This article by Blather’s Dave Walsh first appeared in The Irish Times of Monday, July 23, 2001, as PCs are the fabric of life ‘"I’ve never seen on these furoshiki." Maya leaned over the table. "I’ve certainly heard of them…" The intelligent cloth was woven from a dense matrix of fibre-optic threads, organic circuitry and piezoelastic fibre.The hair-thin optical threads oozed miniscule screen-line pixels of coloured light. A woven display screen. A flexible all-fabric computer.’ – Bruce Sterling, Holy Fire
Just eight years ago, in 1993, the average Westerner had never heard of the Internet, much less shown a desire to own a home PC. Back then, the idea of widespread Internet use seemed as crazy as having human moon-dwellers by 1999. We’re now half-way through 2001, millions of us are "jacked into the matrix" – to use the parlance of early 1990s cyberpunk literature – but Martin Landau and the Space 1999 crew never left the TV studio.
But it was in 1993 that an avant-garde Californian magazine called Mondo 2000 published an article by "cyberpunk" author Bruce Sterling, entitled ‘Computer as Furoshiki’. This was, as he put it, "a highly speculative vision of the personal computer as it might evolve if freed from certain current material constraints".
Sterling explained that "furoshiki", as we know it, is nothing more than a large square of strong, attractively designed cloth, a ubiquitous tool of Japanese life, used as a shopping bag, book bag, wrapper for gifts; a large rayon crêpe bandana, if you like, with myriad methods of tying.
In an era in which 4Mb of RAM was allegedly enough for anyone, it was tempting to believe that ‘Computer as Furoshiki’ was a simple analogy for a future of ubiquitous electronic communication. Eight years later, barely any of us are without our mobile phones.
Children are apparently at risk of developing repetitive strain from text-messaging, and the latest cellulars have TV screens, MP3 players, and small keyboards.
How many of us, bred on images of Captain Kirk whispering into flip-top communicators, thought that we would be carrying around little mobile phones?
Today, wireless communication sits somewhere between the voice-only application of the Star Trek crew (without the threat of intergalactic roaming charges), and a slightly chunkier rendition of "furoshiki", a lump of plastic and circuitry that demands to run our lives, even if it kills us.
Today, Sterling says that ‘Computer as Furoshiki’ was not a prediction or a prophecy of times ahead, but rather the future as he imagined it.
He dreamt of the computer as Furoshiki in a literal sense – a large square of organic, lightweight, flexible fabric – but not cloth, at least not as we know it. The mostly carbon-based furoshiki would be made of colour-emitting and data-carrying fibre-optics, superconductive wire, "some currently unknown form of piezoelectric filament that can contract, relax, and therefore warp and knot itself in response to precise electrical charges deployed along its length", and a fourth fibre, to act as an antenna.
The computer as Furoshiki would be controllable by voice and touch, and would be capable of limited movement, even flight. When not being used, it could be worn, as a scarf or a bandana. Large versions could be used as a Big Top, "for a late 21st-century multimedia circus".
Sterling is unpretentious about his ideas, and quite sober in his view of today’s mobile technologies and their widespread use. "That idea wasn’t about media convergence, it was about materials.
"If you’re really ‘wired’, why isn’t your computer all wire? Why isn’t the networked machine a literal network? Why is it a rigid box? Fabric is an easy, cosy artefact to carry; most of us don’t go naked. Whereas boxes need belt holsters and valises and such.
"As for mobile technology, it’s not particularly ubiquitous, as anyone who uses a cellphone in daily life can tell you. Development there is still very primitive. And by the time it ‘delivers its promise’, people will almost certainly be using it to deliver something else more ambitious that doesn’t quite work."
Not particularly ubiquitous? Mobile technology is certainly relatively more common than ever before, but, as Sterling points out, problems still lie with "coverage and usage. Overpasses, elevators, hills, alleys; non-compatible systems that are several kinds of analog and digital; battery failures; and of course you can just lose or misplace them in purse, belt, jacket, valise, car, etc."
Still, we do seem to be getting more wired, or, if you like, more unwired.
The Eurostat Yearbook 2001 shows that by 1999 alone, Ireland had growth of 48 per cent in mobile-phone usage, with a saturation of 37.5 per cent. The US had 24.3 per cent growth, bringing it to only 31.7 phones per 100 people, while Finland was leading the way at 66.8 mobile phones per 100. More recent research, however, from Amárach Consulting, divulged the startling fact that mobile phones are used by 61 per cent of Irish 12 to 14-year-olds.
Sterling, when shown some of these figures, replied: "Those stats won’t be getting anywhere very impressive until objects are using cellular phones."
What? Does he mean when artificial intelligence or computerised furoshiki are making personal phone calls? "No, I mean functional objects with embedded cell capacity, probably tied in with GPS locators, so that you can, for instance, call your car and find out where it’s parked, call your fridge and find out if there’s milk, call your house and tell it to open the garage. No AI involved; I’m a sceptic there."
Edging towards a possible realisation of Sterling’s smart fabric is Electronic Ink (www.eink.com), an invention which uses negatively charged black and positively charged white particles, contained inside tiny microcapsules. When a negative electric field is applied, the white particles move to the top of the microcapsule, where they can be seen by the user.
Of course, to display a page of text, this means that millions of these microcapsules are needed, each of which has a diameter close to that of a human hair. For display purposes, the "ink" is applied to a plastic film, laminated to a layer of circuitry, controllable by a display driver. The idea is to use e-ink to turn any surface into a display medium.
But is this anywhere near Sterling’s imagined fibre-optic furoshiki? "A furoshiki computer is a conceit; I’m not claiming it’s the one logical path of computer development. I doubt there is any such thing; it’s like thinking there’s some perfect kind of wheel or perfect kind of fire.
"Electronic ink may find a niche of some kind, especially in billboards or rapidly changing public displays, but it would be silly to imagine that all ink is somehow technologically destined to become electronic," he continues. "Even if electronic ink succeeds in escaping the lab and becoming a successful real-life technology, it’s very likely that you end up with dozens of co-existing varieties of electronic ink: indoor, outdoor, high temperature, ultra-cheap, fungus-proof, radiation-resistant, full-colour, portable, non-toxic, recyclable.
"The same goes for furoshikis: cheap, top-end, luxury, military-spec, ultra-jumbo, disposable, soft and absorbent, freeware, Microsoft-patented, kid-version. There’s no end-game in tech development where all the work’s done and you get to relax.
"Technical ambition isn’t the same as market success, and a capitalist society doesn’t pursue technologies to ultimate ends. It develops technologies which offer a high return on investment."
With this realistic outlook on today’s technologies, is Sterling disappointed by the rate of progress?
"Well, I’m disappointed by two things: software monopolies and phone monopolies. These guys are exploiting nutty intellectual property laws and shameful political corruption to artificially corral technological development and then line their own pockets without having to invent anything.
"They’re getting rich by doing harm. They impose stupid technology which is inferior to that which we would get if they didn’t exist. It’s a scandal."
So, since 1993, does Sterling think technology has veered anywhere closer to the reality of ‘Computer as Furoshiki’ than when he penned the original article?
"I question whether that will ever be a reality, but we might be 10 per cent closer thanks to developments in fuel cells. That thing is obviously going to suck up a lot of power, far more than any battery we’ve got nowadays."
Bruce Sterling’s Mirrorshades site is at www.well.com/conf/mirrorshades/
Amárach Consulting’s "Generation T" research can be viewed at www.amarach.com