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Monday, September 16, 2013

When Tech Turns Nouns Into Verbs

We’re remaking the world so quickly that our language is breaking down.

Think about the phone you carry. You talk with people on it, but you can also open apps and transform it into a camera or chess board. As much as you talk on it, you use its Internet browser. In total daily usage, your phone is mostly pinging cellphone towers and Wi-Fi antennas, informing phone service providers, digital map makers and retailers of where you are.

Whatever this object is, it isn’t a phone in any conventional sense. And that may be a clue to a whole new way of thinking about the world around us.

The phone is a little connected computer â€" a device whose uses and meaning we continually explore and modify. It is by no means a phone in the historical sense. It is still a physical object, of course, but it is really a vehicle for one or another software-enabled experience. In an important sense, it is made to be contingent, changing with every download and update. That focus on the needs-driven experience means it behaves less like a static noun and more like an active verb.

This is becoming a commonplace across our connected world. Google’s Internet-connected Chromebook laptops are checked for possible updates to the machine every time their browsers hook into the cloud. Google has also announced more powerful apps for the Chrome browser, so normal laptops will have syncing and updates just as phones do. Tesla automobiles regularly receive software updates to improve performance, including not just things in the engine but what appears on a driver’s screen.

At home, Nest thermostats download bug fixes and upload information about how our homes are heated. Music systems from Sonos and Jawbone do something similar with music. While Jawbone makes physical products, its executives describe their business as fundamentally a software company.

Even amateurs get into the act: Since 2009 Canon Hack Development has been adding features to a SureShot camera, including not just a motion detector, but games like Tetris and Sudoku. Like “phones,” cameras have not historically been associated with being game boards.

In the near future, cameras, cars and other things will also be marketing devices, industry executives say, as their makers use the connectivity to put ads in front of us.

The ability to deeply read and reconfigure objects benefits the makers of these objects. Within a few weeks Apple will update millions of older iPhones with a new operating system, iOS 7, primed to receive a new range of Apple experiences â€" and products. Google won’t say how many Chromebooks have been sold (though numbers are probably small, this week Intel showed new models from Hewlett-Packard, Acer, Asus, and Toshiba) but knows exactly how many are in use at any time.

“We track how many people are using them on a seven-day basis,” said Caesar Sengupta, vice president of product management for Chromebooks. “It is a much more personalized computer, by having it cloud based.”

This software-vivified world also puts us in an entirely different relationship with our machines. You may own a Jawbone device, but you are licensing its software. Check the mandatory box to use it, and you agree to give Jawbone personal and usage information to “law enforcement authorities, government officials, and third parties” (whoever they are) with no sense they’ll need a warrant or will tell you about it. Many other companies have similar policies over the fate and function of your stuff.

There are other worries, including security concerns. Many of the newly enlivened devices rely on just a few operating systems, like Google’s Android or Wind River’s VxWorks. That’s great for manufacturers, but also for hackers who are interested in looking at and manipulating the data in our devices.

“It gives attackers a great economy of scale,” said Brian Foster, chief technical officer of Damballa, a company that does corporate malware detection. “Objects aren’t hacked until there’s value in doing it, and now there is a rapid increase in crimeware.”

Meanwhile, curious changes are ahead. What will it mean to live in a world where any device, even perhaps a hammer or a lamp, is potentially a two-way object, perpetually concerned with optimizing itself with me? How strange will it be to have an expectation that the things around me are always changing and looking at me?

That lamp, which is after all a kind of projector, could presumably push out the occasional logo if it senses I’m reading something. The hammer, if costs were cheap enough, could measure how hard I’m hitting something, and reach conclusions about my aging wrist. The way a phone is a map, or a camera is a game, every object is on its way to being contingent, capable of turning into something else.

If you feel an existential twitch while contemplating a world where intelligence is everywhere and no definition lasts, that’s probably good. What could be more human than wanting to be seen while not wanting to be snooped on, or wanting to connect while wanting to be autonomous? Or for that matter, living in a world where ideas about ourselves keep changing, albeit at a much, much slower pace than we are used to now.

This is another example of how the habits of technology are affecting all of our world. Already technologies like cloud computing have changed architecture, and virtualization has changed the structure of taxi and hotel businesses. Now the relationship of the network and its nodes, initially phones and now so much else, is moving across more than we can imagine.