November 11, 2001
Freak, geek or genius, Steve Mann is redefining our relationship with computers
By DON ERMEN -- Ottawa Sun
Steve Mann, inventor of the wearable computer, doesn't always like the way he's described by the media.
He's been called a freak, a curiosity, anti-military industrial establishment, anti-capitalist, a utopian and a cyborg.
Sorry, Steve. But you are a freak. You even described yourself as a cyborg. The good news is that in 20 years, you might be viewed as the founding father of a nation of freaks or human cyborgs, if you get that wearable computer into mass production.
In a fascinating look at how far technology has come, Steve Mann and co-author Hal Niedzviecki outline in their new book the motivation, implications and possible uses of wearable computers or what Mann calls his WearComp.
In an interview with the Sun, Niedzviecki points out that Cyborg: Digital Destiny and Human Possibility In The Age of the Wearable Computer is not a book on the ultimate geek gadget. And WearComp is not a techie's dream. It's already here.
Mann has been wearing different versions of the WearComp for more than 20 years. At first, the systems were bulky and heavy to carry around. Now they're not much more than a pair of bifocals hooked to a little pack that you can even wear while playing a game of squash.
Although there are still many skeptics, Niedzviecki thinks WearComp will be an everyday item, just as home computers and cellphones are today.
He points out the purpose of WearComp is a lot more than just trying to develop the coolest gadget.
Although WearComp is an attempt to combine the functions of many devices -- cellphones, pagers, web surfers, music players, cameras and PDAs -- Niedzviecki says WearComp is also meant to be a way of life, an extension of ourselves so that we can more easily share information and ideas with others.
Niedzviecki says much of today's technology has been designed to make our lives more efficient, while getting more work out of us, or it's being used to make us better consumers.
He says WearComp is tailored by the user, allowing the user to decide what to see and hear and how to communicate.
For example, Mann can program his WearComp to filter out ads the rest of us see. Or he can shop for groceries and have his wife tune in to make sure he's picking up the right brand of produce.
WearComp is also an attempt to allow the user to control other technologies, or at least put them on a level playing field. In a series of tests, Mann has walked into a store, advertising the fact he's wearing a camera and recording everything, just as how all the store video cameras are catching him on tape. So what does Mann really get out of it? Niedzviecki and Mann argue it's about control and letting the individual do exactly what the corporation is doing.
Current technology does not "enhance our humanity," says Niedzviecki. "Why can't we have personal technology that enhance who we are? That deals with some of those challenges, the biggest being communication?"
If this sounds a bit utopian, it is, says Niedzviecki. The book raises a lot more questions than it answers as to whether we will one day be in control of the machines or if the machines will control us. It's one thing to have a beeper hanging off your belt, it's another to be wired into the thing.
And like any technology, WearComp could make George Orwell's 1984 seem like paradise. For example, imagine your employer asking you to wear non-prescription glasses that are really cameras that videotape everything from your perspective. Took too many pens home from work? Well, you just taped yourself doing it.
Niedzviecki says he and Mann aren't suggesting they have all the answers and don't know for certain how wearable technology might evolve. But they argue the best way to challenge technologies we find intrusive or threatening is to design technology that becomes personal and a part of us.
"We can't make technology go away," says Niedzviecki. He's right, so maybe the next step is to become the technology. It's a step Steve Mann has already taken.
Bottom line: It's a lot of heavy thought to cover in 275 pages, but Niedzviecki and Mann give a wondrous -- and sometimes scary --look at the impact of technology on our society and where we should be headed.
Next Story: Flyers change tack
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