22 years later, calmness still is a fundamental challenge

If we think about calm technology today, the concept is obvious and evident. But in 1996, who would have even thought this far?

It’s always astonishing to recognise how far some smart people can think ahead. In hindsight, things once unfathomable now look simple and straightforward, but more than two decades ago? If we think about calm technology today, the concept is obvious and evident. But in 1996, who would have even thought this far?

Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown did, since they published their original paper on calm technology 22 years ago. Here is the 2014 revision. In 1996, there was no mobile web, and even the web itself was still nascent. (And the earliest papers date back to 1989, the year when the web was invented.) However, the authors anticipated a future that is now contemporary:

But when computers are all around, so that we want to compute while doing something else and have more time to be more fully human, we must radically rethink the goals, context and technology of the computer and all the other technology crowding into our lives. Calmness is a fundamental challenge for all technological design of the next fifty years.

It is probably not too far fetched to assume that a lot of issues with today’s mobile and social digital world could have been avoided if only enough people had followed their train of thought. Instead, we now have to deal with attention-grabbing devices and platforms. People are glued to their smartphones, like cyborgs. We are digital in a way that doesn’t enhance our lives. Our digital lives thrive at the expense of other activities.

Calm technology aims to minimise that. It only seeks our attention when necessary, and waits quietly for the rest of the time. But it is there when and if needed. Think of the tea kettle, a classic example of calm tech. Set and forget, until the water boils and the kettle demands your attention. In comparison, I’m not sure I need the annoying sound of my dishwasher, announcing he is done doing the dishes. Do I really want to know this? Most of the time, I don’t.

Amber Case has done a lot over the course of the last few years to popularise the concept of calm technology. After her famous 2010 TED talk (We are all cyborgs now), she has written a book on designing calm tech and given several speeches. We are excited to have her at NEXT18 this year, as she is clearly an expert on how to fix the digital. For a start, read her guest post on this blog.

It is a good sign that Google and Apple now have jumped on the bandwagon, applying some calm tech fixes to their attention vampires, err, devices. But, as Amber Case pointed out, they still have a way to go. Digital Wellbeing, the catchphrase Google uses for their initiative, is much more than minimising distractions.

In our upcoming NEXT Book, Pamela Pavliscak lays out what it means to design for digital wellbeing. In short, it is a much broader landscape. While calm tech dives deep into the attention economy, digital wellbeing takes a horizontal approach, aiming to change how we design technology from the ground up. Both have their benefits, and somehow they complement each other.

Pamela Pavliscak will speak at NEXT18. Watch the video from NEXT17 or read the live-blogging.

Photo by Harli Marten on Unsplash