I will start with storage. It seems reasonable to ask you, dear reader, to wait for the section on latency.
Personal space. It is difficult to quantify until it is being violated. This violation needs to be noticed or it is not a violation. Technology is frequently in our personal space; we are so distracted by its benefits that it becomes difficult to notice the violation.
Consider the humble book. The printing press changed the world. People freely welcomed books into their personal space. And books began to fill their space.
We recently solved this space problem through e-books – a technological gain. Libraries were reduced to a single non-volatile memory chip. Thousands of books are now in your pocket, on demand!
What, exactly, is a book? It is a medium – one that is great for passing a message one-way. Physical books and e-books both carry printed words, but the medium is very different.
Tap. Swipe. Zoom. Swipe. Search. Tap. This is the rhythm of the e-reader, possibly disguised as a smartphone. As a medium, an e-book is fundamentally misaligned with how humans evolved. The eyes are overstimulated, the hand is missing tactile feedback, and the mind is not focused since it is easy to search and find it later. This last point is key.
By making information easily searchable, our brains automatically and uncontrollably place less value on that information. We learn how to search for it but mentally discard the results immediately after use. This strategy should give us more “storage space” for useful things – but that is not at all how our brains function.
A physical book is not searchable. Our brains need to pay attention and become immersed in the experience or there is no point to the activity. It is more than forming long-term memories; neuroscience has shown that books fundamentally change how you think.
When Marshall McLuhan infamously observed that “the medium is the message,” he had noticed that every medium (technology) incontrovertibly alters the message it carries.
We now carry a lot of messages in our pocket – which is great for storage – but they no longer wield the power of their heavier predecessors.
Timing is everything! And you are right on time, arriving at this paragraph at the precise moment that, well, you were meant to.
When I use the term latency, I am describing the time between a specific action and its expected outcome. For example: arriving at the DMV and having your picture taken three hours later.
I will classify types of latency in some crude bins for discussion.
Real-time: The laws of physics are in full force and inescapable. Draw a saw across a wood board and observe immediate sawdust; press a key on a piano and hear the sound at that instant; dig into soil and feel the resistance through the shovel. Real-time activities are usually the type that humans prefer, and this is no accident.
Imperceptible: Responsive software on a smartphone provides a quantifiable experience. Tapping (the action) causes the screen to change (outcome). It is not real-time, but we are not consciously aware of the difference. At best, we cannot quantify what is wrong.
Annoying: This is when we notice the lag on our smartphone, or when we believe that a webpage is not loading fast enough because our expectations have been set that it should be instant (imperceptible). Another example could be the already-late-person encountering every possible red light en route to their destination.
Understood: Appreciating that a garden requires days to weeks for saplings to erupt. Also, the technology of two decades ago where the loud clunks of mechanical hard drives would fill the air as Netscape 3.0 loaded a webpage over a 33.6kbps POTS modem. We expected it to be slow.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Annoying latency is the one that we notice the most.
The latency of modern gadgets warps the experience in an indescribable way. This is a fundamental issue since every piece of software on every gadget has latency. As computing speeds increase, Understood latency gave way to Annoying latency. On modern gadgets, engineers know that their boss would notice Annoying, and nobody strives for the cost of developing Real-time since Imperceptible is “good enough.”
Unfortunately, Imperceptible latency is indeed perceptible to our subconscious and carries an invisible burden.
The lack of a real-time experience contributes to the disposability of modern electronics. Exploring that topic is a paper by itself, but the basic idea is that our brains cannot recognize the technology as a tool. It is a something that is not a piano, a paintbrush, or a handsaw.
Ironically, serving up information faster also makes it less valuable. And serving it faster with a search box exploits a human seeking behavior that places more value on new information vs. relevant information. We want more information, but we no longer discern between useful and not.
Electronics today are sitting in a spot that places a great psychological burden on us. Slowing down the process with wait-states – reverting to that 1998, clicking hard drive – is actually a more humane thing to do for people and planet. Oh, and please let me use the phone so my computer can dial-in to download the news.
Build for Humanity
We do not have a piano waste crisis. Humanity is not feverishly throwing out 2016 model pianos to purchase the 2017 model. We crave real-time activities – hobbies that require the use of our hands, with a perfect balance between eye-hand-mind. We welcome them into our personal space.
Shift Sight is building Jade as a piece of humane technology; something to be experienced to be believed.
The best example of current humane technology is the basic calculator, pictured at the top of this article. Like the printed book, it does not impose a burden. The calculator increased the capacity of our working memory (storage) and sped up rote calculations (latency). The tactile feel of the buttons, the monochromacity and non-stimulation of the screen, the purpose – it all added up for a happy human, pun intended.
This article invaded your personal space. And the outcome is nigh. Latency and storage. So let’s wrap up.
Every technology increases our dependency on it. I have read stories from investors and industry leaders proclaiming that technological progress is inevitable. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy and is extremely short-sighted. Doing things because we can should not be a yardstick for success when our trajectory is measurably damaging our children, our planet, and ourselves.
Please think of yourself from time-to-time. Shut off your phone for a few minutes. Read a real book with no distractions. Or close your eyes and just breathe.
Ty is a Founder of Shift Sight, LLC.