This week our guest is author and speaker, Amber Case, who amongst many things is well known for her TedTalk titled, We Are All Cyborgs Now, and her book “Calm Technology.”
In this episode we focus almost exclusively on the principles and ideas Amber puts forth in her book, Calm Technology, exploring how we can design technology in ways that won’t dominate our attention and undermine our humanity. We also talk about design for failure and edge-cases. Ultimately, this means promoting design that is more big picture, more human-centric, and more considerate of the actual environment it will be used in.
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Music by: Amine el Filali
technology, people, automate, piano, jobs, principles, elegant, ticket, cases, important, weather report, design, light, bart, work, point, disembodied, book, running, web
Amber Case, Steven Parton
Amber Case 00:00
So the idea is that when something fails, not only does it fail gracefully, but you end up having this like lovely experience with our incredibly friendly person, you don't feel like an idiot, somebody just helped you to do something, and they're an expert at it.
Steven Parton 00:25
Hello, everyone, my name is Steven Parton. And you're listening to the feedback loop on singularity radio, where we keep you up to date on the latest technological trends, and how they're impacting the transformation of consciousness and culture. This week, our guest is author and speaker amber case, who amongst many things is well known for her TED Talk, titled we're all cyborgs now, and her book calm technology. And this episode, we focus almost exclusively on the principles and ideas that amber puts forth in her book, exploring how we can design technology in ways that won't dominate our attention, or undermine our humanity. Additionally, we talk about designing for failure and edge cases as well. And ultimately, this all comes together in a conversation that is focused on promoting design that is more big picture more human centric, and really just more considerate of the actual environment that the technology will actually be used in. As always, you can check the episode description for links to ambras work, as well as for guidance on how to get more deeply involved with the singularity community. But in the meantime, let's go ahead and get into this episode. So everyone, please welcome to the feedback loop, Amber case. So to start, maybe you could just talk a little bit about what motivated you to write comp technology? And what are some of the key concepts that you were putting forward in the book,
Amber Case 01:54
calm technology is a set of principles that were resurrected from Xerox PARC in the 90s, about how we could create technology that allows us to be smarter humans, instead of having smarter machines, and to work with our attention instead of against it. And to put more information in the periphery. Instead of having it in our faces all the time. It also goes back to the idea of early technology that was alongside us as a tool, not doing a zillion things on our behalf and then breaking in awful ways. Not to say that how we build technology right now is bad or good. It's just that if we refocus and have a larger perspective on it, we're more likely to make technologies that last a long time, also make money and are sustainable, and are a wonderful thing that blends into our lives instead of distracts us from them.
Steven Parton 02:48
And like but for you personally, really made you want to get involved with that, like you took the work from Xerox PARC and that's beautiful. But like what for you was like the really like strong urge that made you think this is important.
Amber Case 03:04
I came across calm technology when I was writing my thesis on mobile phones in 2007 when the iPhone had just come out. And john Seely Brown, rich gold. And Mark wiser, had created this this beautiful paper that said like the combination of comp technology that at one point, many people would share one device, one mainframe computer. And eventually many devices would share each of us. And at that point, the scarcest resource would not be technology, it would be attention, and how technology made or broke our attention would make or break that technology. They had a couple principles. And I sat there thinking Why is no one remember this, they wrote this before ubiquitous computing. Mark wiser and rich gold both passed away. JOHN Seely Brown ended up being on the board at Amazon and helping me with a lot of behind the scenes things there. And I waited. And then I finally said, I'm gonna write a book on this. It's all public domain, open source. I don't want to ever copyright it. This is free information for everyone. But I think it's really crucial that that it exists. And so I expanded the principles out to eight principles. And now, lots of people from from Google's wellness guidelines to Microsoft's Windows 11 to a couple of secret very large projects that I'm working on across like probably 20 or 30 different industries at this point. have integrated a contact principles into the companies.
