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Welcome to the New Age of Calm Technology

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Last week I made progress. I was down 20 minutes. Instead of spending an average of three hours a day looking at my phone, I’d only spent two hours and forty minutes. It was a victory celebrated in slim margins: I’d shaved off time by logging out of Instagram. I checked Twitter only from my laptop. All told, I picked up my phone 52 fewer times than the week before.

This information, somewhat ironically, was delivered to me on my phone via Screen Time, a feature Apple launched in fall 2018 to help people understand just how much time they spend looking at the glassy rectangle they purchased from the company. A few months earlier, Google had launched its own version of Screen Time called Digital Wellbeing, which documents phone usage as circular slivers of time, charting everything from how many minutes a person spends on YouTube to the number of notifications they receive in a day.

The apps came on the heels of a rocky couple of years for Silicon Valley’s biggest companies. People (translation: users) had awoken to the startling reality that they couldn’t put their devices down even if they tried. In response there were think pieces and news stories that outlined in detail the intentionally deceptive tactics used by companies like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter to keep people glued to their screens. People like Tristan Harris, an ex-Google design ethicist who founded the Centre for Humane Technology and whose TED talk about the addictive nature of technology has been viewed more than 2.5 million times, have become minor celebrities in certain circles.

That Silicon Valley’s biggest titans have created apps to limit the usage of their products is a public mea culpa of sorts. After years of building devices, operating systems, and services that were ostensibly created to make people’s lives easier, big tech seemed to finally be admitting, in its own small way, that maybe things had gotten out of hand. Providing people with information (“empowering them”) to learn just how much of their lives they spend on their devices appeared to be the first step in wresting control from phones and tablets and giving it back to the people who used them.

A screenshot of Apple's usage limit and monitoring app, Screen time.Image by Apple.

By the time Apple and Google launched their apps, the great tech backlash had already arrived. In truth, however, the blowback was a longtime coming—more than twenty years, in fact. In the mid 1990s, a group of researchers at Xerox PARC were already thinking about how to safeguard our vulnerable human brains from the tidal wave of information that was heading our way. They called their approach “calm technology,” and its main goal was to figure out how, in an age of technology being everywhere, designers and technologists could build hardware and software that demanded less of our attention, not more.

The future they wanted was not the future we received, and in recent years, the old principles of calm technology have experienced a new resurgence as tech companies try to reverse some of the damage they’ve done by monetizing our attention for years. Apps like Screen Time and Digital Wellbeing are a start—but in this new age of “mindful design,” the question remains: Is calm technology really back, or is it a Silicon Valley-approved version of its former self?

The Dangling String experiment

In 1995, Michael Weiser and John Seely Brown were leading research labs at Xerox PARC, the famed research center in Silicon Valley where technologies like the graphical user interface and ethernet were developed. PARC was a place of open-ended discovery, where technologists were encouraged to explore big questions around how humans and computers interact and what that might mean for the future.

At the time, Weiser and Brown, along with a researcher at PARC named Rich Gold, were finishing up research around ubiquitous computing (UC), a concept in which computers have embedded themselves so deeply into our lives that we barely notice them. They imagined a future of small networked computers that would serve a single person, not unlike the phones, tablets, and Internet of Things devices that we use today. “The UC era will have lots of computers sharing each of us,” Weiser and Brown wrote in a 1996 paper titled, “The Coming Age of Calm Technology.” “Some of these computers will be the hundreds we may access in the course of a few minutes of internet browsing. Others will be embedded in walls, chairs, clothing, light switches, cars—in everything.”

In this not-so-distant world, computers would pass unfathomable amounts of information back and forth, creating an interconnected web of data that would allow machines to anticipate our needs and desires. In the utopian version of ubiquitous computing, this anticipatory ability of machines would free humans from the hassle of direct interaction with computers. Our devices would be smart enough to know when to alert us to something we needed or wanted to know, but otherwise they’d fade into the background. In other words, they would be calm. “There was almost a philosophical set of issues coming up,” Brown tells me, in a recent interview, of his time at PARC. “What does it mean to take seriously how you become attuned to something, rather than having to attend to it?”

That big question drove Weiser and Brown’s research. They wanted to understand how to communicate information without hijacking a person’s attention. How could a network of computers augment human intelligence instead of detract from it? Could computers fit into our lives in a seamless and meaningful way?

John Seely Brown, co-founder of Calm Design Principles, sits barefoot on a stool in his office.John Seely Brown

During this period, the researchers on Weiser and Brown’s team built a handful of whimsical experiments that showcased their thinking. In one, an office water fountain changed its flow’s intensity based on the stock prices of PARC. In another, the artist Natalie Jeremijenko hung an eight-foot plastic string from a motor attached to the office’s ceiling. The motor was electrically connected to an ethernet cable, so every time data passed through the cable, it would make the string twitch. A busy network caused the string to whir quickly and loudly; a quiet network would only make the string spin sporadically. “It was part of the physical space,” Brown says of the Dangling String experiment. “Basically, it was measuring the traffic on the ethernet so you never had to pay any attention to it.”

The experiments might have seemed trivial in the broader scope of PARC’s research, but these early examples of ambient computing proved an important point about the power of calm technology: Not every piece of information is worthy of immediately capturing your attention, but the information should be there when you need it. More importantly, humans should decide when and how they want to interact with technology—not the other way around.

