Sunday, December 22, 2013

A World Managed By Apps Is Closed For Those Without A Smartphone

It's hard to blog about the broader ramifications of tech when you see all these trends in your workplace that you can't talk about, as they all hook into each other and some are covered by your Confidentiality Agreements. But one I can discuss is another digital divide coming. Like the previous ones, which were first about who could get online and reap the benefits of digital at all, and the second of whether they could get broadband fast enough, I am seeing another one happen: the World Remote Control divide, specifically for the Internet of Things.

Between thermostats, door locks, parking meters, airline check-ins, scanners, printers, cab hailing, and all kinds of other services and devices becoming appified, technology as a culture is marching into a very specific direction: instead of the sci-fi vision of computing being diffused and ambient to all--us talking to doors to open and to walls to play music--computing is instead being controlled from our handheld devices by those who own them. The future is here but unevenly distributed, and the pockets in Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, Singapore, Tokyo, London, etc that have the future first are all manipulating it from apps, and not through a ubiquitous low-power low-computing global protocol like SMS.

It's nobody's fault, nobody is to blame; it just really is easier when you make a digital door lock to use the smartphone as a control device instead of having to build in voice recognition or have to distribute hardware tokens like keys. But as it is more and more assumed people have smart handheld devices with big screens and fast CPUs, the people without them get left behind. The mobile web world was already insufferable enough when many of its developers would say behind closed doors that they coded for the Webkit / iPhone only since that was the only device with enough numbers to justify the mobile investment, but when every digital device maker just assumes everyone relevant has a smartphone so they can drop hardware buttons, remote controls, some people are seriously going to become strangers in their own world.

It's not hard to envision a world where having an iPhone is a necessary token for entry the same way now it is really impractical to get benefits or advice without a computer and an internet connection and having to rely instead on multiple trips to job-centers and post offices and government offices just to get all paperwork done. The people who are economically disadvantaged enough that acquiring a new or replacing a broken smart handheld is just fricking hard, will find themselves burdened always having only secondary access to the world: always having to type 20 digit numbers though hostile phone menu trees to finish topping up, having to go to a specific location to find the right form and find it is out of stock this week and wasting a trip, carry little top-up cards and keys they may lose, not being able to remotely check on their homes or work, not reaping the benefits of a world going digital. And you can say "hey, they can't do those magical things now anyway so they do not lose anything," but in reality, as the world gets easier to manage for those with these handheld devices and they gain more time and money, the ones without slip relatively behind by virtue of not advancing, or advancing way slower. The poor get poorer, and the well-off will turn more and more of their world into appified services because it is already working so well.

But now that tablets are becoming available for a meagre £80 and soon for less, will the World Remote Control divide really exist? Well, yeah, if you know the context of device usage in poor areas. It is brutal. This classic post by Seanan McGuire, who has been there, describes how "Print is Dead" is a nightmare in a world where any e-reader would instantly be stolen or broken by the people around you. When not only print but also coin slots on parking meters are dead, this group will slowly watch the world get harder and harder to navigate. Ok, so you got one cheap device—how large is your family? Can they share it? Are there profiles? Can you afford the WiFi or 3G signal? Can you afford to charge it?

Every time you make a service or device that can only be managed from an app, you are basically adding to a systematic poor tax. You make it easier for those comfortable, with great smartphones in their hand, to get shit done, while not spreading that benefit to those without the magic box. You deepen economic entrenchment.