The age of disintegrated computing and thoughts on education

Is our computing environment shattering into disintegrated swarms of devices and functions?

This good article on search and hardware makes me think so, and that “disintegrated computing” describes where we’re heading.  But let me back up a bit to set the stage, first.

I’ve been studying the mobile technology world for a while, ever since helping do some research for Howard Rheingold’s Smartmobs (2002).  It became clear to me that we were moving away from computing focused on a single device, be it desktop or laptop. The next stage would include many competing and complementary hardware platforms.

The mobile phone was the first major step in that direction, followed by PDAs, mp3 players, ereaders, then tablets.  Handheld game machines predate those.

14 mobile devices

A swarm of mobile devices **in 2009**.

Now we have added a smattering of other portable and often networked devices, including fitness trackers (I wear a Jawbone UP, my wife a Fitbit), Nike’s shoe devices, head-mounted video cameras, Google Glass, Bluetooth headware, the  Livescribe Smartpen, various Leapfrog devices, classroom clickers, and more.  Laptops keep mutating into new forms, extra-light, Chromebook, tablet hybrid, and so on. Plus there’s the ecosystem of tiny necessary digital tools, from thumb drive to SD cards. Not to mention robots, which we can’t carry, but are portable on their own terms.

Mobile computing grew with support services, starting with WiFi, mobile phone networks, and Bluetooth.  Now it depends on additional supports, most prominently the cloud for storage, shopping, and connections with other users.

So to wrap up the familiar picture: we’re heading into the Internet of Things.  More importantly, we’re achieving the vision of ubiquitous computing.

Along the way, something odd has happened to our hardware.  As computing became more powerful, our devices started… narrowing.  They tend to have a tighter focus on fewer functions.  Not always – the laptop remains an all-purpose device – but our tablets, our phones, fitness trackers, game players do fewer things.  They become smaller, more dependent on services.

Back to ubiquitous computing, which is all about technologies that weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life so that they are no longer remarkable, but natural.  That vision was Mark Weiser‘s, and from the 1990s.  Now compare that with an article in Reuters from this week:

Within five years, wearables like the Watch could be overtaken by hearables – devices with tiny chips and sensors that can fit inside your ear. They, in turn, could be superseded by disappearables – technology tucked inside your clothing, or even inside your body.

Mark Weiser in 1991: “The most profound technologies are those that disappear.”

Now we can return to Tom Anthony’s post.  Let me extract a few key points:

  1. The shift from the web (browser, web pages, HTML, CSS, etc) to apps.  Google is apparently following this shift by indexing app content.
  2. The rise of conversational search and compound search.  The latter includes query revision (“Vegetarian.  No, vegan“) and chained queries (“Who is Bernie Sanders? How old is he?”).
  3. The growth of interfaces other than mouse and keyboard*.  Anthony mentions tiny screens, voice (Siri, Cortana, OK Google), vibrations (should have said haptics, but all right), and cards.
  4. The ability to easily throw digital content from device to device.
  5. APIs will become even more important.

In other words, we’ll still have general purpose computers, but not use them as often as we once did.  Instead we’ll disaggregate, dis-integrate computing across a swarm of devices located all over our personal space.


Imagine you, dear reader, visiting my Vermont home office.  You’d like to show me a presentation or video.  You could hand me a laptop computer, and I could get watching and listening.  Now you could pass over a tablet, which has much the same function, but is easier to share (lighter, no blocking screen).  Coming up, why not plug a thumb drive into a wall port, which activates a projector, which you then control by speaking?  “Bryan’s office, open file named “Scenario 7.”  I take notes on my sleeve-mounted mini-tablet, snapping pictures with glasses.  Since this is a formal meeting, we both agree to record part of the discussion with the audio device built into my wristband and on one of your rings.

Or we walk across a campus, observing the local fauna.  One student stomps by, earbuds tracking her blood pressure, chatting with a friend via wristband computer, all of her class materials safely stored on one hip-holstered phone.  A professor stands under a tree, carefully working out a problem displayed in his goggles, speaking quietly to one program, tracing solutions on a slight tablet held in one hand.

