The Post-it note and the computer

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support for as little as $5 per month!

Like this column? rabble is reader-supported journalism. Chip in to keep stories like these coming.

Back in 1991, I read an article in Scientific American called "The Computer for the 21st Century." It was written by Mark Weiser, the head of the Computer Science Laboratory at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. 

A decade earlier, that same lab had pioneered the graphic user interface, networked computers and an early version of the mouse.

But, in this article, Weiser was imagining a world in which computers were anything but front and centre in our lives. He and his colleagues were exploring what he called "ubiquitous computing" -- computing in which there were a hundred computers in every room. Some, he called tabs, would be the sizes of scraps of paper or Post-it notes. Others, pads, would act like notebooks, and the largest, as interactive smart boards. Some would fade into the background, or at least, to the periphery of our awareness, the way the text on book spines and the wording on notices in a coffee shop do.  

At the time, most computers ran MS-DOS or, if you had a Mac, OS7. Laptops were as portable as patio stones. Hard drives were measured in megabytes and home computers got on the Internet via screeching, painfully slow modems and phone lines. The World Wide Web was a year away. 

So it was hard for me and other readers of Weiser's article to believe that we would litter our workspaces and homes with almost disposable computers. 

In Weiser's world, the tabs, pads and boards would communicate invisibly with each other. The tiny tabs might just be ID badges that tracked a user. Pads were more like today's tablets. 

But rather than a pad being dedicated to a single user, Weiser's devices were communal property and could display different sets of information depending on who was in proximity, as indicated by the tab the person was wearing. 

Weiser used the metaphor of the motor to explain his vision of computer evolution. He pointed out that a turn-of-the-19th-century factory would have been driven by a single motor, delivering power to tools via pulleys and long leather belts. But, the invention of small electric motors meant that each station could have its own motor, hidden inside the tool itself. In other words, the motors became ubiquitous and all but invisible. 

On the other hand, Weiser rejected the metaphor of a computer screen as a desktop. Instead, he imagined a real desktop littered with tabs and pads that could display and swap information easily. 

And, he considered the world of virtual reality as the polar opposite of his vision. In VR, the real world is replaced with a wholly imaginary space. There is no periphery, the computer display is everything. 

I remember being fascinated by Weiser's vision. And now I find I'm starting to live it. I have nine devices at home that would count as pads, tabs and boards -- from my Apple Watch to my tablets and Kindle to my LCD TV attached to an Apple TV. 

Each of my tablets can easily pass information to another. My smartwatch is the equivalent to Weiser's tab, a small, personal screen that knows who and where I am at all times.

When I'm working on a report or column, like this, I may have my phone, my tablet and my watch in play. Sometimes I use my iPad as a second screen for my laptop. And, with Continuity in the El Capitan version of OSX, I can pick up where I left off in one application on another Apple device. 

My Kindle is a dedicated e-ink device that, while not cheap when I bought it, is now old enough to almost be disposable.

And Microsoft's continuum functionality in Windows 10 mobile allows smartphones to convert any monitor into a personal PC. 

But, we are not at the point where our screens disappear into the background. Quite the opposite, in fact. But, for me, and I suspect many others, our tabs, pads and boards are replacing paper, laptops and desktops. The computers we take for granted, in our microwaves, thermostats, clocks and cameras, have become, like motors, the invisible engines of modern life.

I thought of Weiser today because I have just purchased an iPad Mini to complement my iPad Pro. A friend on Facebook asked me, "Why do you need two iPads?" Weiser would suggest that's like asking, "Why do you need Post-it notes, scratch pads and legal sized paper?"

Listen to an audio version of this column, read by the author.

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for on technology and the Internet.

Photo: Michael Arrighi/flickr

Like this column? rabble is reader-supported journalism. Chip in to keep stories like these coming.

Related Items

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable. has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.