Emergent Computing Paradigms

Posted on | Leave a comment

  • Bill squared, the interaction design duo of Bill Verplank and Bill Moggridge, created a framework to describe six computing paradigms. Bill Verplank asserts the first three are firmly established computing paradigms, while the final three are paradigm predictions he thinks will take shape in the future. (sketch by Bill Verplank below)


    • Computer as PERSON

    • Computer as TOOL
    • Computer as MEDIA  
    • Computer as LIFE      
    • Computer as FASHION
    • Computer as VEHICLE

    I agree with their first three paradigms. Computer as person, tool and media accurately express the paradigms that have given shape to the computing landscape for the last 50 years. Where my opinions differ is on predictions for future paradigms. Perhaps I’m splitting hairs, but LIFE, VEHICLE and FASHION seem vague and difficult to envision with any specificity.  

    There are three similar yet distinct future paradigms I’ve been tracking that I believe will become important and emergent in the years to come. They are:

    • Computer as ORGANIC MATERIAL
    • Computers as INFRASTRUCTURE
    • Computers as SOCIAL CURRENCY

    What does this have to do with mobile experiences? Gone are the days of computing in a static environment. I’ve long believed that mobile phones aren’t really phones anymore. Instead, they are precursors – tangible instantiations of what computing experiences will evolve into. As such, our experiences with mobile devices offer early glimpses into new computing paradigms. Nothing illuminates ideas about the future like a good science fiction reference, so I’ve leaned on a couple favorites to communicate these ideas in the list below.

    Computing Paradigms: Past, Present, and Future


    Computer as Person
    Initially, computers were conceived of as “intelligent agents” or “electronic brains”. In this paradigm, computers act as intermediaries between humans and the digital world of information. To reinforce the notion of computer as person, designers give systems that reflect this paradigm anthropomorphic qualities such as interfaces that “listen” or “hear” human commands. Computers in this paradigm are intelligent agents that can replace the need for humans to perform mundane tasks. Research areas like computer visioning, artificial intelligence and robotics continue in this tradition by trying to give computers human-like attributes.

    Key Values:
    • Computers as an assistant or servant
    • Command and control
    • Computers can replace people

    Expressed in interactions through:
    • Voice Commands
    • Text/language interfaces
    • Text input
    • Programming

    Existing Examples:
    • Clippy
    • Command line interfaces.
    • Voice-driven interfaces

    Examples from Science Fiction
    • Hal in 2010
    • Sonny in I, Robot


    Computer as Tool

    The notion that computers are a tool that can augment human intelligence emerged in the 1970’s and has been best exemplified by the desktop metaphor and the graphical user interface. Instead of replacing people, the computer as tool paradigm relies on our ability to view computers as we would a hammer a pen – as a tool for completing tasks. This paradigm supports the notion that computers exist to enable people to be more efficient through our own agency. It celebrates values like utility, task completion, and efficiency. Many of the hallmarks of interaction design used today are deeply anchored in the “computer as tool” paradigm.

    Key Values:
    • Computers should empower people
    • “Getting stuff done”
    • Utility and usability
    • Computers should be useful and efficient

    Expressed in interactions through:
    • Metaphorics
    • “The desktop”
    • Graphical user interface
    • WIMP
    • Mouse and Keyboard

    Existing Examples:
    • Microsoft Office
    • Email
    • Folders and Files
    • Using your mobile phone as a remote

    Science Fiction Examples:
    • PreCrime tools in Minority Report

    Computer as Media
    The notion that computers could act as distributors of media existed before the 1990s. However, it wasn’t until the widespread proliferation of the Internet that the “computers as media” paradigm got traction and became convincing. Instead of tools for efficiency, computers bear a likeness to televisions and radios in that they distribute media. Instead of helping people complete tasks, computers provide content that can be watched, read, heard, engaged with and enjoyed. This paradigm celebrates values like engagement, expression, content distribution, play and access. In this paradigm content can be prismed through a variety of devices – televisions, computers, mobile phones, and portable media players. As such, anything that can deliver content and provides an engaging and immersive experience is “a computer.”

