[cross-posted at the TechLearning blog]

I've been reading Everyware: The dawning age of ubiquitous computing by Adam Greenfield. It's a fascinating book and I'm learning a lot.

Greenfield's essential premise is that in the foreseeable future sensors and transmitters can and will be embedded into everyday objects, ranging from the clothes on our body to the milk in our refrigerator to the blanket on our bed to the picture frame on our wall. This essentially makes the things we use everyday into quasi-digital devices. The rapid evolution, miniaturization, and affordability of RFID chips, and their incorporation into various aspects of life, is one example of this trend. The inclusion of GPS technologies in cars, cell phones, and watches is another. So is some of the work currently being done with mesh networks, smart dust, and the like. Once embedded, these sensors and transmitters will be able to communicate with each other and with more complex digital technologies like your home computer.

Why will sensors and transmitters be embedded into everyday things? Because, as Greenfield notes, in the battle between convenience and privacy, most folks are more than willing to give up some privacy for convenience. I saw this in action quite clearly during my visit to the Microsoft Home of the Future in 2006. A few illustrative examples:

  • Imagine that your kitchen counter can discern what you put on it (milk, eggs, flour) and that a recipe appears on the counter surface informing you of the various things that you can make with those ingredients.
  • Imagine that your electronic shopping list updates itself because the pantry has informed it that you're running low on pancake mix.
  • Imagine that a red light begins glowing on your bedside picture frame because the motion sensors in Grandma's apartment haven't registered any movement for the past six hours even though it's mid-day.
  • Imagine that the rooms in your house can sense the people who enter and adjust the art, lighting, temperature, etc. to reflect  individual preferences.
  • Imagine the memory augmentation assistance that you could get from a sensor in your eyeglasses that could register the identity of the person walking toward you and quickly say into your ear her name and how you know her.

These are just a few of the many, many possibilities. Think medicine bottles and backpacks, toilets and toys, floors and doors, and...

Greenfield believes that the arrival of ambient informatics is inevitable. The power and potential will be too great for most people to refuse and, in many cases, the capabilities will be in place before folks even have a chance to think too hard about it and/or make objections. However, Greenfield also notes that we need to start thinking and talking about whatever social, ethical, and other concerns we may have right now. After these informatics are embedded and installed, it often will be too late because there are logic rules that are built into the construction of the sensors and transmitters. For example, maybe you don't want your floor or front door or toilet 'spying' on you but you do want your refrigerator to do so. You need to think about that at the front end during the design and/or purchasing stage, not after the fact.

There's a lot more I could say on this, but I'll close with a strong recommendation that folks read Everyware. It's a very different way to think about digital technologies and yet I agree with Greenfield that it will be our future. We need to start talking about this aspect of ubiquitous computing and we need to ask ourselves, "How much privacy are we willing to give up?"