My Dad used to say that if he had a pocket somewhere on his skin he’d keep a torch in it. I thought it was weird at the time but as my eyesight has dimmed, I get what he was on about. Now it’s a mobile phone I’d keep in a skin pocket – after all, it has a flashlight app as well as many other functions.
Since the 1950s electronic devices such as pacemakers have been planted inside bodies to keep them ticking over, but most of us are still happy just to keep a mobile phone in a clothes pocket or a bag. A few months ago there was a fluster in the blogosphere about the prototype Google Glass, a computer with a head up display you could wear on the body. This month it is smartwatches, such as the Galaxy Gear, the “kickstarted” Pebble and the Sony Smartwatch 2, all just about to be released on the market, that are the new on-body gizmos. Having offered a rather clumsy wristable 6th generation Nano in 2010, Apple is yet to confirm frenzied rumours that an iWatch is to appear next year.
Why would anyone need yet another electronic gizmo like this? Those that make them are restlessly looking for the “next big thing”, always warning that you have to “innovate to stay in the game” – all that business blather that drives consumer capitalism. And, like SMS in mobile phones, there just may be something in the excess of unused wristie functionality that catches on. They might be too small to use as video screens but the near field communication quietly built into them could turn out to be useful. Being able to wave your watch near a sensor to buy your newspaper, train ticket and lunch, to unlock the car, the office and the door to home – not to mention the computer and phone that carries all your personal data – could save us from carrying about keys and passwords, cash and a growing collection of membership and loyalty cards.
But what is interesting rather than useful about the smart wristies and glasses, is the continuation of computing power towards the body. From the institutional bunker of the mainframe, to the office desk, to the laptop, to the smart phone, one of the directions of computational technology has been to get closer and more personal. The other direction is smart chips getting into things – the internet of things and palpable computing. The technology has been around for ages and some examples, like the Oyster card, have been successfully rolled out but more of this has to happen before the NFC technology in wristies could take off.
Before all of us line up to have smart chips embedded in our bodies (remember Professor Kevin Warwick pioneering this back in the 1980s?), the next closest we can have them is strapped to our wrists or worn on our faces. The wristie and Glass are steps on the way to us taking computers inside our bodies. Everything that computers do for us builds on the existing sensory and cognitive capacities of the human body; doing sums, remembering appointments, recalling images of loved ones, hearing the music we enjoy, talking to those far away, writing notes, making pictures and so on.
The wristie, Glass and other wearable smart devices will make the intelligent and sensory capacities of computers and phones even more ready-to-hand than they are now. But eventually we will want to find a skin-pocket for them to, literally, incorporate them within ourselves. There are more steps along the way but it won’t be that long before computer power will become part of what Drew Leder calls the “absent body”; the organs and workings of the body that are internalised, taken for granted and only need conscious attention when they go wrong.