    Key Values:
    • Computers should entertain us
    • Expression and Engagement
    • Immersive experiences
    • Focus on content
    • Play
    • Persuasion

    Expressed in interactions through:
    • Web Pages
    • Content stores (iTunes, Netflix)
    • Game consoles
    • Convergence
    • GUI/NUI Hybrid interfaces
    • Content as the interface

    Existing Examples:
    •  YouTube
    • Online publication (ex: newyorktimes.com)
    • MP3 Players
    • Napster
    • Wii
    • Reading a book on an iPad or mobile phone

    Example from Science Fiction:


    Computers as Organic Material
    What if everything in the environment was embedded with computing power? Or if computing and information had organic qualities? Similar to Verplank and Moggridge’s “computer as life” metaphor, the “computers as organic material” paradigm predicts a fluid, natural, almost biological perspective on our relationship to computers and information. Instead of media streaming through “dumb terminals” such as computers, TVs and mobile devices, computing and information are ambient forces woven into the fabric of the world. Sensors are everywhere; computers are embedded into everything in the environment. Monolithic devices are not only de-emphasized, they are supplanted by an ecosystem of smaller, more portable devices or large public monitors built into the environment. Instead of focusing on devices, people focus on data and information. We come to understand data and data patterns as if it they’re a biological form. The dynamic and life-like qualities of data are celebrated. Systems allow information to forms and reform by connecting to other data, making computer experiences contextual and adaptive.  Computers can anticipate human intent, making interactions “quiet” and “dissolving into human behavior.”

    Key Values:
    • Computing is embedded into the fabric of the world.
    • Computing is quiet and seamless
    • Computing has biological qualities
    • Focus on data and information instead of devices
    • Data empowers us to make better decisions

    Existing Precursors:
    • Smart Environments
    • Organic interfaces
    • Sensors that turn lights on and off
    • Sensors embedded into textiles
    • Biometrics
    • Glucose sensors inserted into the skin
    • Plants and bridges that Twitter

    Science Fiction Examples:
    The Matrix
    Cylon spaceships on Battlestar Galactica


    Computing as Infrastructure

    What if computing power and information were like water and electricity? The “computer as infrastructure” paradigm prediction is based on the idea that eventually we’ll live in a world where computing power and information are a man- made utility built over or into the environment. We assume it is always there, waiting for us to engage with it. Just like plugging in a hairdryer or turning on a water faucet, people can “tap into” computing functionality through physical mechanisms in the environment like RFID, NFC, and free public WiFi. Interactions become about orchestrating networks, people, and objects through physical computing and tangible interactions. Similar to the hand gesture we make to indicate “I’m on the phone”, our interactions with this infrastructure becomes so pervasive that gestures and mechanisms embedded into the environment serve as a way to communicate our behavior.

    Key Values:
    • Computers and information access are utilities
    • Computing is physical and tangible

    Oyster Card
    • Nike Plus
    • RFID
    • NFC
    • GPS

    Science Fiction Examples:
    • Magical wands in Harry Potter
    • Avatar operators in Avatar


    Computers as Social Currency
    Since humans are inherently social critters, we’re innately tuned to understand how our actions and behaviors are perceived by our family and friends, our tribes and by society. What if the focus of computing and information consumption became yet another form of social expression? The “computers as social currency” paradigm prediction amplifies Yuri Engstrom’s theory on object-centered sociality, our use of book covers, and the inherent shame we feel for perusing Perezhilton.com. In this future paradigm, computing reflects social behavior. Computers, data and information are social objects that people use to both form connections with others and to express their identity and values in the world.  What we own and consume matters greatly. People become highly conscious of their content consumption and computing ecosystems because computing behaviors are expressions of class, education, socio-economic status and social standing within a given society or tribe.

    Key Values:
    • Computers and information consumption are a reflection of social identity
    • I am what I consume

    • Apple Fanboys
    • Facebook
    • “Checking-in” to FourSquare
    • LinkedIn
    The digital divide

    Science Fiction Examples:
    • Sensor Web in The Carytids

    Detailed sketches of these paradigms are on my Flickr stream.

    Curious if these three emergent paradigms make sense to you:


    Are there are any I’m missing? Let me know in the comments below..

    Leave a Reply