The Beginnings of Calm Technology
Researchers at PARC looked at “redefining the entire relationship of humans, work, and technology for the post-PC era,” and their thoughts and experiments were among the first to grasp the implications of what Weiser was starting to call “Ubiquitous Computing .” Although it is common today to talk about bringing “humanness” to digital interaction, at the time, the concept of humanizing technology was right at the cutting edge . The 1980s were a time when using a computer meant sitting in a code-locked room running serious programs like VisiCalc (Figure 6-2), the very first user-friendly spreadsheet software for the personal computer 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 .
Screenshot of VisiCalc running on an Apple II computer.^
While the rest of the industry focused on the present, PARC was a place where researchers were encouraged to predict the problems of the future and solve them before they even arose . In the wake of so many advances designed to improve the capabilities of machines, Weiser and Brown chose to take on the problem of humanizing technology—specifically, how could technology amplify humanness instead of taking it away? How could great interfaces augment human intellect, not just by offering more power, but by maximizing what the human mind could absorb and react to?
To get some sense of what Weiser and Brown were up to, it helps to understand the context in which they were working . The environment at PARC in those days was both rigorous and wildly experimental . PARC's offices were filled with bikes, beards, and multidisciplinary nerds lounging on beanbags, passionately discussing the future of technology—not from a fearful perspective, but a deeply optimistic, humanistic one
Those beanbag chairs offer a good example of what made PARC an ideal place for humanizing technology. More than just a comfy place to lounge while pondering the future, PARC's beanbags were a calm but powerful tool for improving communication As the story goes, before they were introduced the engineers who worked there would often interrupt each other while writing out concepts on the blackboards, resulting in arguments, ideas left only partly expressed, and a general air of disruption . Alan Kay, a leading mind at PARC in those days, t Image courtesy of Dan Bricklin .
CALM TECHNOLOGY had the idea of replacing the chairs in a conference room with bean- bags, and worked with Lab Director Bob Taylor to make it a reality. The result was a space in which individual thoughts were given more time to make themselves known: by making it slightly more difficult for any one person to get up and go to the board, the beanbags gently directed the engineers to wait and reflect, rather than immediately interrupting as soon as an objection occurred.
Beanbag chairs in such a situation can be considered a Calm Technology because they induce an organizational tempo shift . Sitting in a bean- bag rather than a regular chair changes the tempo of one’s actions . You can’t help but move slower.
Technology writer Venkatesh Rao suggests that shifting tempo (http:// bit.ly/tempo-rao) within an organization allows one to do different things at different times (client presentation mode, get things done mode, launch mode, etc ) These varying tempos allow people to communicate across groups, and to think and do their work more effectively, by matching the pace with the demands of the task . Putting beanbag chairs in front of the chalkboards at PARC slowed down the tempo of the workers, allowing for a different type of thought work. Researchers were better able to get into a flow state with their thoughts and ideas, and their colleagues were forced to reflect more before asking a question or jumping up to collaborate .
PARC was the sort of place where passion projects were given wide scope, with the understanding that great breakthroughs often came from something as simple as a desire to do something really, really cool . Weiser himself was part of a band called Severe Tire Damage, formed with several other technologists from around Silicon Valley, who worked together to become the first livestreamed band in history* (they also "opened" for the Rolling Stones, exactly once, in 1994) . The streaming system Weiser and his colleagues used, called the Multicast Backbone, went on to spawn a revolution in digital media culminating in world-spanning services like Spotify and Pandora .
