Essays on Technology and Culture

The Golden Age of Wireless: A Personal Cloud

Every day, I become a temporary cyborg. Before I leave for work, I strap a computer laden with sensors on my wrist, and a pair of speakers around my head. They both connect to a computer that I keep in my pocket. It’s only three devices, but they form a small, private network of their own around my body. It’s a network that keeps me informed about the state of my body and anything important that needs my attention, with my smartphone at the center. And all without wires.

When you think about it, this is amazing.

The last decade has seen technology become more personal, and be on our body. We’ve had electronic devices we could keep on our person and on our bodies, of course. Everything from pocket watches to PDAs, from pedometers to iPods have been personal technology. What separates then from now is that, until recently, none of these things could talk to each other. Only by placing a computer in our pocket with an omnipresent connection to the Internet and the ability to talk to other devices without wires, could we conceive of a world where our most personal technology becomes an ecosystem unto itself.

It was never impossible to do this before. Look at Steve Mann at MIT, if you can stand to. What separates the clunky, stone age of wearable technology and sensors from the Bronze Age, is that now we can do it all for relatively cheap, and without wires. Imagine stringing a wire from your wrist to your pocket, maybe under your shirt. String a second wire from your headphones to your pocket. If you’re convinced that augmented reality is the future, how about a third one to your glasses? (I’m still skeptical) Instead, every day, I sit in my own personal cloud of devices that speak to each other, leaving my body free and comfortable. No wires, no muss, no fuss.

Okay, some fuss. Bluetooth has come a long way since high-powered douchebags kept giant glowing Borg implants in their ears hooked up to their Motorola RAZR, but it still has a ways to go. It’s radio, and like most forms of radio, it’s pretty crappy at transmitting through thick bags of water like the human body. Battery life is still an issue, though it’s interesting that my Apple Watch lasts longer on a single charge than the smartphone it connects to. These are all kinks that will be ironed out in time. It’s not hard to imagine a world with more reliable, more power-efficient wireless connectivity, which is why we’re so impatient for it.

The process of getting there is going to be bumpy, and full of temporary inconveniences. In other words, it’s the story of every technological development for the last several millennia. On the other side of it come untold rewards. It will be a boon to accessibility. Smartphone technology has already shown itself to be insanely useful to the blind, and let’s not forget Molly Watts’s powerful piece on how her Apple Watch helps her despite being deaf and mostly blind. The more cumbersome it is to add personal technology to a person’s life, the greater the friction, the less useful it becomes. And, face it, wires are friction. If you’ve ever had to exercise with headphone cables against your skin, it’s literally friction.

The future is wireless. The future is a cloud of our personal devices, talking to each other, helping us know what we need to know, when we need to know it. All of it working seamlessly, all of it working together, and all of it communicating without wires. We won’t be there tomorrow, but we’ll be there soon enough. And we’ll probably wonder how we ever lived without it.