Recovered Writing: Undergraduate Technologies of Representation Essay on a Future Technology, Personal Computing Device, Nov 18, 2004

This is the thirteenth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

In the next few Recovered Writing posts, I will present my major assignments from Professor Kenneth J. Knoespel’s LCC 3314 Technologies of Representation class at Georgia Tech. LCC 3314 is taught in many different ways by the faculty of the Georgia Tech’s School of Literature, Media, and Communication, but I consider myself fortunate to have experienced Professor Knoespel’s approach to the course during the last phase of my undergraduate tenure. The ideas that we discussed in his class continue to inform my professional and personal thinking. Also, I found Professor Knoespel a great ally, who helped me along my path to graduation with side projects and independent studies.

This is another example of a WOVEN multimodal essay assignment. In it, I used WVE/written, visual, electronic modes to discuss a specific technology. These essays (focused on past, present, and future technologies) gave me a chance to use technology to explore the meaning behind and impact of technologies. The next essay will focus on a future technology of my own design.

In this essay assignment, we were tasked with exploring an imagined future technology. At the time, I was fascinated with wearable computing. However, I only knew about it from my reading in magazines and online. I could not afford a 2004-era wearable computing rig, so I thought about how to improve on an idea of wearable computing for everyone. If only I had made a few more connections–namely touch and the phone.

Nevertheless, I had a lot of fun designing the PCD and writing this essay.

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Kenneth J. Knoespel

LCC3314 – Technologies of Representation

November 18, 2004

Artifact of the Future – Personal Computing Device

Personal Computing Device - PCD (Drawing by Jason Ellis)
Personal Computing Device – PCD (Drawing by Jason Ellis)

The Artifact

The Personal Computing Device (PCD) is an inexpensive and portable computer that can interface with many different input/output (I/O) components.  It is a one-piece solution to the ubiquity of computing and information storage in the future.  Its plain exterior hides the fact that this artifact is a powerful computing platform that transforms “dummy terminals” into points of access where one may access their own computer that is small enough to fit in a shirt pocket.


The device measures 3″ wide by 4″ tall by 3/4″ thick.  On one of the long sides there is a small 1/4″ notch.  This notch matches with a similar notch on the interface port of wearable computer networks, computing stations, and entertainment systems.  The notch allows user to insert the PCD in only one orientation.  This protects the PCD and the interface port it is being plugged into.  The PCD is housed in a thin aluminum shell.  As the PCD does computing work, its circuits emit heat which needs to be removed from the system.  Because of the very small (< 90nm) circuit manufacturing process, the PCD uses very little power which translates to it emitting less heat than today’s Pentium 4 or Athlon64 processors.  Aluminum is an excellent choice for its metal housing because it is thermally conductive (removes heat), it is lightweight, and it is inexpensive.

Dimensional view of PCD (Drawing by Jason Ellis)
Dimensional view of PCD (Drawing by Jason Ellis)

There are no switches or indicators on the PCD.  It has only one interface port as pictured in the top-left of the drawing above.  This interface makes the PCD unique.  This standardized interface allows the PCD to be used on any computing system that is designed for the PCD.  Computer hardware, wearable computer networks, and home entertainment systems are “dummy terminals” which rely on the PCD to be the “brains.”

The PCD is a full featured computer.  It processes data, runs programs, and stores data on built-in solid-state memory.  Engineers were able to build a complete “computer on a chip” using new silicon circuitry layering techniques.  The result of this is the Layered Computing System as drawn in the internal schematic of the PCD (below).  Reducing the number of chips needed for a computing application has been a long-standing goal of electrical and computer engineering.  Steven Wozniak at Apple Computer was able to design elegant layouts for the original Apple I, and later, the Apple II.  He designed custom chips that brought the functions of several chips into a single chip.  AMD is continuing the trend today after integrating the CPU memory controller onto the new Athlon64 processor.  NVIDIA introduced the nForce3 250 GB chipset which integrated the system controller chip, sound, LAN (networking), and firewall all onto one chip.

