Cheaper than printing it out: buy the paperback book.

Out of Control

My prediction in 1994: Smart offices will materialize before smart homes. Because of the intensive informational nature of business -- its reliance on machines and its need to constantly adapt -- wizardry that is merely marginal in a home can make an economic difference in an office. Time at home is often regarded as leisure, so saving a bit through the intelligence of a net isn't as valuable as accumulating small amounts of time on the job. Networked computers and phones are mandatory in offices now; networked lights and furniture will be next.

The research labs of Xerox in Palo Alto, California (PARC), invented, but unfortunately never exploited, the signature elements of the first friendly Macintosh computers. Not to be burned twice, PARC intends to fully exploit yet another radical (and potentially profitable) concept brewing in their labs now. Mark Weiser, young and cheerful, is director of a Xerox initiative to view the office as a superorganism -- a networked being composed of many interlinked parts.

The glassy offices of PARC perch on a Bay Area hill overlooking Silicon Valley. When I visit Weiser he is wearing a loud yellow shirt flanked by red suspenders. He smiles constantly, as if inventing the future was a big joke and I'm in on it. I take the couch, an obligatory furnishing in hacker dens, even posh hacker dens like these at Xerox. Weiser is too animated to sit; he's waving his arms -- a marker in one hand -- in front of a huge white board that runs from the floor to the ceiling. This is complicated, his arms say, you are going to need to see it. The picture Weiser begins drawing on the white board looks like a diagram of a Roman army. Down at the bottom are one hundred small units. Above it are ten medium-size units. Perched at the top level is one large unit. The army that Weiser is drawing is a field of Room Organisms.

What I really want, Weiser is telling me, is an mob of tiny smart objects. One hundred small things throughout my office that have a uniform, dim awareness of each other, of themselves, and of me. My room becomes a supercolony of quasi-smart bits. What you want, he says, is every book on your shelf to have a chip embedded in it so that it keeps track of where it is in the room, when it was last open, and to what page. The chip might even have a dynamic copy of the book's index that will link itself to your computer database when you first bring the book into the room. The book now has a community presence. All information stored on a shelf as, say, books or videotapes are implanted with a cheap chip to communicate both where they are and what they are about.

In the ecological office stocked with swarmish things, the room will know where I am. If I'm not there, obviously it (they?) should turn the lights off. Weiser: "Instead of having a light switch in every room, everyone carries their own light switch with them. When they want the lights on, the smart switch in their pocket turns them on or dims them to a level you want, in the room you happen to be in. Rather than the room having a dimmer, you have a dimmer. Personal light control. Same with volume control. In an auditorium everyone has their personal volume control. The volume is often too loud or too low, so everyone sort of votes with their pocket devices. The sound settles at an average for those people."

In Weiser's vision of an intelligent office, ubiquitous smart things form a hierarchy. At bottom, an army of microorganisms act as a background sensory net for the room. They feed location and usage information directly to the upper levels. These frontline soldiers are cheap, disposable small fry attached to writing pads, booklets, and smart Post -- it notes. You buy them by the dozen-like pads of paper or RAM chips. They work best massed into a mob.

Next, about ten mid-size (slightly bigger than a bread box) displays, such as furniture and appliances interact more frequently and directly with the office holder. Linked into the superorganism of a smart room, my chair will recognize me when I sit in it, versus someone else. When I first plop down in the mornings, it will remember what I usually do in the A.M. It can then assist my routine, awakening appliances that need a warm-up, preparing the day's schedule.

Every room also has at least one electronic display that is a yard-wide or bigger -- a window, a painting, or a computer/TV screen. In Weiser's world of environmental computing, the big display in every room is the smartest nonhuman in the room. You talk to it, point over it, write on it and it understands. The big screen does movies, text, super graphics, whatever. It almost goes without saying that it is interconnected with all the other objects in the room, knows exactly what they are up to, and can represent them on its screen with some faithfulness. So I can interact with a book two ways: by handling the actual object or by handling its image on the screen.

Every room becomes an environment of computation. The adaptive nature of computers recedes into the background until it is nearly invisible and ubiquitous. "The most profound technologies are those that disappear," says Weiser. "They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it." The technology of writing descended from elite status, steadily lowering itself out of our consciousness altogether until we now hardly notice words scribbled everywhere from logos stamped on fruit to movie subtitles. Motors began as huge noble beasts; they have since evaporated into micro-things fused (and forgotten) in most mechanical devices. George Gilder, writing in Microcosm, says, "The development of computers can be seen as the process of collapse. One component after another, once well above the surface of the microcosm, falls into the invisible sphere, and is never again seen clearly by the naked eye." The adaptive technologies that computers bring us started out as huge, conspicuous, and centralized. But as chips, motors, and sensors collapse into the invisible realms, their flexibility lingers as a distributed environment. The materials evaporate, leaving only their collective behavior. We interact with the collective behavior -- the superorganism, the ecology -- so that the room as a whole becomes an adaptive cocoon.

Gilder again: "The computer will ultimately collapse to a pinhead that can respond to the human voice. In this form, human intelligence can be transmitted to any tool or appliance, to any part of our environment. Thus the triumph of the computer does not dehumanize the world; it makes our environment more subject to human will." It is not machines we are creating but a mechanical environment permeated with our sense of learning. We are extending our life into our surroundings.

"You know the premise of virtual reality -- to put you inside a computer world," says Mark Weiser. "Well, I want to do the opposite. I want to put the computer world around you on the outside. In the future, the smartness of computers will surround you." This is a nice switcheroo. Rather than have to don goggles and body suit to experience immersion in a computer-generated world, all you have to do to be completely surrounded by the magic of constant computation is to open a door.

Once you are in a net-ridden room, all smart rooms talk to each other. The big picture on the wall then is a portal into both my own room and into other folks' rooms. Say I hear about a book I should read. I do a data search for it in my building; my screen says a copy lives in Ralph's office, behind his desk on a shelf of company-bought books, and was used last week. There is also another copy in Alice's cubby, next to the computer manuals, that hasn't ever been read, even though it is her own personal purchase. I pick Alice and send her a loan plea on the net. She says okay. When I physically take the book from Alice's room, it reconfigures its display to match the rest of the books in my room as is my preference. (I like to have the pages I "dog-eared" displayed first.) The book's new location is recorded in its internal biography, and noted by everyone's databank. This book is unlikely to go the one-way journey of most borrowed books.

In the colony of a smart room, the telephone rings slightly louder if the stereo is on; the stereo lowers itself when the you answer the phone. Your office voice-mail unit knows your car is not in the parking lot so it tells the caller you haven't arrived yet. When you pick up a book, it tells the lamp above your favorite reading chair to turn on. Your TV notifies you that the novel you've been reading is available this week as a movie. Everything is connected to everything. Clocks listen to the weather, refrigerators watch the time and order milk before the carton is empty, and books remember where they are.

Weiser writes that in Xerox's experimental office, "doors open only to the right badge wearer, rooms greet people by name, telephone calls can be automatically forwarded to wherever the recipient may be, receptionists actually know where people are, computer terminals retrieve the preferences of whoever is sitting at them, and appointment diaries write themselves." But what if I don't want everyone in my department to know what room I'm in? Workers participating in initial trials of ubiquitous computing at Xerox PARC often left their office in order to get away from the phone-blob. They felt imprisoned by always being findable. Network culture cannot thrive without the technologies of privacy. Privacy in the form of personal encryption and unforgeable digital signatures are being rapidly developed (see following chapter). Privacy can also be secured in the anonymous nature of the mob.