Amber Case: Designing calm technology

Our technology demands out attention. We lack control over it. It stops us losing a sense of time. Amber Case tells the NEXT18 crowd how to reclaim calm technology.


Amber Case studies the interaction between humans and computers. She is currently a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society and a visiting researcher at the MIT Center for Civic Media.

We’re all cyborgs – and we have been for thousands of years. You’re a cyborg if you attach something to yourself to achieve a task. The difference now is that we are attaching devices to ourselves to achieve mental tasks, not physical ones.

The form of devices does not necessarily follow function, and we’re stuck in present shock. We’re carrying stacks of information, and we’re carrying hyperlinked memories, which can be lost if the device – our phone –  crashes. We already have a virtual reality, as things we do digitally have a psychological impact on us. Our Facebook walls are where we carve out the story of our lives.

What of your lives will be remembered when we are on our deathbeds?

Stolen time for our humanity

The Greeks had two concepts of time: the organised, working times, and the time you don’t notice, the “falling in love” times. We’re now suffering social punctuations – notifications that interrupt our time. How many of those are from humans, not robots? Can you take a day away from technology?

This continuous partial attention is always driving us to put things online. The lack of Likes on an Instagram post drives you to post more, to get better. Does the algorithm drive that?

We need a calm technology. Technology is no longer scarce, our attention is. Technology is breaking our attention. Tech should consume as little of our attention as possible, and only when necessary; that’s the core of calm technology.

We no longer know when or where people will be using technology, because we carry with it all the time. We have peripheral senses, and we can get information via sounds and vibrations. Do our devices need to demand our attention all the time? Or can we allow them the freedom to set how they notify us, and change it based on circumstances?

Fail well

There was a product that allowed you to automate the feeding of your pets, but it was server-based. And the server crashed. The pets were stranded. People had to rush home to feed their animals. Offline support was due to arrive in version 2…

That’s technology failing badly.

We will only have good technology when it’s designed to fail well. Too much technology is designed to work in ideal conditions: test it underground, in a loud place, with 2% battery left, while you are panicking. That’s when you find out how good it really is.

Humans are really good at curation and context. People are trying to make machines that behave like people. They don’t work really well. Let machines do what they are good at, and humans what they excel at. Google does a great job of this: it matches you with a lot of information, but allows you to choose it.

Calm technology is not humans versus machines. It’s humans alongside machines – the tech does the data sorting and matching, and humans make the final decisions. Tech doesn’t need to speak to communicate. Roombas communicate with sounds, and so we don’t expect to have a conversation with it.

We keep trying to make our devices more human, but that often just makes them annoying. Compare C3PO and R2D2…

Calm tech should degrade gracefully. Will a smart lock allow you in when your phone is flat?

Amber Case

Socially appropriate tech

Technology should fit the social mores of the day. The first elevators had to be slowed down because people were scared of them. They had elevator operators, because people were scared of the buttons. It takes people a while to get used to tech. Phones are mundane now. 15 years ago they would have been scary.

There’s restorative tech – that gets you back to the norm, like glasses. And then there’s enhancing tech, like Google Glass. But Google Glass added too much at once, and people didn’t know where to focus. Look at the iPhone: Apple lay the groundwork with the iPod, and then touch interfaces, and then some apps, and then the App Store and then GPS… It took 20 years.

Glass tried to go too fast, so everyone focused on the scary function: the secret recording. And that killed it.

Ambient awareness

We can take in information from all sorts of sources. When we’re driving, our primary attention is on the road and the strewing, but we’re also using hearing and other secondary attention to be away of the dials and knobs in the car, the rear-view mirrors and so on.

We need to work towards tech that respects us, doesn’t always demand our attention, and uses our full range of senses to communicate appropriately, in ways we choose: calm tech.

Amber’s Slides