The Urge To Converge - And Embed

Everywhere you look, convergence is the air. I'm not just talking about the much celebrated intersection of consumer and business technology, nor the newly emerged jockeying for position, as IT vendors seek to cozy up to consumer companies and their lucrative customers. It's way more than that.

Patricia Keefe, Contributor

January 13, 2006

5 Min Read

Everywhere you look, convergence is the air. I'm not just talking about the much celebrated intersection of consumer and business technology, nor the newly emerged jockeying for position, as IT vendors seek to cozy up to consumer companies and their lucrative customers. It's way more than that.We seem to be on the threshold of the much talked about - and in some quarters, longed for - ubiquitous technology. That's technology everywhere - embedded in your cars, your phones, your appliances, utilities, your clothes, and yes, even your physical self.

The recent Consumer Electronics Show was certainly a showcase for much of what's going on, and what's coming down the pike. But the news in general has been rife with stories about merging technologies, converging markets and happy embedders.

Everywhere you look, search is merging into video and music downloads, automobiles are bristling with communication devices and merchandise of all kinds are packing tracking chips. Phones record images and video, download programs, tie into text mail, function as calendars, and soon will replace your wallet. Already embedded in backpacks, various technologies are moving into our clothing, and in some experimental cases, our bodies.

Merging, or cross-referencing databases of various kinds means the ability to offer new services and aid, at the cost of less and less privacy, even as the processes for protecting that data seems lodged in the stone age. Our appliances, machines and cars talk to us, while in some cases independently monitoring and repairing themselves. The repairman of old is fast fading away - you need a thorough grounding in electronics these days to repair just about anything produced in the last 10 years.

Such ubiquity has all kinds of societal implications - some of it already apparent in the younger generations. Over time, the impact on culture alone will probably be staggering. As it is, people IM each other today instead of picking up the phone or walking over to the next desk. We shun brick and mortar, and shop on line. We reject paper, and pay our bills online. We escape the commute, and work out of our homes. We read and study in front of a wall of noise and images. In fact, whenever possible, more today than ever, we multitask to the max, even to beyond the point of safety.

We are becoming so cocooned in our web of technology that how we interact with each other, how we communicate - verbally and nonverbally - how we make buying decisions, the forms in which the products we buy are available, and how those transactions are concluded,and the terms under which we work even - have all changed dramatically in recent years.

This in turn has led to some wonderful conveniences, more accurate and more helpful services, more compact products that do more, and the ability to transcend geography.

It has also given rise to greater isolation, fewer social skills, more impatience, shorter attention spans, the need to reconfigure expectations, access and processes, as well as a rethinking in many cases of how all the changes wrought by this, and coming convergence, will impact laws and policies.

Think about it. If you're worried now about banning drivers yakking on cell phones - wait until the average car screams with video screens, internet access, and always-on communications. Autopilot? How about GPS systems run amuck?

Think you've got your hands full trying to keep weaponry out of schools, cell phones turned off, and ipods unplugged? How about monitoring online chat rooms and blogs, hacking into school systems, electronic bullying, photo cell phones in locker rooms and now, ipods quietly embedded in clothing, making it that much harder to keep kids' attentive. I can see the day coming when Levis (this specific model anyway) are banned from school grounds. Who'd have thought?!

As more and more entertainment is downloaded and auctioned off - who will really have access to all this information, and how much harder will it be to "return" a "defective" piece of music, book, image or video? Where did the corruption take place? At the source, or via the customer? Who yah gonna call to lodge a complaint if you can't get through to a human? (And let's not forget that there is no bigger mess right now than digital rights management.)

I almost forgot the folks who are already sinking RFID chips into their flesh. A group of them just met to compare experiences. I can see cases where RFID chips and bracelets are placed on patients, Alzheimer sufferers and even sex offenders, as a way of either keeping them safe, or keeping others safe from them. But the guy who injected himself with an RFID chip manufactured for livestock to - in essence - spare himself the need to hunt for, or fight over control of his remote, well, that's a bit much me thinks. What would happen if his chip malfunctioned and crossed signals with the wrong reader or another chip and things went, well haywire. (Yes, you are a box of crackers, and you must pay for yourself before, you don't want the Superbowl game, let's watch Golden Girls! ... yes, he's fine to take penicillin!)

And what if bunches of people are running around all chipped up. Would RFID trump biometrics? Would it wreck havoc with metal detectors? Silcone leaks in the body, will processors corrode? I'm letting my imagination run wild here thinking things up, but it's no stretch to think that all this convergence is going to change everything we do, and how we do it, and in some cases, in very big ways.

No doubt about it, we're on the edge of the beginning of real technology integration into every aspect of our lives, and I think we are just starting to realize the wider spread implications this is all going to have. So I'm curious. What changes have you already seen, for better or for worse? What changes do you see coming? What will we have to change or re think? And how should we do it?

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