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Some notes on Mark Weiser’s Calm Technology.

September 26th, 2019 No comments

Just yesterday I heard about Mark Weiser for the first time. He is considered to be the father of ubiquitous computing, and he had a very interesting vision of how technology should behave and should help or enhance us. We could say we are now almost immersed in said ubiquity, but from his main tenets, I think we are immersed in an at least partially wrong kind of ubiquity.

 

These tenets are:

 

  • The purpose of a computer is to help you do something else. We sure pretty much agree on this one, at least on principle, but how many out there basically use their computer almost the same way they use their tv sets? that is, to escape life, not to help them achieve something better.
  • The more you can do by intuition the smarter you are; the computer should extend your unconscious. Now, this would be the real thing. Indeed we already enjoy a crude form of that, by constantly checking the web for facts and figures, missing some sort of direct brain search capabilities, which as of now remains in the realm of sci-fi.
  • The best computer is a quiet, invisible servant. Now, this is were we can see how things have gone awry. It’s more like we far too often are  servant to our devices via the constant attention they demand from us.
  • Technology should create calm. This is an important point, as our digital personas, constantly online, most of the time via several devices concurrently, seem to be more prone to anxiety and stress and shortened attention spans than to calm due to the constant alerts, notifications, vibrations and all manners of data snippets that snap at us all the time. I hardly see anybody that is actually calmer once submerged in this flow.

This idea of calm technology is organized around the concepts of center vs periphery (our peripheral reach):

What is in the periphery at one moment may in the next moment come to be at the center of our attention and so be crucial. The same physical form may even have elements in both the center and periphery. A calm technology will move easily from the periphery of our attention, to the center, and back. This is fundamentally encalming, for two reasons. First, by placing things in the periphery we are able to attune to many more things than we could if everything had to be at the center. Things in the periphery are attuned to by the large portion of our brains devoted to peripheral (sensory) processing. Thus the periphery is informing without overburdening. Second, by recentering something formerly in the periphery we take control of it” (this quote is from Amber Case’s book with precisely the title Calm Technology)

 


Warp descent

These are key observations, for much of the technology and digital products created today aim at being central all the time (this way lay monetization) which reduces our attentional capabilities and produces overburden. To row against that tide we need to make a deliberate effort if we are to avoid the information to take control of us instead of the other way around, and avoid technology creating stress instead of calm. There is “systemic friction” with overburdening and interrupting information.

The challenge seems evident then, how to design technology that respects our attention, not only that but ideally that it also help us improve our cognitive capabilities. This is not what we have now, even there are tools and workarounds to help safeguard our attention, the whole environment is not propitious, it is in fact geared against that, and requires users’ deliberate action or quite some settings tweaking, which is another way of us tendering to tech, and not tech being designed with our calmness in mind.

I am not an UX expert, so these lines are basically a serving of food for thought to try and think how we could build on calm principles and calm communcation patterns. Or how this idea of calmness could be applied not only  to the software and digital products we design, but also to teams and companies. That’d could have a real impact for the better for people and probably for some of our current social problems as well.

This reminded me of the slow food idea, and it seems this could be labelled as “slow tech”. Furthermore, could we imagine tech one day being as ubiquitous but also unobstrusive as the electricty we have at home? much of our current technology breaks without warning, or interrupts us with status or software updates, taking us out of our flow and away from our goals, and that basically lays to waste Weiser’s tenets enumerated at the top.

You can read the original paper here

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