N.B. This essay will appear in the March 2010 issue of the CRA newsletter.
Computer science, computer engineering, information technology, informatics, computing and a host of other terms: we have used them all to denote this wonderfully fascinating and diverse thing we do. We have debated connotation and denotation as we seek a clear and compelling exegesis of our field. In so doing, I suspect we have occasionally lost sight of one key aspect, namely the importance of invisibility. What follows is a serious but whimsical look at invisibility's power.
If you have read any comic books or watched movies based on them, you know that each superhero has a backstory, a set of superpowers and a stylized routine. As our technologies have evolved, so too have expectations for our fantasy superheroes and their behaviors. After all, technology evolution affects your favorite superhero just as it does you, albeit with slight twists.
In a world of observation satellites, global positioning systems and MEMS-based sensors, it is extraordinarily difficult to maintain a secret hideout. Speech recognition and computer vision systems, along with deep data mining and machine learning, now compromise secret identities. One cannot even step into a nearby telephone booth for a superhero costume change.
Not only did the now ubiquitous cellular telephone render the pay telephone obsolete, it changed everyone's expectations for mobile accessibility. As an early adopter, I once drew a surprised and envious airport crowd when I opened my cellphone to rebook a flight after a cancellation. In years past, all of us would have sought a customer service agent or a payphone to call the airline. Today, we expect wireless communication access almost anywhere the world. Such is the nature of exponential technological change and its cultural impact.
In any enumeration of fantasy superpowers, flight, invulnerability and superstrength rank high, along with invisibility. Like superheroes, successful technologies also become invisible. As technologies mature, market penetration rises, cultural expectations shift and consumer knowledge of the underlying theory and practice generally decline.
No longer need one understand Maxwell's equations, the propagation properties of the Heaviside layer or superheterodyne receiver design to listen to the radio. Nor does one need a deep knowledge of thermodynamics, catalysis theory or electronic fuel injection to drive a car. (A wag might suggest that such a requirement would reduce traffic accidents by severely limiting the number of licensed drivers. A technology realist would look forward to the commercial advent of autonomous navigation systems.)
Today, most computer users know nothing of the halting problem, superscalar pipeline design or object oriented programming. This is success, for it allows all but the technology experts to focus on the raison d'être for computing or any other technology – enabling and expanding the human experience, often in new and unexpected ways.
In that spirit, I humbly suggest that the word computing is often an intellectual blinder that limits our imagination of the possible. Ask anyone how many computers they own, and the instinctive answer is probably a small, positive integer. In truth, most of us own hundreds, if not thousands of invisible computers. They are simply embedded in everyday devices – electronic thermostats, home appliances, portable music players, hearing aids and pacemakers, and even running shoes. You probably drive a mobile computing platform to work each day, replete with computer-controlled engine and antilock brakes, climate controls and communication system. Invisible computing makes these devices more flexible and adaptive.
Although our worldwide deployment of computing remains sadly and unequally distributed, we have crossed a critical capacity threshold from paucity to plethora. Such a plethora of inexpensive and powerful computing devices, high-capacity storage systems and ubiquitous wired and wireless communication brings new opportunities. Fully capitalizing on those opportunities likely requires a shift in psychological mindset, particularly for those of us who entered the field when cycles, bytes and bits were to be managed frugally.
It is time to free our imaginations and embrace computing invisibility as our technological superpower. We can be truly profligate and use invisible computing to enrich the human experience and empower creativity in new and novel ways, exploring the rich interplay of technological possibilities with social expectations and desires. Concomitantly, as computing becomes the critical infrastructure of the 21st century, we must also be aware of both the risks and the rewards. As one superhero famously remarked, "With great power comes great responsibility."