Cyborg anthropologist Amber Case makes an argument for better, quieter design

In the innovation space, we see a lot of tech for tech’s sake. Amber Case is a proponent of the opposite. The author of a book on calm technology and a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society and the MIT Center for Civic Media, she studies the interactions between humans and computers, and how our changing relationship to devices is shaping the world.

PSFK founder and editor-in-chief Piers Fawkes had a conversation with Amber, who will be speaking at our CXI 2018 conference on May 18, about designing technology in an oversaturated age. Her counsel? Instead of making our machines ‘smart’—and hackable—we should be building quiet, efficient and long-lasting products.

Piers Fawkes: Can you tell us about the work you're focusing on right now?

Amber Case: I'm really into spray-on polymers that reduce the vibration inside of machines with mechanical components that make noise.

Whoa. Why would you want to do that?

Think about everything in your life that you have, if you have a heater or a cooler, or a fridge, or a sink, or anything mechanical that has a motor in it. You're sitting there in your flat, and it's noisy, and you can hear the fridge go on. You can hear the washing machine go on. You hear your clothes drying, and it's not quiet. It's in the way, and these are things you can't control.

By taking components and making them fit better, reducing air in the components, making the air flow or the vibration flow better, encasing things, you could make a blender that's quieter than what we're seeing right now by containerizing it.

One of the frontiers that I'm excited about is the opposite of where everybody's going. Less tech, smarter people, better fitting components, higher quality design, quieter products. You can make a ton of money on it and make classic stuff if you level design at the same level as your company.

You have to think through scenarios, and you have to be clever. But in the future, we will not have the capacity for failure that we have right now. If you make a dumb product and you get it out there, or rather, a ‘smart' product—I'm going to call them dumb products from now on—they are so easy to hack, and the surface area for hacking is exponentially expanding.

It's like a fractal surface that we have these products that are so prone to attack because they're poorly designed. How do we make better design practices using principles of calm technology and sound design to make things that break less?

I just took a car apart to check it out the other day. It was super fun, and I saw the sound dampening in it. A very high-quality car has sound dampening everywhere, and the cab is containerized so that people have this smooth experience, which will be very important for self-driving cars, because we'll be taking lots of phone calls in them.

Also, the way that the parts are fit together is you can use this really, really thin machine oil, and when the parts start to get old, you just use a thicker oil and you can have the car run for another 100,000 miles or whatever. If you have really poorly fitting components, they'll all break on you. Then you have to basically trash the car, or retool or refit all the components.

You talked about the fridge. We see all these fridges that have cameras inside and screens on the front. You're saying, “Don't worry about any of that. In fact, you're at risk for having that.” Instead, just find a way to get rid of the noise and keep it colder?

That's it. A super quiet fridge, super simple, fix it yourself. Who needs to know what's in their freaking fridge? Unless you're in food service, and then you know because you've labeled it. You have a process.

This is a first-world problem that means nothing. “Oh, the app tells me by taking my geolocation at all times when to pick up the milk and butter or whatever, and eggs.” I know how to do that. I don't need a $2 million venture-backed company that's going to leave my fridge stupid after it fails to tell me these things.

I don't need it to tell me that the bananas are bad and give me unnecessary notifications via machine. The banana peel tells me when it's bad. These problems are not crucial problems. The problems that we are going to have in the future are noise and efficiency. I want to buy a fridge that's quiet, and I want to buy a fridge that's efficient.

How can we reduce the amount of components in the fridge and make them solid state by 3D-printing titanium to make it really quiet? How do we, once that fridge is solid state, actually make it so that it cools more cheaply? People will buy these things.

Dyson made that hair dryer that's 600 bucks, but it's quiet. They just used Helmholtz cavities and all these super cool sound tricks in there, and bam. People are waking up their husband or wife in the morning with their hair dryer. Now you can use that.

We need to quiet down our machines. They need to break less. We are in the most disposable period of time. It's not just environmental. It's that people will not have the capacity to purchase all of these things continuously again and again in the future. These components will become very expensive, too.

We all got fatigue about putting a phone in our desk every year or two. With all these other smart technologies—the smart fridge—you can't hide it away and replace it.

That's why all these people are buying mid-century modern Smeg fridges or whatever. They're like, “OK, this works. Great, I got a fridge. OK, I'm done.”

What will you share at PSFK’s CXI conference?

Our world is made of information that competes for our attention. What is needed? What is not? We cannot interact with our everyday life in the same way we interact with a desktop computer.

The terms calm computing and calm technology were coined in 1995 by PARC Researchers Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown in reaction to the increasing complexities that information technologies were creating. Calm technology describes a state of technological maturity where a user’s primary task is not computing, but being human. The idea behind Calm Technology is to have smarter people, not things. Technology shouldn’t require all of our attention, just some of it, and only when necessary.

What will the audience take away from the talk?

How to design technology that makes better use of our time and attention. How to use and build technology in a way that lets us be human again.

Join Amber and other pioneering speakers for CXI 2018 on May 18 in New York City—details and tickets available here.

Lead Image: Amber Case. Photo by Daniel Root