Steven Parton 04:43
Can you can you touch on a little bit what some of those principles I
Amber Case 04:48
sure. The first principle of quantum technology is that technology should require the least amount of attention and technology can communicate through A bunch of different senses. But it doesn't need to speak in a human voice. Sometimes when you have a technology speaking a human voice, you expect to be able to respond to it at that same level. Very rarely do we want to talk to a machine and have it talked back to us. And sometimes it's very helpful. But most of the time, like you would never want to play Mario Brothers with your voice, a direct input is often better. But you can create a lot of ambient awareness through different senses. And I think that's, that's really important that we are really focused on visuals right now. But we have so many extra senses around us like just hearing a small tone, or touch or any of these things. Or even like using a foot pedal, we use that for trashcans, we use that for sewing machines, we use it in the car that extends it extends your ability, beyond just eyesight, and it doesn't require you to take all of your attention away from your task, you can still get the information. So one of the things that was designed by my old co founder is he took a hue light bulb and had a cron job run and just grab a weather report. And it would just change the color of the light to what the weather report would be for that day. So we see a lot of these like commercials where it's like some lonely white guy in his very expensive apartment in San Francisco somehow without any noise pollution because it's up off the ground. And the first thing that happens in the morning is like the female disembodied voice tells him about his day. And people have known that have had that in the morning, it's like the first thing you don't like people might grab their phone in the morning, but they're reading it quietly. The whole point is, by the time you walk, and you get into your kitchen, and you've you don't have to look at the weather report, you can feel the color of the light and understand what was going to be for the day. And if you wanted to, you could look in a higher level of detail on the wall. This kind of level of detail approaches, ambient awareness, this kind of information and synesthesia that you Shawn Shapiro kind of talks about is that you don't have to have all of the information to be able to decide whether you want more or not, but it should be the individual's choice as to whether they want more information just with a little bit you can you can feel something and and transforming that information from one sensor to another like whether a tap whether a sink tap is hot or cold can be shown with an LED color. So you turn on your shower and you know what color purple you want the shower to be or in the sink, you can tell if it's too hot to touch, we see this in a lot of blue collar trades like plumbing, like they'll they'll they'll coat the pipes of different color based on whether it's hot or cold. A lot of these learnings can be put into different industries. But we don't necessarily do that. So like you know that first principle kind of contains a lot of information in it that like you know, that kind of informs the second principle that technology can give you information but create calm at the same time that we should recognize that a person's primary task shouldn't be computing but being human unless you choose to have like a technology based life you know, you can nerd out all you want but for some people that like maybe you just want to garden you can still make your garden very technological. But you shouldn't have to maintain those systems unnecessarily and this this kind of thing I grew up with because we lived in Denver Colorado and my mom had a baby grand piano that I used to sit under and listen to the low frequencies but the dry air made it so that you actually had to have you actually had to water the piano you had to like give it water and when humidify itself so it wouldn't like work and when you need to water the piano this kind of amber orange yellow light would turn on on the piano. It wasn't a bright blue light and then definitely didn't say please water the piano you know at three o'clock in the morning. And it was interesting because here we have this elegant Steinway and sons baby grand piano from my grandmother like they only like important heirlooms that we've ever gotten that's that's, you know, shoved increasingly into smaller and smaller space. And how do you make that elegant? How do you have a technology that matches the elegance of the piano, you don't want a giant interface on your piano you definitely don't want to connect to your piano via Bluetooth cancel hanging out with like the music in your house and then have it text message you that the piano needs to be watered because you're going to be annoyed so having that really tiny light turn off When the piano needed to be watered, was kind of a revelation. For me, it was also my childhood chore to water, the piano. So whenever this light would go on, I would, you know, take out the water in Canon waternsw piano. And also, you know, my dad kind of set this thing up as well where he noticed that I would argue with him about my bedtime, which is 8pm. And instead he took an X 10 controller, plugged it into the wall and set a timer to have this kind of amber color light turned on at around 8pm. And I couldn't argue with the light, nor could I move it or unplug it because it was behind a very heavy bookshelf. But this small indicator was not something that you needed to know about a guest would come into the house and be like, Oh, what a cute light that just turned on. So it was kind of like known to us that considered decorative to the outside world. And I think that like layered system of meaning is quite cute. Like you see this in Japanese gardens as well. There's like little paths that have little stones in the way that are basically like don't go on this path. It's so simple, it's so nuanced that I think we can learn a lot, especially from Japanese design. And, and that nuance about how we build things is super crucial. Whereas when we look from the American perspective, things are often very overt and short term and need to be maintained a lot. But how do we make things that are that are long lasting, and elegant and, and beautiful, that function as part of our homes in our lives. So this is something I think about constantly, especially when trying to create these principles.
