Just thinking out loud for a minute here.

For years, CS people have been talking about the coming age of “ubiquitous computing.” The term was coined by Mark Weiser (whose memorial site I created shortly after starting my last academic job); he described in various publications, most notably a Scientific American article and the inevitable Web site. The Scientific American piece resonates with me strongly, as it opens with the argument that

The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.

–which describes a kind of technology that I find myself drawn to in my historical writing.

More and more I’m seeing discussions of ubiquitous computing that are shifting from “this will come some day” to “this is starting to happen”: WiFi, PDAs, cell phones, SMS, all seem to be bringing computing and always-on communications into the fabric of our lives.

Another concept that’s recently gotten hot is that of “smart mobs.” The term was coined by Howard Rheingold, and is the subject of his latest book, not unsurprisingly titled Smart Mobs. His quick description:

Smart mobs emerge when communication and computing technologies amplify human talents for cooperation. The impacts of smart mob technology already appear to be both beneficial and destructive, used by some of its earliest adopters to support democracy and by others to coordinate terrorist attacks. The technologies that are beginning to make smart mobs possible are mobile communication devices and pervasive computing – inexpensive microprocessors embedded in everyday objects and environments. Already, governments have fallen, youth subcultures have blossomed from Asia to Scandinavia, new industries have been born and older industries have launched furious counterattacks.

Both of these visions are pretty compelling to me, and I’m finding them useful in my day job. But I’ve recently started thinking: what’s the connection between them? Is there a connection? At the moment, I’m tinkering with a couple of ways of describing the relationship:

  • Ubicomp is a technological foundation for the smart mob phenomenon.
  • Ubicomp can be thought of as a description of the impact of pervasive computing and communications on individuals, while smart mobs are the organizational/social version. They’re both the same thing: one applies to individuals, the other to groups.

Neither is perfectly satisfactory, but I think if I can come up with a way of explaining the relationship between them, it’ll be a very useful thing.

Amazing that I get paid to think (however fitfully) about this kind of stuff. A large amount of my value to the Institute rests in my ability to write a lot, and to come up with nice turns of phrase that people will remember; but ultimately my ability to think about bigger things is what really matters. Clever turns of phrase that describe other people’s thoughts aren’t very valuable: flash, it turns out, needs substance.