Disruption and the concept of a technology “Middle Future”
We talk about disruption all of the time, but the major disruption that needs to happen is a reduction in attention, complexity and distance that often comes from disruptive technology. This does not mean less technology, it means less intrusive technology. However, a lot of our futures are created as glossy images of new utopias with robots and drones: Technology features first, instead of humans.
One of the original “killer apps” was the appliance. The washing machine was built to sit in a corner of the home and do a task for its user, unobtrusively, until it was complete. This is the idea of automation. A human can set something, forget it, and then be notified when the task or process is complete. In this example, we humans still choose what to put in the laundry and change the settings, so this example is not full automation, but a machine working alongside a person.
And we don’t talk about washers and dryers anymore – because they’ve blended into everyday life. Many countries are filled with people that rely on washers and dryers, but we don’t talk about them like we talk about the Internet of Things. And it’s because they’ve had time to settle. And they’ve had time to fail.
We suffer from a glut of imagined technology maximalism. Imagine operating the Minority Report interface with your arms for eight hours a day in a government office. A lot of early search engines were visual, but people needed an invisible interface, and Google got people to the result without distraction. Evolving technology, until there is nothing to take away, is important.
We can call this “middle futurism”, a concept that draws from the thoughts of PARC’s Mark Weiser, who wrote this in 1991: ‘The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it. Consider writing, perhaps the first information technology: The ability to capture a symbolic representation of spoken language for long-term storage freed information from the limits of individual memory… The constant background presence of these products of “literacy technology” does not require active attention, but the information to be conveyed is ready for use at a glance. It is difficult to imagine modern life otherwise.
‘Silicon-based information technology, in contrast, is far from having become part of the environment… The arcane aura that surrounds personal computers is not just a “user interface” problem… Such machines cannot truly make computing an integral, invisible part of the way people live their lives. Therefore we are trying to conceive a new way of thinking about computers in the world, one that takes into account the natural human environment and allows the computers themselves to vanish into the background.’
Add “smartphones and smart devices” after “personal computers”, and we still face, nearly 30 years later, the same problem: A call for computers to become more pervasive, more intrusive, but certainly not invisible – and tech-utopian futurists goading them along on this path. Middle Futurism, by contrast, revives the PARC vision, describing a technological path “that takes into account the natural human environment.”
We must remember that technology, is only good when it works, and that elegance is how things work when they fail. Our current timeframe is littered with inelegant technologies. We don’t need less technology, we just need better-designed technology. Technology that assumes things will fail, like batteries, network or human attention, and works with that as a first principle.
Five Ethics for Principles of Middle Futurism
Rather than blindly assume technology will somehow alter human nature for the better, middle futurism combines the best of tech as it exists now with the best of what humans offer:
- A middle future is maintainable – not just by the company that built it, but by the individuals that use it. There should be a sense of pride in being able to fix a system and a long term job associated with it.
- A middle future is transparent – when the processes going on behind the scenes are invisible, we experience a Kafka-esque reality. If we know the computer is thinking incorrectly, we can help fix it.
- A middle future allows for both Chronos (structured) and Kairos (in the moment) time, with a focus on optimizing for human time, not machine time.
- A middle future uses the best of tech and the best of humans.
- A middle future works long term – when an airport adopts a new system, it should be robust enough to last decades.
Examples of Middle Future Product Design
Middle future design enhances what we love with technology, instead of replacing it:
- Japan is full of middle future products, such as sliding shōji doors – instead of replacing them with western, hinged doors, they kept the idea of sliding doors as they modernized, and turned them into automatic ones
- Light rails lines connecting cities without sprawl. Roads are expensive to maintain, and self-driving electric cars may require more cobalt than we can affordably mine
- Square: another favourite example, enables point of sale purchases that not only maintains the human contact we enjoy but enhances it with a new routine -rotating the tablet between salesperson and customer
- Bikes and bike highways, public transportation and walkable city zones: Instead of focusing on self-driving cars, cities that focus on smaller scale transportation save on road maintenance costs
- Smartphone-enabled electric scooter: Joyous, childlike, and (yes!) a bit dangerous
- Sound design can calm nerves and improve experiences. For instance, the noises associated with hospitals are jarring and upsetting (piercing alarms and beeps, grinding MRI scanners, and so on), but sound design can diminish these signals with white noise, masking, and music. Acknowledging the discomfort, boredom, and stress of flying, Virgin Airlines uses sound design during the check-in and board experience to bring some life back to them to minimize external noises with a calming ambience
From a design perspective, middle futurism researches the past for clues on how to make maintainable products at human scale – buildable and serviceable, where technology integrates with culture as it exists, rather than expecting a culture to change.
How do we get people excited about the middle future? Just remembering the tiny things that do work, and celebrating that. Companies that make middle future products do exceptionally well. People want to work for that company. Through it, we celebrate a future with depth, longevity and long-term thought.