Steven Parton 11:43
I'm thinking right now first of all, that if you ever write an autobiography, it has to be called watering my piano. I want to start with that. But secondly, it sounds like in your mind, a kind of a utopic. And, you know, obviously utopia is is not maybe a real aspiration to concern ourselves with but like in an ideal world, you would really not even know technology is there, like 99% of the time.
Amber Case 12:10
Okay, so this is a super, super important thing to talk about. Yeah, a lot of times when you tell that to advertisers, they say oh technologies invisible, and it does everything for you on your behalf. And that's the whole point. This is not what Mark Weiser intended when he wrote about quantum technology, and in the quote is very crucial to get right here. It's not the technology is invisible and you don't see it, it's that you don't notice like you can interact with it. And then you know, you focused on the task and not the tool. So this is more of like a pass through type thing. When you're using a hammer, you focus on the nail, you don't focus on the hammer, the hammer becomes an extension of your hand. When you use a light switch, you don't look at the light switch, you look at it, you could like casually glance at it and tap it and your lights on or off. But when I'm in a room, I'm not thinking about the light switch and I'm not looking at the light switch is often the same color as the wall or just something you can do. So this is super crucial because that nuance is really lost on a lot of people and that's what leads them astray, that like everything should do something for you. This is where we get wargames This is where we get like all of the dystopian narratives from like the 80s. But the problem is that you can have something that works really well many times but you can have these edge cases that people don't plan on and until you like live with something like that 24 hours and get the edge cases you don't know what's going to go wrong and that's the problem is like a lot of people are building something on nine to five time I have a story from somebody that worked on the the jawbone speaker and this is in my book designing with sound which includes a lot of edge cases. She said that it was it was a great speaker and but they put a disembodied human voice in it. And what would happen is if the battery was running low, the disembodied woman's voice would say, you know jam box is running low, please connect. So of course it worked just fine when they tested it at work. And then somebody finally took the jam box home to kind of live alongside it and what they noticed is that like you might have a really nice loud party at your house and you're playing really loud music. Everybody goes home and the battery's about 40% when the party ends and so you leave your jam box out because you forgot about it because you go to bed well what happens is that over the night, the jam box starts to run out of battery and what it means is that about three in the morning the disembodied female voice in the excruciating Lee large volume that you've been playing for your party says jam box is running out of power, please connect and wakes you up. And this is a problem because why why? Do you need to have an error message like that? You know, you could just have a little light that turns on, that's red. Just a tiny little light will tell you more than entire disembodied voice, you have to translate into a bunch of different languages in order to like shift it around the world. Yeah, why is that necessary.
Steven Parton 15:20
And these edge cases are really important, right? Because I remember one time we were talking before in the past about, I think you were trying to get out of a parking garage. And you couldn't get out of the parking garage because the ticket didn't print or it only prints during like, certain hours. And like, now we have this really silly, stupid problem where like, you're trapped in a parking garage with no humans who can help you get out because technology wasn't designed for the edge cases.
