Has it always been strange like this?

Has It Always Been Strange Like This? The Role of a Design Strategy in Humanizing Technology

The world feels strange. We’ve always used the phrase “Flying cars” as a gesture towards the future, a time that seemed out of reach and seemingly never to become real. It was a colloquialism to the impossible. But now we’re close.We have drones that can lift massive amounts and algorithms to drive them on their own. And flying cars may pale in comparison to the coming realities of artificial intelligence, virtual reality, space travel, and other advancements. For many of us in technology fields, this is exciting: we grew up watching Blade Runner and reading Snow Crash, and the world that’s emerging feels an awful like the magical world that captivated us when we were young.

But for many of us, this new world is strange, in an “I increasingly don’t understand how to exist in the world around me” sort of way. It’s not a comforting feeling. It feels as though we are alone in our misunderstanding of how things work, as if our participation in culture isn’t welcome if we don’t embrace advancement. Just as soon as we reluctantly trade our film camera for a digital camera and slowly learn to use it, out comes a flip phone with a camera, and then a smart phone. We hang on to our CD collection in a world driven by MP3s. The fridge with the screen in it at Sears is confusing, and we long for people to make eye contact at dinner instead of playing with their phones.

For those of us in technology fields, it’s easy to roll our eyes at these laggards and point them out as a small minority. But they aren’t a small group. In 2016, there were 20MM in retails sales of CD players – just 6MM less than in 2005. 9.4MM people in the US use dialup internet and 18MM adults in the US don’t use the internet at all. It’s these folks that are increasingly left out of the brave new world of advancement. Many don’t adopt new technology because it’s unavailable or because they can’t afford it. But many others avoid it because it’s just downright strange.

And it’s not just the laggards that suffer from the strangeness.

The other day, my wife had to reboot our stove.

When the internet goes out in the house, my thermostat, television, security cameras, music system, and lights all stop behaving. I can download new cycles to my washer. I unlock my hotel room with my phone. I turn on the sprinklers with my phone. I spy on my cats with my phone.

Neil Postman was a prolific critic of the impact technology has on our lives. He described that “Sometimes people ask me if I’m a Luddite, if I really want to bust up all the machinery, and my answer is an emphatic no. I want our social organizations and people generally to take some control over technology. More and more of what I see happening is that people have not thought deeply about how technology works in their culture, how it can undo things and change things that cultures actually need. So, what is required here is not to break up the machinery but an almost quantum increase in the sophistication and knowledge about technology that people presently have.”

That sophistication and knowledge is increasingly difficult to come by, because – unlike a gear or a piston – the mechanisms of modern technology are by and large invisible.

Bitcoin is as vague as derivatives, both enabled by advances in computation and both a “black box” for most people – it seems important, but I just don’t get it. AR is something I’ve seen in a short Facebook movie on the future of gaming. I don’t see the relevance in my life, but I feel pressure to have it in my life. I know Google Maps can predict my commute, but I don’t really understand how. I’m surrounded by innovations, but left only to consume them because they are built on digital frameworks that are largely invisible and that seem too complex.

But is the world only recently strange, or are we continually playing the “when I was a kid” card?

  • When I was a kid, we couldn’t instantly jump to a music track – we had to move a needle or fast-forward a tape.
  • When I was a kid, we could only talk on the phone in the living room, because it was fixed to the wall on a cord.
  • When I was a kid, we read books on planes, because there were no in-seat entertainment systems.

I played this one with some folks later in their lives, too, and they said:

  • When I was a kid, we had three channels on our television, and it had an 8″ black and white screen
  • When I was a kid, we reheated food on the stove, because there were no microwave ovens.
  • When I was a kid, it took weeks to see the few pictures we took on our cameras.

And newer generations:

  • When I was a kid, we had to call the internet on the modem
  • When I was a kid, my MP3 player only held 15 songs
  • When I was a kid, we had to carry an entirely different device to record videos

These sure have a “I had to carry my brother on my back uphill in the snow both ways” tone to them. But each generation can look back at the technological advancements of their own childhood and stare in wonder at the way things are now. Film photography was an expensive niche; then an affordable hobby; then a Kodak moment in every house – astounding those few seniors, still alive, who remembered the Kodak No. 2 Brownie, the size of a suitcase. Tiny digital 320×240 pictures were an expensive niche; than an affordable hobby; than a camera in every phone – similarly blowing the minds of those from the mid century, many of whom refuse to embrace the new technology. The same is true of household appliances, building material, video recording equipment, shopping infrastructure, healthcare equipment, and so-on.

A major fear of self-driving cars is that they will cause an unprecedented number of accidents. They probably will. But so too did “regular” cars in the early 1900s. There were no stop signs, traffic lights, or rules, and the speed of vehicles (as fast as 30 mph) was completely unfamiliar.

And there were deaths – in 1917, Detroit and its suburbs had 65,000 cars on the road, resulting in 7,171 accidents and 168 fatalities. Three-fourths of the victims were pedestrians.

And before that, the new technology of the Penny Farthing – the iconographic bicycle from the late 1980s, where it was common for riders to fall on their heads and die.

And before that, consider the advanced technology of the horse and carriage. Bolting horses and poorly delineated roads led to an unprecedented number of accidents, including pitching President Abraham Lincoln’s wife in 1864. These innovations in transportation were, at the moment of their introduction, strange to look at, strange to ride, and considered either (and often both) a curiosity as well as an unlikely future. The raw innovation, at its introduction, did not fit into the comfort of our current cultural fabric. Like the Geoffrey Moore adoption curve, there will always be early adopters who are not only comfortable with technology but celebrate it. And there will always be laggards who avoid advancements until they have no other choice.

It’s always been strange like this, but the rate of technological advancement has never felt quite this fast.

There are many studies and observations that the speed of advancement is tracking exponentially or even logarithmically, referencing Moore’s law and movements like the singularity. In this hyperpaced advancement, a design strategy is critical. This design strategy is no longer just a guide for aesthetics and experience. Design is about people, and a design strategy should describe how to help people react to and embrace innovations in the context of their world, no matter how slow their world may be progressing. As we craft design strategy for technological market leaders, we need to evangelize for empathizing with those laggards: the millions on dialup modems, the masses with house phones, the holdouts with their CRT monitors, and the hipsters riding their penny farthing bikes. And most of all, my parents, with their regular old home phone line: complete with call waiting and an answering machine.

Jon Kolko

Modernist can help you humanize technology at your company.

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