The Microsoft Surface: Convenience or Depersonalized Programming?

by Emily Norton
Special to iVoryTowerz

To the technologically inclined, the Microsoft Surface™ may mark a golden age in computing products. According to Microsoft, its Surface™ is a touch-screen tabletop that allows effortless access to "digital content through natural gestures, touch and physical objects." For example, with the brush of a finger a couple can order cocktails simultaneously, or one could retrieve a map of the city. Set down a camera and watch the pictures spill onto the screen. While the Surface is not yet available for consumer home use, it can now be found in "the retail, hospitality, automotive, banking and healthcare industries," the company tells us. To upscale entertainment venues (Harrah's is a big fan), this is a brilliant innovation; it is the quintessential symbol of modernism and high class.

Tres chic? Oui! Convenient? Yes. Expensive? Most Definitely. The standard product sells at $12,500, while the developer edition with five included seats costs $15,000. At those prices, I'm sure they are suffering the strain of our depressing economic situation. Microsoft anticipates consumer sales in two to four years, but if the economy continues to charge downhill, it's likely that its release will need to be postponed, the company admits.

Surely I should be sympathizing with Microsoft in this unfortunate turn of events, but I can't help thinking that maybe it's not such a bad thing for the Surface to be forced into containment. When I watched the commercial for the new product, I immediately connected the product to Player Piano, the novel by Kurt Vonnegut. These over-equipped computers are super slick, but I can't help the worrying that the Surface is a sign of Vonnegut's predictions embodied: computers and machines will one day rule the world, and we will be choked by an abundance of sickly sweet convenience and boredom.

Microsoft boasts that their hero product is "easy for individuals or multiple people to interact with in a way that feels familiar, just like in the real world." Perhaps I'm just old-fashioned, but this statement makes me nervous. Will we be replacing real people who have real jobs with virtual reality? The way this product already works, if mass-produced, there would be no need for waitresses, salesmen, etc. We must further decide: Do we continue to allow human interaction to be forfeited for the price of convenience?

(The photo of a Microsoft Surface™ in operation is by andypowe11 via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license. To see a video parody of Microsoft's new product, please check below.)

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Jeff Siegel said...

I recommend a little research into the Apple Newton, which was going to do something like this more than 10 years ago. It still doesn't work.

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