Amber Case 15:47
That's right, yeah, there was a parking ticket graduates like, well, we're closed. And you had to like Google the backup number for the garage. I ended up just like, dry, like opening up, like the old gate with my hands. And like getting the car out. There was another time where it happened. I just drove from the curb. But there was no information about when it was closed. And I think this, this is kind of the problem when we try to automate so many things. And then we get stuck in the edge case. And I think there's another story from NPR that's really helpful here. There's a startup founder that said, Well, you know, these Bart tickets are really dumb paper tickets papers down, like, let's just have it on our phones. And everyone can have the BART app, they can have the BART ticket. And the journalist was like, Well, why don't you tell the ticket to take her downstairs that and he's like, well, I've never been down there before. And she was like, Well, you've never taken the BART. And he's like, no, I would always take it out like an Uber. So he walks confidently down the stairs, to the ticket taker, who has this like lovely African American woman. And she's like, well, I get paid a lot, I garden. And if you automated me, it, she just started laughing. And she said, like, just just hang out here for a minute. And this, this group of people from another country come through, and they need help. And she helps print their tickets, and make sure that they're okay. They don't have phones that work, you know, in the United States, there's no way they could download the app without paying a lot of money. They don't necessarily like how, like, understand the currency, like it's a total mess. And she like, gives them love and kindness in the non place, that's the station and sends them on their way. And this is something that's very hard for a machine to do. Like, we don't, we don't want to automate that part. Like, the more you automate, the better the customer surface has to be. And I think that's why I like that shoe platform Zappos did so well early on, is that they decided that it's a human aspect, like when we when we forget that human aspect that like, most people are not buying shoes online at that at the time, because they knew that they wouldn't work all the time that you know, maybe they didn't fit, because you always try and like four or five pairs of shoes. And so they said, let's make the experience of failure. So delightful, that people want to do this again, and again, let's send them lots of shoes. Let's send them prepackaged boxes, let's make the return process. Awesome. And then they became really big and got bought by Amazon. But a lot of people don't think of that inverse way.
Steven Parton 18:26
Yeah, if we can bring it back to the woman at the BART for a second. I'm wondering how do you feel about how we reconcile taking people away from jobs that they may not want? You know, there's a lot of arguments that fast food workers and people who work on dump trucks and stuff like that, like these aren't ideal jobs they want if we could automate that, that would be good. But then you're talking about this woman at the bar who loves her job. And like about the edge cases that happen when we do automate these jobs? I'm wondering how do you feel like we balanced that struggle between kind of what are commonly called bullshit jobs? And like people having a presence and in our lives and a place to have a job?
Amber Case 19:11
Yeah, well, I think jobs of any kind should never be considered bullshit. And that people take pride in their jobs. And that like, you know, a waitress or waiter in another country like France, who, you know, when you try to tip them as an American, they're like, why would you do that? That's an insult. I get paid enough. You should people like, I would like to work in food service, you know, and and be able to rent a home like it's very confusing that like we value some jobs over others. And I think that was the point that they were trying to make an NPR report that this woman's job at the subway station, I think she got paid $95,000 a year. Not only was it a meaningful job, but it was super crucial and she loved it because here she was like making people's lives better every day. You know. So I think that's, I like to look to Japan again for this. And in the context book just got recently translated into Japanese. And I've been over there a bunch just kind of, you know, basically like, just been very respectful of everything they've done and telling a younger generation, like, Hey, remember your history, because on a lot of fronts, you already know how to design long term systems. But I think how it's done there is you have an aging population. Some of them want to work well into their 90s. There's little exoskeletons you can wear to like, allow you to still lift heavy objects, when you're in your 90s there's reports of people being like, I love being able to work in my 90s, this is great. But you also have the idea that it's very expensive to hire people. So automation is not like this fetishize thing that's like an anime, it's actually a necessity. And so you see, you know, a conveyor belt sushi, not because Ooh, it's cool. And high tech, it's actually necessary, because it's expensive to have a service industry waiter or waitress, you also have convenience stores that also double as post offices, you have the little, you know, the little vending machines everywhere, because it's cheaper to have that than than somebody dispensing something to you. But their backup systems are incredible. So for instance, if you go to a train station, some train stations, and you're a foreigner, and you don't know how to get the ticket, like, if I have trouble for more than like, five seconds on a machine, a window opens or the the wall will literally open, and somebody will help me punch the buttons and give me a ticket. So the idea is that when something fails, not only does it fail gracefully, but you end up having this like lovely experience with a incredibly friendly person, you don't feel like an idiot, somebody has just helped you to do something, and they're an expert at it. And I think how we do it in the United States is like, oh, let's automate the checkout system at the supermarket. And then this kind of exhausted person, you know, comes over and they have to deal with it. Now, this isn't to say that Japan's a utopia, right, like, I'm not putting anybody up on a pedestal here, because it's very hard to have a service culture where like, you're expected to be, you know, ultra polite, and kind of the ultimate service industry person. So it's not perfect anywhere. But the principle holds that like, failure is delightful. I think that's, that's really important to think about, like, how does something fail, like, we don't want to get into a situation like pet net.io, which is an automated pet feeder that worked over Wi Fi, one day, the server went down on pet net.io, and a bunch of pets were stranded throughout the United States without food or water. And the owners were away, and they had to have like, their friends break into their house to like rescue the pets. And when I asked patinate about it, I said, What were you doing? Like, when the network runs out? Why are you having the feeding schedule over Wi Fi? And also, what happens if the power goes out? They're like, Oh, those were the next things on our roadmap, like, oh, maintaining life, was just a feature in your roadmap,
Steven Parton 23:21
like, version three, that feels like it should have been version one. Yeah.
