Saturday, October 12, 2013

Too Smart?

How much "smart" is too much smart in our luxuriously convenient panoply of personal technology?

Cellphones with so-called "smart" features - essentially a small computer that is easily carried around on one's person, a "smart phone" - have to have a certain minimum of capability in order to do what people want them to do.  Users want to be able to surf the Internet from anywhere, check email, take and upload photos to social media sites - all of that requires a fair amount of processing power.  Not as much as even a mediocre laptop, but a fair bit.  But these silly things also play games, offer sales discounts and tell you exactly where on the planet you are in relation to the sales.  Smart phones are indeed pretty smart.

Comparing to the various computers I've owned, the ranking of processing power goes like this, from lowest to highest:

Timex-Sinclair 1000 ("Sherman, set the Wayback Machine to Early Pleistocene")
Kaypro II
Commodore 64
Commodore 128
Texas Instruments TI-86 (this is a handheld calculator)
nameless IBM clone running DOS
Packard-Bell running Windows 3.1
Compaq running Windows XP
Raft of parts assembled by Son #2 running Windows 7.

This last one was a shoestring computer that cost about $400 total, and it equals about ten times the processing power of all the other computers combined.  And in standardized dollars, it was the cheapest.  My mom got me the Kaypro back in 1986 for $200 - when $200 would buy one hell of a lot more than it does today.  Now when a working example approaching 30 years old is available on eBay, it is either priced according to where it lands compared to other computers - worth $20-50 - or as a borderline historical artifact, worth $50-100.  And even so, a Texas Instruments calculator that can run rings around it costs more, and is the better bargain.

I would hazard a guess that the best smart phone on the market is equivalent, possibly even more powerful than my next-to-last computer.  The graphics they can generate are utterly gorgeous.  Certain brands make arguably better cameras than they do phones.  Most play a broad array of games, virtually all - even my current, unimpressive budget phone - can do email.

How much is too much?

There's a news item today about a couple that discovered to their horror that someone had hacked - and there's some argument among the commentariat whether "hacking" is an appropriate term in this context - into their baby monitor and was talking to their sleeping baby.  On a related note, it would appear that with very little work you can probably find your way into someone's "smart" TV and observe them through the onboard camera.  So while you're sitting there on the couch watching TV, someone somewhere is watching you through the TV, just like for Winston Smith.

How long before the inclusion of a simple sliding shutter that covers every built-in camera becomes a standard feature?  How long before regular consumers start to get a little creeped-out at how connected their lives are, and how much that connectedness has pried the covers back on the privacy of their own homes?

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