Tuesday, May 13, 2014

When I was your age

I’ve been thinking lately about how times have changed. It’s not just that I’m getting old, it’s also that we’re living in the twenty first fucking century, a fact that still occasionally freaks me out.  But there’s a particular thing I’ve been trying to tease out and it’s something like this:

It was worse when technology didn’t do what we wanted it to, but it was more exciting.

Anyone remember the Psion Organiser 2? Man oh man that was an incredible machine. It came almost out of nowhere and was a machine made for geeks like me.  I was head over heels in love the moment I saw it.  It represented, above all, potential. It didn’t do much out of the box, but you could program it.  You could just go ahead and make it do what you wanted.  It already looked like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and I doubt I was the first person to write a HHG2G program for it.  In fact, the database I wrote to run the HHG2G was the first software I ever sold, aged about 15.  The second was a word processor I wrote for the same machine a few months later.  It turns out that I didn’t make enough money to retire, but it paid my rent for a couple of months.  But the point was that this was an exciting machine; a thing that was obviously going to transform everyone’s lives.  And its successors did that. A couple of decades later, everyone had smartphones.  


I love my smartphone.  Technically I could live without it but practically I’m not sure I’d want to.  My phone does everything I dreamed of making my Psion 2 (and later 2LX, various versions of 3, 5 and 7) do right out of the box.  And considerably more. And it’s enormously upgradable; there are apps for everything.  The more esoteric and bewildering your requirements, the more likely there is to be an app that does exactly it.

I tend to be a glass full kind of person (I’ve only got half a glass of water, but I’ve got half a glass of this awesome air too) but in the case of portable computers I can’t help but feel that more is sometimes less.  The software on phones is so awesome that it’s easy to ignore the things that annoy us.  In the old days, we’d just have written software that did exactly what we wanted.  These days, that’s a much bigger investment of time, knowledge and skill.  So despite the fact that my phone does more than I dreamed was possible in 1986 and is totally awesome, I pine a little for the days when I had to make my handheld devices do what I wanted them to.

That’s why I’m taking some time off to make phones do what I want them to and help other people make their phones do whatever it is they want them to do, too.  I’m building a mobile platform that integrates media, social networking and contextual aspects such as where we are and what we’re doing, based on the principle of doing awesome things while remaining in control of our privacy.  People will be able to use this platform to build apps that integrate their phone more closely into their everyday lives.  I’ll be building some apps to demonstrate the platform.  The first will be an app to support the organisation and management of civil protests, particularly in places where such protests are dangerous.  I’ll be using low-cost and throw-away wearable computing such as NFC bracelets and necklaces as contextual switches for apps, doing different things depending on whatever it is your phone thinks you’re doing at the time. I’ll be kickstarting projects to improve the platform and build other apps, probably on or around the general topic of disobedience. 

Fun, isn’t it?  Let’s make use of the vast potential of our phones and online services.  Let’s pick up our phones every day and think “you know what, I’m going to change the world a little bit.” Let’s protest. Let’s crowdsource ideas then crowdfund them.  Let’s build apps on the spur of the moment, over the course of maybe a weekend, even if it’s to do something we only want to do once.  Let’s make our phones things we can make stuff with.  For the hell of it.  For the fun of it.  Let’s make awesome technology exciting again.

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