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Calm Technology

Amber Case studies humans and computers and how humans interact with computers. Some years ago I had the chance to hear her speak, and was moved by how she described our interface patterns with computers and computing, and how she accurately and adeptly assessed the cycles of computing trends in the industry. I finally got around to reading her book, Calm Technology, and have found it useful in my professional experiences.

Calm Technology is a book about how humans can and should interact with computers. I found the book to be not only a thought-provoking look at how to design technology for people, but also a fascinating historical look at a somewhat-forgotten element of computing history. Starting with Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) and the work done there on computing in the 1990s, Case starts by walking us through the waves of how we structure computing. The computing revolution first featured mainframes—centralized computing with connected terminals—before switching to the era of the personal computer. The cycle has reset as we move to cloud-native computing with mobile devices usurping the PC, though edge computing is moving us back again the other direction, with distributed computing being the next cutting edge. Whatever this means, what we can be sure of is that the number of devices is going to outnumber the number of people by 5-to-1, or more. So how do we plan for a world with 50+ billion devices? What will be our bottlenecks?

Case’s answer to this is to look back at an earlier era of computing, when the folks at PARC began studying how people interact with computers in a meaningful way. With so many devices, they posited, we’d not be limited by storage or memory or processing power or bandwidth, but by human attention. How, when one device is capable of completely monopolizing our attention, are we supposed to live in a world with many devices per-person? The solution, she argues, is to intentionally design technology that respects human attention. Calling this “Calm Technology,” Case then spends her second chapter setting out several principles of calm technology.

Among these seven principles are that “technology should require the smallest possible amount of attention” and “technology should amplify the best of technology and the best of humanity.” Using constructive examples of these principles in current practice, such as status lights on power plugs and colored indicators to compress information into rapidly-decoded passive indicators, she describes how technologists can and should think about designing for human intention. In particular, she spends significant time discussing speech and voice interfaces. She finds voice to be generally disruptive and problematic, arguing that voice interface requires too large a percentage of our cognitive capabilities to operate properly.

Her third chapter spends more time on these patterns, discussing everything from how to use lights to indicate status or meaning, to the tactile sensations of things like car stereo knobs. She discusses the contextual importance of things like status shouts—notification patterns for communicating critical and time-sensitive information, and how these should not be overused. Importantly, she discusses two under-utilized modes of communication: haptic feedback and ambient feedback. Both of these means of communication can give the user important information and can deliver it privately. I’m intrigued by these options, not least because notification saturation is an all-too-familiar pattern in my life; I’d like to see designers make better use of these modes and I’d like to see environments that use AI and machine intelligence to create more contextually-aware spaces.

Case’s fourth chapter provides a useful set of tools to evaluate technology design for its adherence to the principles of Calm Technology. These involve useful matrices and metrics for assessing technology design, and this flows nicely into her fifth chapter which discusses how to move an organization to one that embraces the phiolosophy. These chapters are extremely practical, perhaps too practical for just reading straight-through. Chapter 4, in particular, is a good interactive set of exercises. I’m curious to engage with some of these exercises with a designer at some point, and to see how I, as a data scientist, could design for these principles.

All-in-all, I think that the book is a useful and clever look at technology design. I think the book could stress better the importance of getting things right, and how non-calm technology can permanently damage its relationship with the user by being overly antagonistic and having no chill. How many of you have deleted an app that won’t respect your notification load? The book also needs some editorial touch-ups. Some of the chapter sections could flow better, and there are definitely copy-editing mistakes. But for a short book that makes you think a little about how we use technology in a holistic manner, I think it’s worth reading at least the first three chapters, which are short enough to do on a morning commute or two.

Author

EG

Emily is a data scientist and activist. The opinions shared herein are her own.