Why Computers Should Be Hidden


A luxury bicycle computer forecasts a welcome future of humble, embedded systems.

The joy I used to feel when using computers has turned largely to anguish. These machines once provided a unique and compelling way to do things, from writing to shopping to communication to entertainment. But today, devices and services strive to replace every activity with computer use itself. Now I think about escaping the computer as much as using it.

To combat the machine’s draw, I’ve turned to more pastoral ambitions, like lawn care and land-use politics. And yet, to reject computers as incompatible with these and other goals seems shortsighted. Can’t these powerful, magical machines still serve modest ends?

I wondered this again atop a bicycle saddle on an unseasonably hot autumn afternoon. I’d just twisted a round, white device called an Omata One, by a Los Angeles–based start-up, onto its aluminum mount on the handlebar. It looks like a complicated watch, or a dashboard gauge from a luxury sports car. I turned a ring to power it on, and a large, red hand indicated that it was acquiring a GPS signal. A moment later, I was pedaling, and the Omata’s hand was moving: five, then 10, then 15 miles per hour.

What was remarkable was how unremarkable the experience should have been. It’s a speedometer. On a bike. So what? And yet, somehow, the result feels uncommon.

The smartphone in my pocket buzzes—a text message or a Slack notification or who knows what else—and I remember why. Today, computers wrest people from activities outside the computer to work or play back inside them. But the Omata is pushing me toward something else. It’s nudging me to to focus on the non-computational activity I’m participating in, rather than reminding me of all the other, digital ones I might choose instead. What if more computers had that same ambition?

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