? "Rolling Stones Live on Internet: Both a Big Deal and a Little Deal ." (http://www.nytimes. com/1994/11/22/arts/rolling-stones-live-on-internet-both-a-big-deal-and-a-little-deal. htm)
These may all sound like small details or inconsequential anecdotes, but they also tell a lot about how different Weiser and Brown were from their contemporaries outside of PARC, and how it’s possible that they could have, in the mid-1980s, come up with a series of insights about human- technology interaction that are applicable today. A lot of what they did looks playful, and it was . PARC was a liminal space full of great people that provided a safe environment for new ideas, explicitly designed to counter the approach used by the standard companies of the day
Together, Weiser and Brown oversaw several research projects at PARC over the course of their years there, and gained a reputation for granting their teams exceptional freedom to explore both software and hardware capabilities They were, in many ways, great enablers, creating spaces for play and encouraging researchers to make things that didn’t—or couldn’t—exist anywhere else . Their goal, and the goal of their teams, was to create the future before it happened, and then consider its consequences for the larger world
Mark Weiser took on the role of lab leader at Xerox PARC in 1987. John Seely Brown joined the organization two years after that, in 1990, as director of the research center They had a fair bit in com- mon—both had earned degrees in computer and communication science from the University of Michigan, and both had a powerful interest in the way computing systems changed over time, and how that change could be managed
On October 5, 1996, after many years of invention and investigation, Weiser and Brown published a summary of their thoughts on the future of computing called "The Coming Age of Calm Technology. " Its remarkably prescient take on the role of technology in our lives is best summed up in this early passage (emphasis added):
The important waves of technological change are those that fundamentally alter the place of technology in our lives. What matters is not technology itself, but its relationship to us.
When interactions are calm, they argued, you’re not getting bombarded all of the time; you’re getting reassured . Great interaction design allows people to accomplish their goals at the lowest mental cost:
There is no less technology involved in a comfortable pair of shoes, in a fine writing pen, or in delivering the New York Times on a Sunday morning, than in a home PC. Why is one often enraging, the others frequently encalming? We believe the difference is in how they engage our attention.
Weiser and Brown’s paper, unfortunately, didn’t do anything like enumerate a series of principles to follow—it’s not a cookbook for creating Calm Technology. They did, however, write down a series of signs of Calm Technology. What would it be like if tech were calm? The two things they said were about the periphery:
- • Calm Tech empowers the periphery.
- • Through empowering the periphery, it allows us to attune to more than one thing without taking focus away from our primary task or our ability to be human
This book attempts to step in where Weiser and Brown left off, to provide a detailed guide to creating Calm Technology
We already live in an era of connected devices; we just don’t think about them that way We don’t often read articles on washing machines or go to conferences on them . But these devices are there . They’re powered by the first ubiquitous technology—electricity. This technology has been made invisible in our environment, so we see only the effects it has in enabling other technology to function What would the world be like if our computers and other devices were as invisible and maintenance-free as electricity is now? Technology as Weiser and Brown imagined it would bring us back into life instead of out of it, give us joy instead of anxiety, foster community, make us more human . They envisaged a future in which we use technology as a tool and aren’t used by it—where we use technology to create more than to consume, and where technology moves out of the way and reconnects us with the most important things in life: bringing us back to ourselves and our connection to other humans
We limit ourselves if we think of technology as being something separate from us . It is the most human thing we have ever created . It is an ecosystem we are intertwined with that evolved as we evolved . Humans and technology coproduce one another, and we can learn from each other. What Guy Hoffman did with his robots was to imbue them with smoother interactions . He didn’t create technology that tried to overpower us and make decisions for us . He made technology that could play in an orchestra alongside him, and improvise with him, looking back and forth between him and the instruments . Hoffman mentioned that we felt more love for appliances in the first 30 seconds of a Pixar film with a lamp in the title credit than we ever had for any appliances in our homes . And it was because of the way the appliances “acted.”
Calm Technology has a long way to go, but it’s time to start building environments and systems that work with us . Conserve what is good, and improve the rest . Individuals and small teams can go a long way when they’re motivated to make change, so create the change in technology you’d like to see in the world. Be patient and it will pay off
Ubiquitous computing just might help to free our minds from unnecessary work, and connect us to the fundamental challenge that humans have always had: to understand the patterns in the universe and ourselves within them.
MARK WEISER, 1996.