February 08, 2005

Neil Gershenfeld's "When Things Start to Think"

Homebound with a cold in the unusually sunny Portland winter, I read Neil Gershenfled's book, "When things start to think." It's an interesting book, and still relevant to the ubicomp world, even through it was published six years ago and he was writing it eight years ago. It's an autobiography, an introduction to technological and scientific concepts, wide-eyed speculation, a polemic against everything Gershenfeld doesn't like, and a big ad for the MIT Media Lab and the students there. All in 200 pages. Sometimes, it's all of those things in a single chapter, as when he starts by talking about telemarketing, moves into a detailed history of the Protestant Reformation, slides over to the Bill of Rights and end up creating his own version of Isimov's Three Laws of Robotics. It's not as much about making deep connections as it is about associative idea surfing. It's sitting with Gershenfeld while he gives you a braindump of everything that's on his ADD mind. It's quite blog-like, actually, and if blogs had existed in 1997 that may have been a more appropriate forum than a book.

The most interesting thing about the book, which is on the whole about ubiquitous computing--even though Gershenfled doesn't like the term--is how little progress has been made since he was writing 8 years ago. Over and over I see people re-discovering the same ideas he was talking about in the book, which were old to him even then, as if they were something amazing and new. His iconic image is the shoe computer. When did the first real shoe computer come out? 2004 (the Adidas 1).

Why did this happen? I blame The Web. The Web sucked up the "best and brightest" for 10 years, and only now are people getting bored enough with it to start thinking about hardware. The pieces are there:

  • Chinese manufacturing (which everyone has heard about and owns at least one product that benefitted from) is there to make it.
  • The DIY movement has spawned a bunch of interest into what goes into the black boxes.
  • And the ephemerality and increasing sameness of the Web is pushing smart people toward physical objects (confirming what Chicken John said years ago: "All these dotcom people, you know what they really want to be doing? They want to be working with wood.").

This book is an interesting reminder of where all of this came from, and how it's neither new nor revolutionary. However, reading it shows me how important momentum and timing are: Gershenfeld was first in many ways, but without the support of companies and individuals running with the ideas, they stagnated, and only now are we picking up the crumbs of 1997.

The end of the book introduces Gershenfeld's Things That Think Consortium. Gershenfeld is no longer a director of that program, though I get the feeling he was at the time.

Posted by mikek at February 8, 2005 01:28 PM | TrackBack
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