Back in the present, you object.  “Bryan, this is a bit absurd.  After all, Google Glass failed miserably.  Nobody wants to haul around so many devices.  And the technical problems are serious.”

That was true for a while.  Not so much these days.  We clearly do love our gadgets – if not Glass, then our phones, our fitness trackers, our tablets.  Sports fiends and pornographers make industrial use of GoPros.  Russians sport video dashcams, and Americans are seriously thinking about requiring cops to carry recorders.  And, of course, the Apple Watch frenzy is ramping up.  Excitement and buzz drive some of this, but convenience is even more effective as an adoption driver.  These tools are more accessible, easier to use, and often cheaper than a laptop computer.

What does this mean for education?  We should really be talking about this now.  I asked about the implications of the Internet of Things last fall, but few folks are reflecting out loud.  So let’s throw some ideas in the air.

  • Apps could overwhelm the web.  This has enormous implications for information and society, of course, and would reconfigure how campuses support and use digital information.  IT and academic computing departments, plus the library, would be revolutionized.  Scholarly publishing has to consider format changes.
  • Privacy.  We’re still doing a poor job of approaching changes to privacy, starting with some businesses driving ever more intrusive data usage.  In general we haven’t rethought what just happened to “private” and “public” spaces under the impact of growing surveillance.  As disintegrated computing grows and ramifies, dealing with privacy will become even more challenging for K-12 and medical settings, currently under stricter privacy laws than elsewhere.
  • Interoperability will have to become serious.  Educators and researchers will have to figure out how to move data through an increasingly complex ecosystem.  Perhaps we’ll take stands on standards, or throw campuses into vendor realms for simplicity’s sake.
  • Generational differences could widen.  Also racial, as blacks and latinos are already more likely than whites to use mobile phones.
  • Re-integrators will appear.  Businesses will offer solutions to make all these devices talk to each other.  In education, wait for Blackboard and Microsoft to make this as sales pitch.  Apple and Google will already be doing it by offering their own subsystems.
  • Preservation gets even harder.  It isn’t easy now.

What else do you see for this dawning age of disintegrated computing?

*Whenever I say “mouse and keyboard” out loud I really, really want to add “moose und sqvuirrel.”

(mobile devices image by Steve Paine; disintegrator by CGP Grey; hanks to the British Cyberpig for the compound search link)

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10 Responses to The age of disintegrated computing and thoughts on education

  1. broadyesl says:

    Reblogged this on My Educational Technology Blog: A Place of Resources and Tools for Educators and commented:
    As always, great reflections by Bryan Alexander…

  2. Joe Murphy says:

    A few thoughts:

    Anthony’s focus on “thrown content” has me thinking about collaborative projects in the classroom. There are some interesting implications for the way we do group work. Consider that the role of the “scribe” completely changes if they’re recording mechanically instead of manually.

    And then I start thinking about assessment, and how this environment helps (or hinders) us in tracking authorship and contributions, and we run into your privacy question. The issue of “learning analytics” vs. “privacy” is thorny (before we even get to the issues of outside vendors and gov’t), and we just don’t know how to have that conversation yet.

    Generational and class/race/other identity issues will be serious. For computing to be “ubiquitous”, it has to be integrated. A new piece of specialized hardware won’t be “ubiquitous” for some students, it’ll be “that damned bracelet the prof makes me wear.” The equity issues will hold back some experiments, until we figure out funding and ownership issues. (Can you clear the data off a Fitbit or Glass so a different student can use it next term?)

    Anthony’s search predictions worry me. As unnatural and inefficient as keyword searching is, in scholarly work it also teaches students a level of rigorous vocabulary use. There’s no fighting the tide, but I was excited by the linked article on Scinet, which allows users to visually organize related concepts to see how that changes search results.

    [Insert Joe’s regular plug for Vernor Vinge’s novel _Rainbow’s End_ here.]

    • (Everyone should read that book)
      Great thoughts, Joe. I like the ways you see this playing out on campus, from pedagogy to support.

      Maybe there will be no single device we can presume everyone has. Yikes.

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