Where tech aligns

The Little Computer in Your Pocket

If software is eating the world, then software is eating political philosophy.

Millions of credentialed people in the United States spend time dissecting the English language, pulling it apart, not to learn anything new in particular but to perform acts of destruction. I ask them to set their sights instead on the word “smartphone,” an absolute shell of a word that covers the most minor use case of the computational powerhouse that fits in your pocket. You can find a “smartphone” in every cereal box these days, but what exactly are they? 

For perhaps twenty years, from the 1990s until 2010 or so, technologists have grappled for a third device, much as Starbucks attempted to establish a third place outside home and work. You have your giant beige desktop tower, your slow laptop, and now something more mobile. What’s it going to be?

The arc of pocket electronics is long but it seems to bend toward iPhone and Android. The good news is that history isn’t deterministic in this manner, so we can bend it back to something more human.

Electronic Organizers

Pocketable computers found their initial footing among early adopters in ten or twenty dollar devices called “electronic organizers,” sold from every supermarket checkout counter in the 1990s, that would soon give way to “personal digital assistants” (or PDAs).

The electronic organizer, often made by companies involved in the calculator or electronic typewriter trade, met the foremost criterion as a third device that fits in your pocket. You could do things with it, like take note of someone’s phone number, and then look it up. Most had primitive calendars, note-taking apps, calculators, and metric conversion tables as well. You couldn’t connect it with your larger tech setup, so it was an island unto itself, but it wasn’t a device for techies anyway. It was a digital Rolodex for people who wish they had more spreadsheets in their lives.

The Personal Digital Assistant

Electronic organizers were soon wiped out as PDAs emerged and gained traction. The Palm Pilot was released in the mid-’90s, and covered all the use-cases of the electronic organizer, but tacked on a few important additions. The devices were capable of readily synchronizing their data with existing computers, particularly calendars and address books. With an upgrade costing several hundred dollars in today’s money, you could connect to the Internet at 14.4kbps, and send and receive email. You could potentially view websites, or at least the text they were made of.

After a few iterations, and the passage of five years or so, the PDA with its increasingly performant hardware and modem, found itself besieged by another PDA with performant hardware but also a small physical keyboard. This was the BlackBerry, a device beloved by Congress-critters and urban professionals alike, and that reached broader adoption in large part owing to this keyboard, but also something more. The two forms, Palm and BlackBerry, would converge in their hardware and user interface, but the latter received the designation of “smartphone,” and as such, early subsidization from mobile carriers.

The smartphone

From that point forward, competition focused on this key aspect, and the road to the computer in your pocket had become the road to the smartphone. Most strikingly, just as BlackBerry and Palm had settled that the technology was capable of much more than telephony and address books, Apple would release iPhone, while emphasizing this same product was a “widescreen iPod with touch controls,” a “revolutionary mobile phone,” and a “breakthrough Internet communicator.”

Apple would quickly recapitulate the same battle for greater functionality within itself, opening the iPhone to third-party applications while securing greater subsidy for users from mobile providers. Android would tweak this formula, driving prices downward and maximizing variety, while opening it up to mobile technology enthusiasts who pined for more control over their wallpaper settings. Each positioned as a phone that did more, rather than a device that made phones obsolete.

The first thing to note here is how much of the actual change was iterative from a technological perspective, but absolutely revolutionary from the marketing perspective. If you could get mobile carriers on board, subsidizing the devices for more expensive data plans, you could minimize upfront costs for consumers and put them on a path to rent their technology and own nothing. It would be the subscription without a service, and soon enough, a device you can barely tolerate.

With smartphones now ubiquitous, hardware options widening and costs plummeting, it’s worth revisiting the smartphone turn in the first place.

Disentangling the pocket computer from the smartphone

If the “smartphone” was substantially a marketing phenomenon that helped technologists raise money from a behemoth but largely undifferentiated mobile carrier industry, but the hardware is now commodity, then it’s worth asking what exists outside this parasitic orbit.

Numerous options exist currently to purchase your own device outright affordably, and bring it to your choice of carrier. The simplest is to walk into Walmart, and purchase an Android from another generation, for fifty or a hundred bucks. But here we’re seeking insight into the future, not to stay stuck in the past on a different carrier.

Here we engage with nascent independent tech circles that offer a glimpse of options to come, and where emerging hardware is crowdfunded and available in the short order. You can purchase the tech of tomorrow today, warts and all, to gain insight into possible futures.

