An Umbrella Term for Desktops, Laptops, Tablets and Smartphones

Information and communications technology (ICTs) is a useful term for broadly describing digital technology that allows for manipulating information and communicating with others (both other people and other technologies). It seems to have emerged in its current form in the context of greater proliferation of computer technology around the early 1980s.

Screen Shot 2015-12-03 at 9.02.52 AMngram of ICTs

While there’s a bit of controversy over the usefulness of the term – and some regional differences (I sense greater affinity for ICTs in European circles than in North America) – the term ICTs is still largely used by academics in digital governance studies as a catch-all that has a sort-of “you know what I mean, right?” flavour to it.

But because it’s so broad – including everything from the wires that connect computers to the devices on either end – it doesn’t work when we’re trying to be more precise. So while the laptop computer I’m writing this on (and the tablet you’re reading it on) are both ICTs, so is the Nest thermostat on the wall, the smart TV across the room and the wireless speaker on the bookshelf. So while my home alarm system is an ICT, I’m not about to use it to use it, for example, to join a participatory budgeting exercise.

Sometimes we want to describe a category of devices that are able to perform a particular function, that give us the capacity to send and receive information via the Internet, and manipulate information and provide user input in a robust and flexible way.

If I want to write “blockchain technology is available to anyone with an Internet-connected computing device capable of interacting with a web platform, downloading a software program or application, sending instructions back using a keyboard or keypad as the input device and receiving information back via a user interface such as an output screen” in a less wordy and more elegant way, “ICT” doesn’t quite do it, does it? Except in that “you know what I mean” way. Try editing a Wikipedia page with a smart light bulb, and frustration will quickly set in.

To say “blockchain technology is available to anyone with an ICT” (leaving aside the “blockchain technology” elephant in the room for the moment) opens the possibility that someone can be purposely obtuse and interpret that to mean their Nest thermostat can be used to make a Bitcoin transaction.

What we end up saying instead is “blockchain technology is available to anyone with a desktop or laptop computer, or tablet or smartphone connected to the Internet.” Which isn’t much less wordy and not too much more elegant. And besides, there’s no acronym available (DLTS is already in use) – clearly indicating the unsustainability of the phrase “desktop, laptop, tablet or smartphone.”

So then – what’s an alternative? Something that captures the functions and capacities of desktops and laptops and tablets and smartphones – i.e., Internet-connected, capable of running a web browser, to which an app or software program can be downloaded, has a user interface for sending and receiving information (a keyboard or keypad for user input, and a screen for output) and facilitates multiple functions.

Here’s some suggestions:

  • Web-enabled device doesn’t quite work as it includes Internet of Everything (IoE) devices like a smart thermostat. This means the term Internet-enabled device or Internet-connected device probably won’t work either.
  • Mobile device doesn’t include desktop computers and probably not laptops.
  • Internet-connected computer is getting there, and has a plausible acronym (ICCs) that parallels ICTs. If we’re after precision, does this do it? Or are there computing devices that are connected to the Internet that don’t meet the conditions described above? Do we understand a tablet or smartphone to be a computer?

Am I missing something? Is there a term already in use that captures Internet-connected desktops, laptops, tablets and smartphones?

(I won’t ask the other question – whether I’m making this more complicated that it needs to be. I don’t ask questions when I already know the answer).


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