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On the Net: Mobility by James Patrick Kelly

geek nostalgia

Indulge me for a moment.

At the beginning of every writer’s career there come certain landmark events. You know: first story sale, first novel sale, first review in a major publication. In my case, there were two others: going to Clarion <literature.ucsd.edu/ affiliated-programs/clarion/index.html> and buying my first computer, an IBM 5150 <oldcomputers.net/ibm5150>. That first PC featured an 8088 microprocessor running at 4.77 MHz, a couple of 5-1/4” floppies and a yellow monochrome CGA monitor. I almost bought an IBM Selectric <selectric.org/selectric>, because I thought I was looking for a state-of-the-art word processor. But I was very, very wrong about that. Like most desktop PCs of that era, mine sat in my writing room until the day I replaced it. Back then, you would no more move your PC around than you would tote your refrigerator from the kitchen into the den to make beer access easier. But although it and its successor PCs stayed planted, they achieved metaphorical mobility once I bought my first modem and logged onto the humble beginnings of cyberspace at 56 kbit/s. The cool online SF hangout then was the SFRT on GEnie <en.wikipedia. org/wiki/GEnie>. It was like a convention, only in slow motion. And blurry. Back in those days everything was dots: the monitors displayed arrays of dots masquerading as letters of the alphabet and, similarly, the printers spewed illegible dot patterns <fontmenu.com/site/_ 8PinMatrix.html> that drove editors crazy.

Those were the dark days—just ask Sheila.

I bought my first notebook about the time the World Wide Web started gaining traction <nethistory.info/ History%20of%20the%20Internet/web.html>, a Toshiba 1100 <en.wikipedia. org/wiki/Toshiba_T1100>. They weren’t called laptops in those days, because one weighed almost ten pounds and would cut off circulation if you tried to balance it on your lap. I wanted one so that I could get in some writing while on vacation. And because it was cool. And because I am a geek. Since then I have owned four different portable computers, mostly Dells, although my current laptop is a plain vanilla Acer with a 15” screen. I had a cute little Acer netbook <techreport.com/articles.x/15329>, but it died a few months ago and I decided to replace it with an Asus tablet <legitreviews.com/article/1720/1/>, mostly because I was tired of reading books on my iPhone 3GS <macworld.com/article/ 1141281/iphone3gs_review>. More on this in a moment.

The history of our incredible shrinking hardware is certainly a tribute to modern engineering, but what was really driving it was the internet, or rather the ubiquity of the internet. In 2000 I retired my chirping dial-up connection for a speedy cable modem. A couple of years later, wifi arrived; I could schlep my Dells anywhere in the house—living room, bedroom, even out to the picnic table. I started reading the online New York Times <nytimes.com> and Boston Globe <bostonglobe.com> at the breakfast table. Hotels started selling wifi access; Starbucks gave it away free. And, now, with the arrival of 3G (and if you’re lucky and well off, 4G) mobile broadband <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mobile_ broadband>, I can tweet or peruse Robert Reed’s amazing bibliography on The Internet Speculative Fiction Database <isfdb.org/cgi-bin/ea.cgi?199> while I am standing in line to pick up my membership at LoneStarCon3 <lonestar con3.org>.


Star Trek <startrek.com> had a huge impact on the imaginations of science fiction writers in general and this practitioner specifically, although as a kid I was more entranced by warp drives, transporter beams and photon torpedoes than I was by the humdrum communication devices that kept the crew of the Enterprise in touch with one another. However, as interstellar travel appears more and more to be a fairy tale, some Star Tech is still very much with us, as Lance Laytner points out in “Did Steve Jobs Study Star Trek?” <editinternational.com/ read.php?id=4810edf3a83f8>. He reveals that Dr. Martin Cooper, inventor of the handheld mobile phone, took inspiration from Trek. He “. . . found himself tripping over his phone cord when he saw Star Trek appear on the TV playing in the background. Cooper watched with envy as Captain Kirk calmly conversed while walking across an alien landscape. ‘Suddenly there was Captain Kirk talking on his communicator,’ remembers Cooper. ‘Talking! With no wires!’ Cooper, who was General Manager of Systems at Motorola, thought to himself, we need to communicate the way they do on Star Trek. ‘To the rest of the world it was a fantasy. To me it was an objective.’ ” About the size of a brick, the phone Cooper developed would never have fit in Kirk’s back pocket. However, later generations of flip phones were more like it. And although the flip style has given way to the candy bar or slab phone, for a buck you can get an app for your iPhone or Android <apps menow.com/app_page/ 3588-Star_Trek_ Communicator> that mimics the TOS communicator, complete with animation and sound effects. Further on in Star Trek’s future history, the communicator shrank into a wearable badge, and, as noted in the last installment, wearable phones for the likes of us are on the horizon.

