palm, Blackberry and PocketPC, meetings in excess of thirty minutes can cause excessive stress and withdrawal symptoms among executives, deprived of their email ‘Fix’. So what happens is a room full of ‘PDA attention deficit disorder’, - the official description - people reading and replying to email and IM on their PDAs and oblivious to the content of the meeting taking place around them.

Today’s constantly connected technology is insidious. Teenagers buried in their SMS messaging, car drivers waving their hands around or people blindly crossing roads using mobile phones. Each one is lost in a different world, which is increasingly hard to escape from. Take the technology forward another five years and the thinning line between the virtual world and the real world will cease to exist in a communications sense. We’ll all be 24*7 and always on. This may bring new benefits we haven’t thought of, such as the intelligent chicken, after all, “It’s always good to talk” but truly pervasive computing on this scale is likely to increase stress levels even further than they are today.

I love the technology but I’m starting to worry whether I love using it too much for my own sanity. I wonder how many people feel the same?

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