Pinch me; I’m dreaming about the future of computing

(And it’s already started to happen)

I had a vision for the future of computing many years ago. I don’t claim it was a vision nobody had had before me, but it was an original vision, inasmuch as, so far as I can tell, it was a spark of invention and clarity that happened inside my head. Shoulders of giants and all that (by which I probably mean Iain M Banks) but it feels like mine, and so it’s mine to share with you. It was this:

Through the fog, the best I guessed at least a future of computing would be is one of homogeneous ubiquity (now, I’d describe this as a kind of natural evolution of the cloud, but that wasn’t a concept we’d had marketed to us then) and that we’d ‘pinch out’ a nub of computingness and shape it to our needs as and when we needed it. The visual image of this that flashed into my head — which, now that I come to tell you about it, feels embarrassingly if entirely appropriately eighties — was of a (probably neon, if we’re honest) 2D grid that represented computing, into which you’d reach, grasping computing, pulling and forming it into the thing you needed to do right then. You’d roll computing between your fingers, fashioning it, Plasticine-like, into a search, or a command, or a camera, or a screen, or some porn, or a whatever. (You wouldn’t actually, physically do this, you understand; it’s an analogy of how you’d unthinkingly tell an amorphous mass of [currently-] unthinkable processing and maybe AI power how to immediately form itself to your needs, rather than pawing in an inefficient and ungainly fashion at a handheld slate that does this or a desk-bound, finite screen that does that.)

And here’s the thing that prompted me finally to put this idea in writing: I realised that, in a colossally primitive way, I’m already starting to experience it. It’s the merest pre-echo, the slightest foreshadowing of this potentially huge, though doubtless gradual, shift that could happen in computing.

What I mean is: I’m very lucky that, as a technology journalist, I have a fair few different computers lying around — Macs on the desktop and as laptops, iOS and Android devices, Chromebooks and more. And what’s more, and more pertinent, is that the oh-so-gentle move to the cloud — with Dropbox, Google Docs, rich email clients such as iCloud, and more — has meant that I’m increasingly less likely to care about on which computer I do stuff. That’s not to say I have relinquished or would be comfortable relinquishing at all yet the idea of ‘my primary work computer’ or ‘my primary personal computer’ — although even there I’m beginning to wonder if my primary personal computer is my old MacBook Pro or my iPhone 5s — but it’s definitely true that I am, however crudely, simply and only reaching out to grasp whatever computing resource is to hand and making it do the thing I want.

Frankly, and of course, I have no idea if this idea of the future of computing will prove valid, or that what I’m doing now is a precursor of the shift in computing that that vision portends. It feels valid to me, though; and it feels, for the first time since I had the idea when I was a teenager, that I can see, stretching ahead of me, a continuous if meandering line from here to there; from now to then.

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