During the 1990s, this was a radical idea, or at least an uncommon one. As the designer Amber Case explains in her 2017 book, Calm Technology, computers were still predominantly used for business at the time Weiser and Brown were researching their calm technology principles. “Although it’s common today to talk about bringing ‘humanness’ to digital interaction, at the time, the concept of humanizing technology was right at the cutting edge,” Case writes. “Computers were business, and the challenges of computing were very functional: throughput, processing power, maximizing efficiencies. So, the idea of computing being ‘calm,’ and fitting into everyday life in a way that felt natural, or even enjoyable, was far from most people’s minds.”

Weiser and Brown viewed calm technology as a philosophical stance on how computers and humans should interact with each other in the years to come. They didn’t, however, put those ideas into use in any practical sense of the word. After publishing their initial papers on calm technology, the topic quietly faded away. In the years leading up to the smartphone era, the principles behind calm technology were still as relevant as ever, but they had little value in a marketplace that relied on keeping people attached to their devices and constantly upgrading. Advertising, data brokering, and exponential profit forever altered the motivations behind the design of our digital products.

This is something that Brown and his team weren’t actively considering at the time. “We were so romantic in our conception of the good uses of technology and never took very seriously the bad usage of technology,” he says. “Part of the problem, of course, is that today’s digital tools are made complicated because we’re always superimposing ads on everything one way or another, which is a fantastic disruption of things. Some of the things about being able to anticipate needs when deployed on your behalf could be phenomenal, but now we’re using anticipatory techniques to figure out the ideal moment to try to get you hooked on something.”

Back to reality

Within this historical context, it’s easy to see why Silicon Valley is once again attracted to calm technology’s altruistic glow. In the years after Weiser and Brown introduced the idea, consumer technology wandered down the opposite path towards what feels like a wholesale rejection of calm tech’s principles. People were becoming “addicted” to their smartphones and apps, thanks to persuasive design choices deliberately made to keep eyes glued to the screens. Democracy was faltering. Our homes are filled with devices that demand we pay attention. One study found that the average person spends upwards of three hours a day on their phone. Some put the number even higher.

Calm tech’s core tenent—well designed products respect the user’s time and attention—is a concept tailor-made for a marketing pitch deck of a company that’s looking to rehab its image. “The current interest in calm is because tech is under fire, and deservedly so,” says Mark Rolston, co-founder of Austin digital design studio Argodesign. “They’re trying to save their asses.”

Rolston has spent his career thinking about how to bring Weiser and Brown’s idea of calm technology to life. In 2016, his team showed off a prototype for a project called “Interactive Light,” that reimagined a room as an interactive workspace. A projector cast light onto a desk while a Microsoft Kinect monitored motion. Suddenly you could use gestures to transform the objects in a room into an interface (a salt shaker might become a remote control for your speaker; the countertop could turn into your screen), and the computer would surface whatever tool you needed based on the context of where you were and what you were doing.

The concept, while just a prototype, was a playful example of the ubiquitous computing ideas coming out of PARC two decades ago. It made the interface accessible yet more or less invisible. It explored, rather literally, how once the world is overlaid with computational power that can anticipate our needs, we can finally forget the computer is there.

Rolston’s concept is also a bit of an anomaly. Today, so many of the digital products and features we use on a daily basis, from Gmail to notifications to Instagram, are directly at odds with Weiser and Brown’s idea of calm technology. And it’s no real surprise. After all, can technology ever really be calm if it’s supported by a business structure that incentivizes eroding privacy and wringing our attention to the last drop? Probably not, despite the best efforts of companies like Facebook, Apple, and Google to build in guardrails for “responsible” usage.

For big technology companies to design products that go beyond mere calm-washing will require them to rethink the business motivations that led to these design decisions in the first place. As Arielle Pardes wrote in Wired after Google launched its Digital Wellbeing initiative, “It’s a way to rebrand tech as something that’s good for you—but it only treats the symptoms, not the underlying disease.”

It’s a cynical view, but it’s fair. The disease itself is complex and hard to cure. We’ve been trained to expect interruption, to crave the opposite of calm. Getting back to a place where technology can co-exist in our lives without co-opting them is going to take more than an app that tells us how far down the rabbit hole we’ve gone. It’s going to take more than temporary life hacks that bring us moments of calm. The hard truth is, technology can only go so far in fixing this problem, which Brown readily admits. “We never viewed technology as solving the problem,” he said in an interview with Medium. “We always viewed technology as a complicating factor.”

Still, thoughtful design—calm design—is worth exploring. And people have already started. In her book, Case outlines actionable steps for imbuing digital products with a sense of “calm” (“Consider doing away with an interface or screen entirely, replacing it with physical buttons or lights,” she writes. And “Good design allows someone to get to their goal with the fewest steps.”). But even she acknowledges that rethinking how humans interact requires more than a checklist of design suggestions. Optimistically, the recent resurgence of chatter around calm technology could be seen as the beginning of a tide change, an indication that we’ve reached an inflection point where something has to give. There’s no turning back to a luddite way of life, but Rolston believes that good design will win out. “The presumption is you need this constant flow of interruption, and that’s not a good design,” Rolston said. “I think it’s a mistake that will get undesigned over time. A lot of calm interactions are going to come by us simply deciding we need to know less about what’s going on.”

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