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How To Design Technology That Degrades Gracefully

Technology should be designed to bring things into focus and make us calm, anthropologist Amber Case argues



How do we design this? How do we design a kind of calm technology? I've come up with a few principles and taken some of the principles and tried to really modernize them for how we're doing with the world right now.

One is that technology shouldn't be requiring all of our attention, just some of it, and only when necessary.

When you're in a car, everything in that car makes use of your secondary and tertiary attention to get your primary focus to stay on the road.

That means you use a foot pedal which we've completely lost. The first models had a foot pedal actually so that you didn't have to use your hand all of the time and get really tired.

Everything, from the rearview mirror, or the shifting stick, or anything is about glance ability. You can glance, get the information you need, go back to the road. This is a highly evolved technology that's calm and gets you to focus.

We don't have that because the minute we use our phone, we take all of the primary attention variables that we have, about where the cars are and where people are, and just drop them all and focus on our phone. Then we get into accidents.

The phones aren't designed like that. Our phones are designed like desktop computers. On a desktop computer, you sit, you look, you have screen real estate. It assumes that you have all this attention. Then, suddenly, we've taken that and made it mobile.

When you're trying to download an app in the supermarket before you get to the front of the line, and it's 500 megabytes and it's using all of your attention, it's broken. It's not made for bad network connections.

A teakettle is the perfect example of a Mark Weiser day, which is, you said it, you forget it, it calls you from another room when it's ready. You don't sit there watching the teakettle.

If we had made teakettles today, under the principles of how we design software, you'd have to Bluetooth your phone into it. It would tell you a status. Then it would interrupt you. Then it would post a Twitter or something like that. Your tea is ready. This person made tea sponsored by


Filmed at PSFK's CXI 2018 conference:

Calm Tech: