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The big fears associated with small computers

Technology is shrinking.


Chris Osterndorf

Internet Culture

Posted on Apr 3, 2015   Updated on May 29, 2021, 4:04 am CDT

Google is shrinking.

Not the company itself, but their products. Following the release of Chromecast, their miniature streaming device, they’ve now come out with an even smaller product: the Chromebit. Manufactured by Asus, Google’s miniature new Chromebook is a stick-size device that you can connect to any monitor using an HDMI port. In addition to Google’s own Chromecast, devices like the Amazon Fire TV Stick and the Roku Streaming Stick have also jumped on the apparently growing market of tiny streaming products. However, the Chromebit aims to take small to a whole new level. Due this summer, the device is set to cost less than $100, and holds 2GB of RAM and 16GB of storage.

Part of the reason Google is putting out the Chromebit surely has to do with their upcoming plans for the entire Chromebook line; this is a not-so-subtle way of saying, “Hey everybody, just wait till you see what we do next.” But the other potential reason Google is investing in the device is far more interesting. If the release of the Chromebit is any indication, we may be just around the corner from a new wave of small devices.

There was a time when shrinking was everything in tech. TVs got thinner, laptops got lighter, and phones got tinier and tinier. But with the rise of smartphones and tablets, consumers seem to care less about devices they can put in any pocket. Most Americans would rather have a larger screen size to see what their doing, within reason, and to enjoy it in high-resolution. Whether this entirely makes sense or not is an open question. Steve Jobs resisted the idea of bigger phones, and it’s hard not to admit that the size of certain “phablets” can be inconvenient.

For now, the issue remains that smaller computers just can’t do as much as larger ones. However, it’s not likely to always be this way: Twenty years ago, the idea that we would all walk around with little computers in the palm of our hands would’ve seemed absurd. Sooner or later, there will be mini-computers with processors more powerful than we can imagine. 

Perhaps that’s why Google and several other companies are insisting that bigger doesn’t have to mean better. In addition to the Chromebit, Intel has introduced the world’s smallest Windows PC, the four-inch Compute Stick. Equipped with Windows 8.1, 2GB of RAM, and 32GB of storage, the Compute Stick is being marketed as a good product for “light productivity, social networking, web browsing, and streaming media or games,” as well as a good starter device for small businesses.

Bigger doesn’t have to mean better.

The real significance of the Chromebit and the Compute Stick however is not what they are, but what they could be. It seems reasonable to say that in another 2o years, smaller computers could actually be the norm.

But while we’re a long way away from a tech culture wherein a four-inch computer won’t seem something strange, the larger reality is that smaller tech has begun to innovate in various other ways in the here and now. “We already are seeing the medical industry making a big transition over to embedded technology,” notes TechNewsWorld’s John Basso. “As these devices become more acceptable and less sci-fi to most people, the awkwardness will go away, and it will become more available to the general public.”

If the kind of embedded devices Basso is talking about sound like sci-fi, they’re nothing compared to the wave of microscopic computers some have predicted is yet to come. As Network World’s Deni Connor observed in 2003, “Scottish researchers say they are on the cusp of reducing the size of computers to that of a grain of sand.”

Microscopic computers, equipped with the ability to read a person’s body from the inside out, would be a godsend for the medical profession. The only problem is that, like anything microscopic, the fact you couldn’t see them would make it harder for them to feel tangible or real. And there’s something quite alarming about a thing that doesn’t seem possible but actually is. It’s the same reason why microscopic germs are so frightening. Remember the rampant panic over Ebola last summer? It’s not like you could see Ebola, walking around, planning to infect its next victim. It wasn’t tangible until someone caught it, and then the results were horrifying.

Smaller computers could actually be the norm.

The right disease or virus can kill millions of people before anyone knows it’s there. Microscopic technology, on the other hand, could become so ubiquitous, we wouldn’t necessarily know it was anywhere until it was everywhere. After all, the rise of the digital universe has already happened practically overnight, if you look at the longer history of the earth. Where do we go from here if technology is going to continue to accelerate as fast as it has been?

The fact is that if computers get small enough, there’s no telling where they can go. Imagine a world where there’s some kind of electronic component to every facet of life: in the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, the streets we walk on, the food we eat, and the water we drink. Forget about smartphones or smartwatches, we’re talking about smart everything. The potential for surveillance would be unparalleled. Our bodies would be constantly monitored, and our actions would be constantly recorded. If you shrink computers to their logical end, there’s virtually nothing that won’t be digitally incorporated. It won’t be merely an invasion of our bodies or our lives, it’ll be the complete transformation of the human experience.

If all of this is making you feel paranoid, know that your response is perfectly natural. Fear of microscopic tech isn’t that different than the fear some have over the upcoming wave of wearables, particularly in terms of how technology relates to our physical selves. Wearables represent the first indication that tech may move from outside our bodies, directly onto them, or inside them. And once technology literally becomes a part of us, how human are we? If computers can control our body at a nucleonic level, what makes them different than organs? If non-organic matter begins to function like organic matter, have we essentially turned into robots?

There’s still a lot we don’t know about the potential of technology. It’s easy to be alarmist when addressing these fears, but small computers needn’t be the end of the world. Their development does represent a myriad of fascinating albeit terrifying prospects. If the circumstances were right, you could topple governments tomorrow based on the contents of a flash drive. There was a time when that would’ve only been possible in science fiction, but in the world of today, it’s a real if not unlikely possibility.

And perhaps that’s what tiny computers are, too. Is it likely that we’ll all use devices the size of a grain of sand in 20 years? Not necessarily, but the chances that kind of technology will exist are very real. 

Photo via jonny2love/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Apr 3, 2015, 12:00 pm CDT