We Need Calm Technology

Posted By on September 17, 2015

We are at risk of a chaotic world.

Today we see more than 6 billion people have access to cell phones and more than 2 billion people have smart phones in the world. They remind us of their presence every time, text, message, or notification comes in. They are hungry for attention.

Add to that the rise of connected devices in Internet of Things. The analyst group Gartner forecasts that 4.9 billion connected things will be in use in 2015, up 30 percent from 2014, and will reach 25 billion by 2020 and GE estimates that convergence of machines, data, and analytics will become a $200 billion global industry over the next three years.

That’s a lot of technology.

That’s a lot of data.

That’s a lot of attention needed.

That can be a lot of introduced chaos and it seems like needy technology. Now, more than ever, we need Calm Technology.

What is Calm Technology?

Last year my friend Amber Case started talking about this idea of Calm Technology. It’s the idea that not all technologies that we create will disrupt and vie for our attention. The terms “calm computing” and “calm technology” were coined in 1995 by PARC Researchers Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown in reaction to the increasing complexities that information technologies were creating.

(download their research paper from Xerox PARC here)

Brown and Weiser felt that the promise of computing systems was that they might “simplify complexities, not introduce new ones”. Weiser believed that this would lead to an era of “calm technology,” in which technology, rather than panicking us, would help us focus on the things that were really important to us.

In this video Amber Case takes us through Calm technology and the future of the interface.

Product designers should take a lot of this into consideration. It’s their job to create useful technology and to not abuse the relationship that we want to have with it.

Principles of Calm Technology

The following principles are outlined on Amber Case’s Calm Technology website.

Technology should require the smallest amount of our attention

a. Technology can communicate, but doesn’t need to speak.

b. Create ambient awareness through different senses.

c. Communicate information without taking the wearer out of their environment or task.

Technology should inform and encalm

a. A person’s primary task should not be computing, but being human.

b. Give people what they need to solve their problem, and nothing more.

Technology should make use of the periphery

a. A calm technology will move easily from the periphery of our attention, to the center, and back.

b. The periphery is informing without overburdening.

Amplify the best of technology and the best of humanity

a. Design for people first.

b. Machines shouldn’t act like humans.

c. Humans shouldn’t act like machines.

d. Amplify the best part of each.

Let’s hope many listen to these principles and that we can create a harmonious world. Here’s a final thought from the two people that established this idea.

It seems contradictory to say, in the face of frequent complaints about information overload, that more information could be encalming. It seems almost nonsensical to say that the way to become attuned to more information is to attend to it less. It is these apparently bizarre features that may account for why so few designs properly take into account center and periphery to achieve an increased sense of locatedness. But such designs are crucial as we move into the era of ubiquitous computing. As we learn to design calm technology, we will enrich not only our space of artifacts, but also our opportunities for being with other people. When our world is filled with interconnected, imbedded computers, calm technology will play a central role in a more humanly empowered twenty-first century.

Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown, 1996

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Nikolas Badminton is a world-respected futurist speaker that researches, speaks, and writes about the future of work, how technology is affecting the workplace, how workers are adapting, the sharing economy, and how the world is evolving. He appears at conferences in Canada, USA, UK, and Europe. Email him to book him for your radio, TV show, or conference.


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