How Great Technologies Can Work Alongside Us, Empower us, and Give Us our Time Back
Before the 1850s, oil painters stored portable pigments in pig’s bladders. These vessels were problematic because they did not travel well. The bladders would frequently dry out, burst, and leak. In frustration, American portrait painter John G. Rand developed a history-altering technology – the tin paint tube. Unlike the squishy pig bladder, this metal medium did not burst, leak, or dry out. It worked with artists to become a kind of companion technology for creativity. And it allowed oil paint to travel to places previously inaccessible to pigment stored in animal organs. Without the portable tin paint tube, we would never have the intricate works of Impressionist art. Monet’s on-premise portraits of the sea would have been impossible.
In a sense, the evolution of the paint tube can be compared to the transition between the landline and the portable cellular telephone. Each allowed the user to carry their tools with them, instead of being confined to using a technology in a single place (such as a paint studio or telephone booth).
We can consider many more companion technologies that have evolved alongside us, each with their own history and process. A skilled woodworker has a set of tools to augment their craft. Woodworking is not just a final product – it is a collection of skills and curated processes that evolve out of working alongside tools, instead of for them. Unlike an industrialized chair, a woodworker uses the tools as companion technologies, and a good woodworker can maintain their own equipment.
Technology in harmony with humans
In my previous article on Tech.Revolution I shared one of the principles of calm technology – that technology should amplify the best of technology and the best of humanity. That a person’s primary task should not be computing but being human.
How can we make technology that is in harmony with humans? Let’s consider the quality of human connection, and how technology currently fits into the fabric of our work.
Companion technologies or annoying hindrances?
An important question to ask while trying to fill out a tax form, sign a PDF or apply for a college is how much of our online interfaces are companion-like, and how much of them slow us down? Do these technologies act as existential weights that we try to avoid, or do these products work with our imaginations, like LEGO, inspiring us to build new worlds and scenarios?
How can Internet connection speeds, bloated software and loading boxes give us a sense of being on pause? If we create technology that uses the least amount of loading time, understands our needs and respects our time, we will be well on our way to creating technology that amplifies the best of humans and the best of machines.
The co-evolution of technology
We co-evolved with our tools since the days of the earliest humans. It is our tools that have created us as cyborgs, and it is our tools that allow us to flexibly adapt to a variety of environments, allow us to be flexible and adaptable, and change our culture over time.
Many of the tools we have had from the beginning of time are extensions of our physical selves – a hammer is an extension of the fist, a knife an extension of a tooth. It was really writing and cave painting that started to extend our minds.
Automation and Culture
One of the joys and freedoms of motorcycle and car cultures is the intricate attachment that riders and modders have to their vehicles. Entire magazines, social groups and online forums are dedicated to the craft. YouTube videos help these communities to learn more about their hobbies, and these new skills are spread at local meetups. There is a community aspect to these crafts that we don’t see in social networks and larger interfaces. Similar to quilting, model train building and many other hobbies, there is an idea of creative empowerment as a culture. These technologies create friendships, purpose, and lifelong bonds.
The most important jobs in the age of automation
Moving from leisure to work, what will the most important tasks be in an automated future? Customer service, service industry positions, people maintaining robots and automation, and those who work alongside tools as a craft. Already we see that when people have money, they choose individually crafted items. Hand-made designer furniture, Italian handmade shoes, individual financial advisors over robo-advisors. In the future, some of these jobs could be aided by technology, but it should be used to help people make decisions, not make decisions for them.
Empowerment at the local level is as simple as making it possible for local businesses to provide repair services for technologies. This maintainability restores community connections by re-creating jobs once held by neighbourhood appliance, vehicle and television repair shops.
How can you tell whether a technology is empowering or not?
Consider asking yourself and your team the following questions. If you’re not an early adopter, ask an organization that has already adopted the technology you’re considering, to gain an understanding of its benefits and drawbacks.
- How much time does the technology take to support?
Support should always be factored into purchase decisions. Great technologies require less support, and easier to understand and maintain. Consider the costs of downtime when a system does not perform in the way it is intended.
If we cannot maintain our own equipment, or even understand it, we will offload that maintenance to external companies, and those companies will end up spending a lot of overhead and profit on providing services for their users. Empowering users to see their cities, software and services will help to combat this.
- Can the technology be understood and operated at a small team level, and is it capable of being maintained at that level?
Consider how many people on the team can fix the technology when it breaks. Can the technology be maintained by just a few individuals, or can everyone on the team quickly learn it?
Many hotel chains employ sub-par check-in technologies. In addition to requiring maintenance, hotel employees can be seen apologizing to customers on behalf of the technology. Check-in lines lag, money is lost, and reviews suffer.
- Does the technology inspire pride and culture in those who use it?
Can the software inspire pride in the way that a motorcycle enthusiast can take apart and build a bike? Are the instructions for use and maintenance sharable so that a single person on a team can train someone on it, or the system be maintained by a single individual?
What about more complex, enterprise technology? It is okay if some technologies are complex, powerful and difficult to use, provided there are some people on the team that can work as long-term employees.
- Does the use of technology “dissolve” into workflow in the way that a skilled carpenter works with a hammer, or a singer works with his or her own voice?
The portability and mobile-friendliness of the Square credit card reader empowered a new generation of individual vendors, food cart providers and small business owners by turning phones and tablets into an affordable point of sale systems. And unlike many point-of-sale systems, Square’s interface made it easy for individuals to add, edit and modify individual store items and offerings, allowing them to focus on the growth of their businesses, and not on the technology required to support it.
- Is the automation transparent and changeable?
Part of the idea of a technological feedback loop is that the computer process is transparent, changeable, and capable of evolution. A judge making decisions with the help of an algorithm should be able to see where the data for those recommendations came from, be informed of biases, and be able to request “fresh” data – or data that is more inclusive, recent or varied.
2017 was one of the worst years on record for natural disasters, and this year seems likely to be as bad if not worse. There are many ways to use technology to better handle response, translation, prediction and management of weather events to reduce risk, loss, and damage when they happen. Preventing, responding to, and recovering from the chaos caused by natural disasters is something that is well-suited to automation and technological assistance.
- Is the technology built to last?
What do you use today that is built to last? Important technologies need to be built in maintainable, long-term code bases, well-designed to last for 30 years, and an improvement on what already exists instead of an entirely new set of ideas. Having pride in incremental improvements vs. overall innovation can help keep systems moving forward instead of buying into the veneer of “groundbreaking” yet unproven technologies.
The Quality of the Future Depends on Design
The quality of our interfaces helps or hinders our ability to work. When we come to rely on the built environment, and workers rely on tools for their jobs, the quality of connections to the interface, the interface itself, and the ability for people to maintain those tools at an individual level becomes crucial.
A good technology works to empower us and make us more efficient. As calm technology co-founder Mark Weiser wrote, “We need smarter humans, not smarter devices”.
When computing works in harmony with us, instead of for or against us, we’ll be able be more productive on the things we do best, thanks to AI working alongside us. Here’s to a maintainable, long-term future!