Internal layout of the PCD (Drawing by Jason Ellis)
Internal layout of the PCD (Drawing by Jason Ellis)

The solid-state memory is similar to today’s flash memory (e.g., USB Flash Drives or compact flash digital camera memory).  The difference lies in the density of the memory on the PCD.  Layering techniques are used in building the solid-state memory so that it is very dense (more data storage per unit area than today’s flash memory).  Typical PCD solid-state memory storage is 120 GB (gigabytes).  The PCD’s large memory area has no moving parts because it is made out of solid-state memory.  Traditionally, computers need a hard drive to store large amounts of information for random access.  Hard drives are a magnetic storage that depends on round platters rotating at high speed while a small arm moves across the platters reading and writing information.  Flash memory does not need to spin or have a moving arm.  Data is accessed, written, and erased electronically.

The PCD has a built-in battery for mobile use.  When the PCD is plugged into a wall-powered device such as a computer terminal or entertainment system, it runs off power supplied by the device it is plugged into and its battery will recharge.

Social Significance

The introduction of the PCD revolutionizes personal computing.  The PCD empowers users to choose the way in which they interface with computers, networks, and data.  Computer displays, input/output, and networks have become abstracted from the PCD.  A user chooses the operating system (the latest Linux distribution, Windows, or Mac OS X) and the programs (e.g., Office, Appleworks, iTunes) for his or her own PCD.  That person uses only their own PCD so that it is customized in the way that they see fit and they will develop an awareness of its quirks and abilities in the same way that a person learns so much about his or her own car.

The “faces” of computers (i.e., monitors, keyboards, mice, trackballs, and printers) are abstracted away from the “heart” of the computer.  The PCD is the heart because it processes data through it (input/output) much like the heart muscle moves blood through itself.  A PCD also acts as a brain because it stores information and it can computationally work on the stored data.  The traditional implements of computer use are transformed into dummy terminals (i.e., they possess no computational or data storage ability).  Each of these devices have an interface port that one plugs in their personalized PCD.  The PCD then becomes the heart and brain of that device and it allows the user to interface with networks, view graphics on monitors, or print out papers.

Computer Terminal and Entertainment Systems with PCD Interfaces (Drawing by Jason Ellis)
Computer Terminal and Entertainment Systems with PCD Interfaces (Drawing by Jason Ellis)

Both the PCD and the dummy terminals are a standardized computing platform.  Consumer demand, market forces, and entrepreneurial insight led to the evolution that culminated with the PCD as the end product.  Consumers were overburdened with desktop computers, laptop computers, and computer labs.  Every computer one might encounter could have a very different operating system or set of software tools.  The data storage on one computer would differ from the next.  A new standard was desired to allow a person to choose their own computing path that would be accessible at any place that they might be in need of using a computer.

Computer manufacturer businesses saw ever declining profits as computers were becoming more and more mass-produced.  Additionally, no one company built all of the parts that went into a computer so profit was lost elsewhere as parts were purchased to build a complete computer for sale.

New integrated circuit manufacturing techniques allowed for greater densities of transistors and memory storage.  These manufacturing techniques also allowed for lower power consumption and thus reduced heat from operation (which was a long-standing problem with computers).

With the consumer, desire for something new and innovative coupled with a new way of building computer components led to the founding of a new computer design consortium.  Hardware and software manufacturers came together to design a computing platform that would fulfill the needs of consumers as well as improve failing profits.  The PCD design consortium included computer and software businesses, professional organizations, and consumer/enthusiast groups.

The PCD almost didn’t see the light of day because of influence from large lobbying groups in Washington.  This involved copyright groups such as the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).  These groups decried the potential copyright violations possible with the PCD.  Epithets, curses, and bitching issued from the RIAA and MPAA lobbyists’ mouths.  Consumer outrage over these large business groups attempting to throw their weight around caused a surge of grassroots political involvement that unseated some Congressional members and scared the rest into line.  The public wanted to see what would come out of the PCD Design Consortium before judgment was passed on its useful and legal purposes.