A couple months ago, we looked at the Light Phone, an early example of crowdfunded tech that illuminates one possible course for the post-smartphone device. In this path, future innovation occurs substantially at the user interface level. The post-smartphone experience becomes the locus of iteration, and the hardware itself is purposefully deemphasized. Underwhelming hardware and simple software may be touted as a kind of feature, or indeed ideology, as Light Phone and others position themselves as minimalistic amulets that’ll keep you chill in our ADHD world.

While these needs are largely satisfied by buying an old Nokia phone from eBay, I do think there’s something to what’s implicit in the minimalist’s thesis. The post-smartphone will be one that appeals to a niche with particular values; I doubt more specifically the value of fanatically-driven simplicity.

The pocket computer breaks through

An alternate path of the post-smartphone device is exemplified by devices like Librem 5, PinePhone, and Precursor. Each of these devices emphasizes open hardware and open software, and that casts the user as one who ought to bear a kind of moral responsibility to whatever they do with it. People can become distracted by their tools, but it doesn’t follow that they should just “log off.” It follows that they should tinker or exercise discipline. Teetotalism is but one option.

The Precursor ($590) is an intriguing device that casts itself as a mobile hardware developer kit. It has the minimalistic appearance of the Light Phone ($300), but it’s inspired by an ambitious ethos and marketed toward a very different audience. It is for the developer-tinkerer, who wants insight into what the device is doing at every stage, and who wants to influence that with code or a soldering iron. If I had large amounts of time and were developing a mobile device according to my precise values, bit by bit, I might begin here.

The Librem 5 ($1000 to $2000) by the indie tech company Purism recognizes a similar freedom and responsibility, but markets its device directly to power-users who needn’t learn to code to have a functional experience. The software powering Librem 5 is a full Linux distribution known as PureOS shepherded by Purism users and developers, and is intended to be a ready replacement to iPhone and Android devices. If I wanted to buy a fairly open device for a power user, I might purchase them a Librem 5.

Pine64 takes an intermediate step with their PinePhone. For less than $200, you receive a device that has specs closer to the Librem 5, but is less opinionated in its development. It is positioned as a beta device for power users comfortable tinkering in Linux and code, who want to build on top of an existing foundation. Consider it a mature development kit, capable of running a variety of Linux distributions and accommodating custom or niche hardware, and faced with sluggish response and crashes. If I were focused on building for users with shared values and techno-theological precepts, I would begin here.

These three devices pick up from a legacy lost in the hasty transition from PDA to smartphone. Precursor asks us to return to the Palm Pilot and rebuild, Librem 5 says we don’t have to go far back and asks us to return to the early-smartphone wars with a third alternative, and PinePhone gives you back the beige computer tower you tinkered on but one you can put in your pocket. This latter in particular gives you a promising platform from which to catechize the bots.

Catechizing the pocket computer

James Poulos, founder of RETURN, often warns of the necessity to catechize our technology. That we mustn’t be satisfied with a result that maximizes for optionality, particularly where options are numerous but often indistinguishable, and where alternative cultures and politics are actively targeted and shaped by big tech and government. To adopt a posture of neutrality in this environment amounts to writing for Vox or VICE with your code. The hippie who put a flower into the guard’s rifle barrel: It’s a nice trick when you’re certain they won’t fire.

Each of these three devices provides a strong base that a developer or power-user may take as they escape the botnet and build exit routes for others. Millions of developers are capable of contributing to the related codebases, and thousands will spread over independent platforms as these. And hundreds of devices and interfaces demonstrating their own values will emerge, if God is willing. These values will range from maximizing libertarian freedom to developing tools that foster human communities according to any number of moral precepts.

Political philosophy has not kept up with the technology, but the technology hasn’t kept up with the technology either. Peripherals enabling peer-to-peer networking, bypassing not merely mobile carrier influence but their networks and even internet providers themselves, are gestating and some have been born. Biological implants are readily available, and will become more sophisticated until a natural limit is reached. Some eagerly fidget toward a future of bio-electric wombs to deliver their pet-children. None of this is remotely neutral.

If software is eating the world, then software (and the hardware it controls with greater ease) is eating political philosophy. It is now up to the political philosophers to “learn to code” and for the tinkerers to build their philosophy. The big tech titans with their political counterparts have had a head start, but open source hardware is offering you an opportunity to catch up.

Lots more where that came from.