Calm Technology? Perhaps but we live in an era of interruptive technology. The world beeps at us incessantly, dividing our attention and fragmenting our focus. Our divided attention can lead to dangerous situations, such as trying to focus on driving directions while speeding down a congested highway in a new city.
We can’t expect to interact with reality in the same way we interact with a desktop computer. With a desktop computer, we have the complete luxury of being able to sit down and give the machine all of our attention.
Cisco says that 20 billion connected devices will be online by 2020. Think about that for a moment. We already have trouble connecting our existing devices together, and we’re already interrupted by the notifications and buzzes from our existing technology.
We don’t need an era of interruptive technology. We need a Calm Technology. A Calm Technology describes technology that is there when we need it — not when we don’t. An era where our devices recede into the background and allow us to be human. There are ways to deal with this technology overload.
Technology shouldn’t require all of our attention, just some of it, and only when necessary. A tea kettle is an example of a technology that you set and forget. You don’t have to sit and watch it on the stove the entire time. When it is ready, it calls to you.
We need smarter humans, not smarter technology. Let’s take the concept of a “smart fridge.” The “smart fridge” might have a payment plan that monitors your diet and prevents you from opening the fridge if you ate too much food. But what if your friend comes over and has a diabetic attack? Or maybe the fridge beeps you every time one of your items goes bad. Smart technology can get us into trouble if it tries to make decisions for us. Instead of simple light switches you have “smart light switches.” Imagine “inheriting” this technology when you move into a new home. Who has the passwords? Where did the original thermostat go? Did it get thrown away? How do we get everything back to defaults? What’s wrong with this picture? No one should have to be a system administrator to live in their own home.
Technology should be able to empower your peripheral attention. We have a very large capacity for attention, but often times we design products that only work with our visual sense, and these require us to pay all of our attention to them. As you move away from the sense right in front of you, you can get other senses. Touch, peripheral vision, and sound! We can do so much when we make use of these additional senses. It’s a way to get the same amount of information across with the least amount of attention. Think of it as compressing information into another sense.
The ”LUMOBack Smart Posture Sensor” is a device you wear around your waist. It monitors the angle of your back and buzzes you when you exhibit poor posture. This is a quiet way to get information. The buzz gives you the feedback you need without interrupting those around you.
Technology should communicate but it doesn’t need to speak. Have you ever heard the annoying voice of a computer that is trying to sound like a human? This is an inefficient way for technology to communicate. Plus, it has to be translated into dozens of languages.
The Roomba Vacuum communicates only in melodies and chirps. The cleaner emits a happy chirp when it is done cleaning, and a sad chirp when it is stuck. It is small and cute and doesn’t continue to do work when it is stuck. It waits for human help rather than trying to do everything itself. The chirp is easy to understand. It doesn’t need to be translated into many languages. It conveys the information with a light and a tone, and it is approachable enough that cats enjoy riding on it in YouTube videos! Devices should amplify the best of technology and the best of humanity. Technology and humanity have distinct and important roles.
How many times have you been on hold with an automated phone tree? This kind of behavior turns humans into machines. A similar thing happens when we try to put humanness into technology. We end up with creepy products and uncanny valleys.
The best technologies do work that humans are bad at, like going through thousands of datasets or filtering through search results. In contrast, humans can do things that can never be automated; customer service, warm embraces, and problem-solving when something goes wrong with technology. Humans are natural curators. They understand context. No matter what, all automated processes should have a human in them to check for accuracy. Otherwise, we can get stuck in very unfortunate circumstances of automation. Need we mention 1983’s prescient film WarGames?
We need to make technology that enhances the best of humans, and the best of technology. Take Google for example. It does a great job managing search results, but it doesn’t make the final decision for us. Robots condense a giant list of possible web pages into a short one. Humans choose from the shortlist. This is a good human-machine symbiosis. It is up to us as humans to make the decision. We are the ones with the context.
We need technology that respects our attention. A person’s primary task should not be computing, but being human. The scarcest resource in the 21st Century will not be technology, it will be attention. Calm Technology allows people to accomplish their goals with the least amount of mental cost. That’s why we need calm technology.
Amber Case is a Cyborg Anthropologist that studies the impact of technology on culture. She is the author of the newly released book Calm Technology: Principles and Patterns for Non-Intrusive Design (O’Reilly Books).
Featured photo by Brenda