With the legal hurdles temporarily under control, the PCD was released to the public.  New and inventive uses were immediately made of the PCD.  One of the first innovations involved the Wearable Computer Network.  Wearable computing was a long researched phenomenon at the Wearable Computing Lab at MIT and Georgia Tech’s Contextual Computing Group.  The two factors holding back wide adaptation of wearable computing were the cost of the mobile computing unit and the mobile computing unit’s singular purpose.  These two factors were eliminated by the PCD because it was cheap and it could be removed from the wearable computing network and used in other computing situations (e.g., at a desktop terminal or in an entertainment system).

Wearable Computing Network with Integrated PCD Interface Pocket (Drawing by Jason Ellis)
Wearable Computing Network with Integrated PCD Interface Pocket (Drawing by Jason Ellis)

Entertainment systems and desktop terminals became popular receptacles for the PCD.  Music and movies purchased over the Internet could be transferred to the PCD and then watched on a home entertainment system that had a PCD interface port.  Desktop terminals and laptop terminals also began to come with PCD interface ports so that a computer user could use their PCD at home or on the go, but still be able to use their PCD in other situations such as at a work terminal.  Being able to carry a PCD between work and home allowed for easier telecommuting because all of a person’s files were immediately available.  There was no more tracking down which computer had downloaded an email, because a person’s email traveled with that person on his or her PCD.  Easier teleworking helped the environment in metropolitan areas because more people could do their work from home without needing to drive their fossil fuel consuming cars down the highway.

Instant computing access meant that PCD users were able to expand the possibilities of the human-computer dynamic.  There was more Internet use and that use was more often on the go.  As people began donning wearable computing networks for their PCD, they would chat with friends while riding a commuter train or they would spend more time getting informed about what was going on in the world with NPR’s online broadcasts or with the BBCNews’ website.  Social networks like Orkut and Friendster received even more users as friends began inviting friends who may have just got online (with a mobile setup) with their new PCD.

As more computer, clothing, and HDTV terminals began to support the PCD, more jobs were created, more units were sold, more raw materials were consumed, more shipping was taking place, more engineering and design was going on, and new business models were being created.  The web of connections built upon itself so that more connections were made between industries and businesses.  The popularity of the PCD boosted tangential industries involved in building components that went into the PCDs as well as entertainment services.  Aluminum and silicon processing, chip manufacturing, battery production and innovation (for longer battery life), new networking technologies to take advantage of the greater number of computing users who purchase PCDs, and PCD interface devices (such as HDTVs and wearable computing networks) all ramped up production as demand for the PCD rose.  New services popped up such as computer terminal rental and new entertainment services that would allow customers to purchase copy-protected versions of music and movies that could easily be transported for enjoyment wherever the user took his or her PCD.  Some entertainment companies held out too long while others reaped rewards for modifying their business models to take advantage of this new (and popular) technology.

Choice is the driving factor behind the PCD’s success.  Wrapped in the PCD’s small form is the choice of human-computer interaction, choice of where to use a PCD, and choice of data (visual and auditory) to be accessed with a PCD.  These choices are made available by the choices made by many people such as consumers, industrialists, and entertainment antagonists.  Those who embraced the PCD and found ways of interfacing with it (literally and figuratively) succeeded while those that did not were left by the wayside.

Works Cited

Contextual Computing Group at Georgia Tech.  September 29, 2004. November 14, 2004 <;.

Hepburn, Carl.  Britney Spears’ Guide to Semiconductor Physics.  April 7, 2004.              November 14, 2004 <;.

Owad, Tom.  “Apple I History.”  Applefritter.  December 17, 2003.  November 14, 2004 <;.

“Single-Chip Architecture.”  NVIDIA.  2004.  November 14, 2004 <;.

Wearable Computing at MIT.  October 2003.  November 14, 2004 <;.

Published by

Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I direct the B.S. in Professional and Technical Writing Program and coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.