The Laytner article also mentions the tricorder as an example of Trek prescience, and certainly the latest iPad equipped with a next generation augmented reality app might catch Spock’s eye. But there are more concerted efforts to make actual tricorders happen. The X Prize Foundation <xprize.org> and the telecommunications equipment multinational Qualcomm <qualcomm.com> are offering a $10 million prize <qualcomm tricorderxprize.org> for the first functional medical tricorder. “The device will be a tool capable of capturing key health metrics and diagnosing a set of 15 diseases . . . through a combination of wireless sensors, imaging technologies, and portable, non-invasive laboratory replacements.” The only requirement with regard to the form of this device is that it can weigh no more than five pounds. For those tinkerers in the audience interested in competing, know that there will be two rounds, a qualifying round to demonstrate proof of concept, tentatively ending sometime in 2014, and a final round with a winner announced around 2016. Meanwhile, Peter Jensen is bringing scientific tricorders to the masses with his Tricorder Project <tricorderproject. org>. He began this work while earning a PhD studying neural computation and cognitive modeling and is currently completing an interdisciplinary Postdoc in adaptive and compressive sensing. Jensen has made his tricorder designs available as open source; there are detailed DIY pages for various Tricorder models on his site. “The Science Tricorder Mark 1 contains eleven different sensing modalities, organized into three main categories: atmospheric sensors, electromagnetic sensors, and spatial sensors.” Jensen strikes me as the kind of idealist that the world needs more of. “My hope is that someday every household and every kid who wants one will have access to this device that they can keep close in a pocket or a bag and pull out whenever curiosity strikes.” By the way, he’s actively hunting for his next academic or industry position.


Of course, where the Star Trek writers appeared to go wrong—at least to an early twenty-first century netizen—was in equipping their away teams with single function devices. Why couldn’t their communicators link to some twenty-third century version of Wikipedia? Send video to the bridge of the Enterprise? Let Sulu post to Facebook <facebook.com> while he was waiting to beam up? These days we are all multi-taskers who demand multi-function devices <pcworld.com /article/226106/is_the_singlefunction_ device_doomed>. Single-function phones are for Grandpa <senior enhandytest.tumblr.com>, who can’t seem to get the hang of those pesky internets. He still wears a wristwatch, ferchrissakes.

But maybe in the twenty-third century people will realize the threat to human consciousness that Nicholas Carr <roughtype.com> warned of in The Shallows <theshallowsbook.com>; recall that we considered the quality of thought of a typical multi-tasker in a previous installment <asimovs.com/2011_03/on thenet.shtml>. Maybe when you’re traipsing around a hostile Klingon-infested alien environment, it isn’t a good idea to be thinking about how to beat the thirty-eighth level of Angry Birds Space <space.angrybirds.com>. Or maybe what they will realize is that the internet of almost any century is too big to fit onto a small screen.

You may have heard of the disastrous Initial Public Offering <en.wikipedia. org/wiki/Facebook_IPO> (IPO) of social media darling Facebook. It opened at forty dollars and shot up briefly to forty-five dollars. And then the bottom fell out. As I type this in August the stock is just a shade over twenty dollars, its all time low. Now in large part Facebook’s decline had to do with technical problems with the initial offering. But despite its first earnings report of a revenue increase of 32 percent to $1.18 billion, the stock continues to fade. Why? Because its users are shifting to mobile in droves and there is no clear way forward for the corporation to maintain ad revenue on these devices. Facebook needs to get with mobility, but that’s a big problem. The screens are too damn small for both the content and the sales pitch. I don’t know about you, but in my opinion the Facebook apps for both iOS (my phone) and Android (my tablet) pretty much suck. And it’s not only Facebook. Browsing the web on a mobile device? Sucks! Typing anything but messages? Not fun. And please, Siri <en.wikipedia. org/wiki/Siri_%28software%29> me no Siri! At least not as of summer 2012.

As currently implemented, both input and output on mobile devices are crippled. It’s time to stop focusing efforts on shrinking our gadgets and work on making them more usable.

These aren’t the droids you are looking for.


Before you start sending hate email <jim@jimkelly.net>, know that I love my iPhone and use my tablet every day. I’ve been holding off upgrading for months now in anticipation of the iPhone 5. I have digital subscriptions to Locus <locusmag.com> and the New York Review of Science Fiction <www.nyrsf.com> and will switch to digital Asimov’s when my paper subscription runs out. I do the majority of my reading on my tablet except for the books I listen to using the Audible <audible.com> app on my iPhone. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe my fingers are too fat to tap the right part of those teensy screens and my eyes are too weak to read 6-point (or 4-point!) fonts. But if necessary, I could do without my mobile devices.

My computers? They’re essential.

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"On the Net: Mobility" by James Patrick Kelly Copyright © 2012 with permission of the author.

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