Amber Case 23:25
So it's like, well, how do you get away with not being able to think so deeply about something, you know, and it's not a fault of tech, it's not a fault of anything. That's that. You know, if you think like, indigenous style, you're thinking about at least seven generations at a time, if you think about city planning, urban planning, they're thinking about, like, at least 50 years at a time, a lot of companies Japan think 50 years at a time. That's not to say that we should always do that. But if we thought even a little bit longer perspective and did a little research, we wouldn't have to make as many mistakes all the time. That might cost an animal's life, or human's life as we go closer. On the other hand, it's not that like, we shouldn't do that. But we should, and we should be able to have safe places to play so that, you know, machine learning can learn and have fun and make mistakes, because at this point, we're raising some of these technologies alongside us. But we can save so much money if we just do a little bit of research because technology even though it seems to change, I argued that like, we still have the same technology and human universals, no matter what era it is, it still needs to work well alongside us. It doesn't need to like, Look, you know, really fancy it just needs to work. And I think that's the big discrepancy is that we think things need to be so shiny and amazing. And reality, they don't need to be so shiny.
Steven Parton 24:58
Fair enough. I realize we're running close to time here. I wanted to get into NF T's and micro payments and all that stuff with you. But I don't think we're going to have enough time. So maybe we should save that for another time. Sure,
Amber Case 25:11
yeah. I'm right now I'm a Mozilla Foundation fellow. And I'm studying micro payments and web monetization. I think over time, like by the end of the year, I'll have a couple of reports on that. And the TLDR on that is that when Tim berners, Lee created the web, there were a bunch of different error codes, the most popular one that we know is for, for, like patient I found, but one of the overlooked ones is 402 payment required. And it says reserved for, for future use. There's no real standard, they got invented, kind of payment protocol. And so we have things like Venmo, and PayPal, and we don't necessarily have the wide adoption of web wallets yet. So the idea is that people working on protocols in this space, have a chance to make something that is elegant, and, and easy to use, that will replace a lot of the credit card transactions online, where the wallet becomes your identity. And perhaps an NFT becomes your authenticator that if you have this NF T, you have a membership and you can go across all these sites. So it's not like you need to have a $30,000 born ape NFT. But literally a small membership token becomes your passcode into the system. And that at some point, everybody's gonna have a web wallet because it's elegant, and it's solving all these people trying to solve the 402 payment required. And that's that's really, you know, my year long research project is how to make sure we do this with something that can last for 10 or 20 years. That's not just co opted by a single company. It shouldn't be that way. Because anytime you co OPT it, it's like, well, wait a second, if we had done that with like, voice compression technologies, or like the microphone, you know, came out of Bell Labs with James West, we wouldn't have had widespread adoption. So we need to like I guess tamper our competitive nature and be like, hey, let's just get this settled. You can scan it any way you want. And you can take whatever you want out of it. But like, let's just get this done. Because it's kind of a mess. The web is a mess without it. And credit card transaction fees are kind of excruciating. It's very slow. So we're prototyping alternatives. Nf T's are one part of it, the playground, so to speak. And there's also a bunch of other networks and, and providers that are working on it. So more later.
Steven Parton 27:41
Yeah, appreciate that. Well, Amber, thank you so much for taking the time and I look forward to round two where we can dive into NF T's because I feel like have a lot of questions like everyone else that I would love to get some answers on. Sounds good. All right. Well, we'll talk to you soon and thanks again.
Amber Case 27:58
Thank you. Bye