Africa is coming to computing

13 Aug 2010|Lee Shupp

Brian Eno famously stated that there is not enough Africa in computers, way back in May 1995 in a Wired magazine interview with Kevin Kelly. As a hyperkinetic person who doesn’t like to sit for long spells in front of a keyboard, I agreed with him. Africa is finally coming to computing, some 15 years later, and I think it will really change how we interact with, and even think about, computing. Why?

Computing really started as a productivity tool, modeled on the office of the day. We use metaphors like “desktop” to describe the space on our screen, and keep “documents” in “folders” much like people did in the analog world way before PCs. But computing is so much more: it’s a way of interacting with the world, of mediating the real world and creating new virtual worlds, and extending our abilities to enable new possibilities.

The productivity stuff is great, but the potential for computing to expand creative possibilities is much more exciting to me. I remember learning how to sequence music on an Atari ST with no hard drive, saving each song on a floppy disk. The program crashed about every 3 hours, so I got really fast at rebuilding lost songs, and learned the value of saving constantly. We did a show at the Paradise Lounge with said Atari ST, and actually loaded floppy disks in between songs so that we could play live instruments over sequenced tracks. Needless to say, this felt very awkward; it was like having Dilbert in your band, and bringing an office on stage with you.

Hence I can empathize with the frustration that Brian Eno felt, when he told Kevin Kelly,

“Do you know what I hate about computers? The problem with computers is that there is not enough Africa in them. This is why I can’t use them for very long. Do you know what a nerd is? A nerd is a human being without enough Africa in him or her. I know this sounds sort of inversely racist to say, but I think the African connection is so important. You know why music was the center of our lives for such a long time? Because it was a way of allowing Africa in. In 50 years, it might not be Africa; it might be Brazil. But I want so desperately for that sensibility to flood into these other areas, like computers.
What’s pissing me off is that it uses so little of my body. You’re just sitting there, and it’s quite boring. You’ve got this stupid little mouse that requires one hand, and your eyes. That’s it. What about the rest of you? No African would stand for a computer like that. It’s imprisoning.”

We are finally breaking out of that prison, escaping the confines of the mouse and keyboard and building interfaces that use many more of our senses, and even our bodies. Apple and Microsoft have developed touch interfaces small and large, from iPhone to iPad to Surface, allowing us to simply touch a screen to communicate with a computer. Voice applications are rapidly improving, driven largely by mobile computing, allowing us to simply talk to a computer, having what we hope will one day be a simple conversation. Facial recognition is improving, so that computers will soon be better at understanding non-verbal communication. XBox Kinect comes out in the fall, allowing us to communicate with computers using our bodies, so that we can move, or dance, or jump up and down to interact with technology.

These new ways of interacting with computing move us away from the desktop/productivity metaphor and enable us to experience computing as an extension of our bodies and senses, in a much more natural way. Computing expands and becomes redefined, becomes more of a physical extension of us rather than a smart typewriter. I can’t wait to see how the first generation to grow up with multiple modes of interaction thinks about computing. It will be so different than how my generation thinks about it.

I’m going to explore this topic in more depth over the next few months, and am hoping to do a panel on the subject at South by Southwest Interactive in March 2010. We have proposed a panel called “People as Peripherals: The Future of Gesture Interfaces.” If this sounds interesting to you, please take a moment to vote for the panel, and I hope to see you in Austin to continue the conversation. As always, there are many great panels coming to SxSWi so it should be a week filled with many stimulating ideas.

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