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Calm technology

By 2020, 50 billion devices will be online. That projection was made by researchers at Cisco, and it was a key point in Amber Case’s Embedded Linux Conference keynote address, titled “Calm Technology: Design for the Next 50 Years” which is now available for replay.

Case, Author and Fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center, referred to the “Dystopian Kitchen of the Future” as she discussed so-called smart devices that are invading our homes and lives, when the way they are implemented is not always so smart. “Half of it is hackable,” she said. “I can imagine your teapot getting hacked and someone gets away with your password. All of this just increases the surface area for attack. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to have to be a system administrator just to live in my own home.”

Support and Recede

Case also discussed the era of “interruptive technology.” “It’s not just that we are getting text messages and robotic notifications all the time, but we are dealing with bad battery life, disconnected networks and servers that go down,” she said. “How do we design technology for sub-optimal situations instead of the perfect situations that we design for in the lab?”

“What we need is calm technology,” she noted, “where the tech recedes into the background and supports us, amplifying our humanness. The only time a technology understands you the first time is in Star Trek or in films, where they can do 40 takes. Films have helped give us unrealistic expectations about how our technology understands us. We don’t even understand ourselves, not to mention the person standing next to us. How can technology understand us better than that?”

Case noted that the age of calm technology was referenced long ago at Xerox PARC, by early ubiquitous computing researchers, who paved the way for the Internet of Things (IoT). “What matters is not technology itself, but its relationship to us,” they wrote.

7 Axioms

She cited this quote from Xerox researcher Mark Weiser: “A good tool is an invisible tool. By invisible, we mean that the tool does not intrude on your consciousness; you focus on the task, not the tool.”

Case supplied some ordered axioms for developing calm technology:

  1.    Technology shouldn’t require all of our attention, just some of it, and only when necessary.
  2.    Technology should empower the periphery.
  3.    Technology should inform and calm.
  4.    Technology should amplify the best of technology and the best of humanity.
  5.    Technology can communicate, but it doesn’t need to speak.
  6.    Technology should consider social norms.
  7.    The right amount of technology is the minimum amount to solve the problem.

In summing up, Case said that calm technology allows people to “accomplish the same goal with the least amount of mental cost.” In addition to her presentation at the Embedded Linux Conference, Case also maintains a website on calm technology, which offers related papers, exercises and more.

Watch the complete presentation below:

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