First Monday

Letters to the Editor

Date: Wed, 22 Sep 1999 16:28:40 -0800
From: Cliff Barney
Subject: information appliances

Dear Mr. Valauskas,

Andrew Odlyzko's article on the development of information appliances is really about the sociology, not the technology, of computing. He says as much himself several times:

"The problem is not necessarily that the technologies are inadequate to achieve the promised goals. Rather, it seems likely that, just as in the past, the computing and communications industry will not concentrate on those goals."

"... we can expect similar outcomes, not because they are preordained by technology or dictated by Microsoft, but because that is what people are willing to pay for."

"Microsoft is vigorously pursuing the information appliance market .... . Whether it will preserve its dominant role depends not just on technology, but also on political alliances."

Mr. Odlyzko then proposes a purely administrative solution for the several dystopian scenarios he outlines:

"However, by providing for customizable flexibility and developing outsourcing services for computing and networking support, we can smooth the transition to the information appliance era of computing."

I think that this conclusion ignores the obvious implications of his article, namely that the development of technology is socioeconomically determined. We are now living in what Manuel Castells calls the Network Society, globally capitalist and dominated by real-time networks that can form and dissolve according to their own needs and that contribute to current social changes that are affecting whole populations, even to the extent of physically redistributing them around the globe. In this context, the idea of an intelligent coffeepot is faintly preposterous. It may be possible to create one, it may even be possible to sell many of them, should enough people be convinced, by the coordinated advertising of integrated networks that own, or outsource, everything from wafer fab lines to communications conglomerates to coffee plantations, that this is what they really need. But no purely technological solution is going to answer the social issues of interoperability that Mr. Odlyzko so clearly describes.

Beyond this, the bland assumption that smart coffeepots, anticipating our desires and reordering when the beans run low, are even worth developing, completely ignores the impact of such products on the lives of coffee pickers in countries whose land has been depleted by coffee growing and which cannot grow enough food to feed their own people. We don't even have a calculus to measure these social impacts. But it may be that they will have an effect on the development of coffeepots and other information appliances.

Cliff Barney
Yelapa, Jalisco, Mexico

Date: Wed, 29 Sep 1999 08:01:54 -0400 (EDT)
From: Andrew Odlyzko
Subject: Re: information appliances

Cliff Barney is correct that my article is much more about the sociology than about the technology of computing. However, I am puzzled as to why he feels that my conclusions "ignore the obvious implications of [my] article, namely that the development of technology is socioeconomically determined." It is true that I do not offer any magic solutions, but that is because I do not believe there are any. However, it is precisely because the dominant influences are socioeconomic and (largely for that reason) complicated that I do not have a clear vision of the future.

I see my contribution as that of warning about the unavoidable difficulties of developing information appliances that work well enough to be usable. However, I do not doubt that information appliances are coming. Mr. Barney thinks that "the idea of an intelligent coffeepot is faintly preposterous." I do not see anything preposterous about it, not when we already have vending machines that use phone connections to signal when they need to be refilled. To go from that to intelligent coffeepots is not an impossible step, although it will be a hard step for the reasons outlined in my article.

If Mr. Barney thinks intelligent coffeepots are frivolous, he can think of cardiac monitors that will signal high danger of a heart attack, or traffic signals that smooth traffic flow by communicating with cars. Such devices are already in existence, although in primitive forms, are highly valued, and will be getting better. Yet the technology they will rely on will be similar to that of intelligent coffeepots.

Mr. Barney is right that I do ignore many implications of information appliances. In particular, privacy (which he does not mention) can be fatally compromised by widespread use of these devices. However, that is another topic that deserves a much more thorough treatment than I could offer in my essay, even though I am aware of its importance. On the other hand, the impact of smart coffeepots "on the lives of coffee pickers" is not something I would venture to evaluate. As Mr. Barney himself says, [w]e don't even have a calculus to measure these social impacts." Perhaps wide use of smart coffeepots would stimulate more drinking and thus create more demand for coffee. On the other hand, perhaps these devices would better match the amount of coffee actually brewed to the amount consumed, and thus decrease waste, and thus reduce demand. There are numerous other feedback loops that might have a material effect. Anyone able to evaluate such impacts would surely be the unique person on Earth who could make information appliances work well right away.

Andrew Odlyzko
AT&T Labs - Research

Contents Index

Copyright © 1999, First Monday

Letters to the Editor by Cliff Barney and Andrew Odlyzko
First Monday, volume 4, number 10 (October 1999),