Future #61: Technology vs. technique

Alexis Lloyd
Ethical Futures Lab


We can have video games and we can have electric cars, but you probably shouldn’t put them together. This week, we look at how to tell the bad ideas from the good ones, how we might undo some of the worst ones to make things more humane for everyone, and the power and peril of small design decisions. Read to the end for one fantastical night in an airport!

— Alexis & Matt

1: “You can’t optimize for rest”

Moments of crisis often act as catalysts to question assumptions about how we live and work, and one could argue that we are in the midst of multiple such crises. Political crisis is causing fractures in our collective understanding of democracy and how we are governed. Climate crisis is causing a slow but steady reevaluation of growth-oriented capitalism. And the pandemic is causing many to question how we work and what role that plays in our lives.

The two pieces below explore the role of rest and leisure. A combination of culture and technology has led us to a place where most of us are working longer hours than ever, and many are operating in a mode of continuous burnout. Even our “down” time takes on the character of work with aggressive self-improvement. As described in The Guardian piece below: “Any time we scrounge away from work is to be filled with efficient blasts of high-intensity exercise, or other improving activities, such as meditation or prepping nutritionally balanced meals. Our hobbies are monetized side hustles; our homes informal hotels; our cars are repurposed for ride-sharing apps.” The values of optimization and productivity have infused our culture so deeply that we don’t know how to operate in any other mode.

Sacasas further explores the role of technology in this disordered state, and concludes that it is not technology, but “technique, the ruthless pursuit of efficiency or optimization, as an ordering principle has determined how specific technologies and protocols are to be developed and integrated into the work environment. The resulting system…is constructed in such a way that the human being becomes an impediment, a liability to the functioning of the system.” Concerns about the impact of new technologies on the human condition are often dismissed with the adage that people are remarkably adaptable and resilient. But Sacasas invites us to ask whether that adaptation is desirable, or whether we should approach technological interventions in ways that preserve the aspects of human experience that we value.

These two pieces together illustrate signals of a larger desire to reclaim the ability to rest, to value time with the same veneration we do money. As our approaches to work are currently undergoing upheaval and reinvention due to the pandemic, how might we intentionally design systems that reflect these more humane values?

You can’t optimize for rest | The Convivial Society

Time millionaires: meet the people pursuing the pleasure of leisure | The Guardian

2: How to tell the iPhones of the future from the Segways

How do we identify which innovations might succeed? What keeps one hot new idea from taking hold while other simpler (or even dumber) ideas catch fire?

Clive Thompson, a long-time braincrush of ours, perfectly framed the dynamics that make something likely to be The Next Big Thing. In the first piece, he discusses the two critical qualities of any successful invention: viability and desirability. Viability is simply the degree to which something is possible using current tech, or where there is a clear path to improving that tech in the near future. Ideas can be dormant for ages waiting for an underlying technology shift to suddenly make them viable, and great ideas are often those that are technically possible today, but with a clear and simple path to inexpensive ubiquity soon. Desirability is easier to understand — simply, do people want this — but harder to predict; it may come in the form of a real desire or problem to be solved, or it could be induced through clever marketing, hype, or coercion. One of the current debates around Web3 is largely about whether the current hype reflects a real desire, or if perceived desire is being artificially (and temporarily) inflated by an influx of VC capital.

To take this concept a step further, you can use viability as a way to identify potential innovations using a technique Thompson calls “prospecting.” We call it “scanning” but the concept is the same: to know where the near future is going you don’t need to focus on scientific research or academic journals. You can simply look around at signals of new behavior or tech — often in niche communities — and consider when and how that innovation will break into the mainstream, usually when it collides with a deep, latent desire, or with another piece of tech. This is the “long nose” theory: that something will be possible — and even for sale and in use — for a long time, until some event of consumer need or technological evolution suddenly catapults it into mainstream adoption.

When is a new tech ‘ahead of its time’ — or just doomed? | Clive Thompson

The ‘long nose’ theory of tech innovation | Clive Thompson

3: Designing for community participation

If you’re designing a community space, what safeguards are appropriate to ensure both openness and trust? This excellent Twitter thread from Nate Matias uses NYC’s decision to open up elections to non-citizens as a jumping off point for a deeper discussion on design for participation. Specifically, he looks at academic research on Wikis to understand the effect of barriers to entry on community participation.

As he puts it: “When designers talk about adding ‘friction’ to tech platforms or policymakers discuss citizenship requirements and other barriers to entry, they’re hoping the benefits of protection and trust outweigh the costs of exclusion created by these policies.” In other words, a barrier to entry — like a username or a driver’s license — might discourage some well-intentioned people from participating, the hope is that it’s more likely to discourage undesirable or malicious participation. In the case of a Wiki, that might look like spam, low quality edits, or malicious content.

However, the research Matias cites actually shows that this assumption doesn’t pan out: “Instead, Hill and Shaw found that when you introduce username barriers to entry on wikis, you do deter low-quality contributions (and even some attempts to disrupt the system) but ‘the vast majority of deterred contributions are of higher quality.’” This leads us to believe that, instead of trying to do quality control by constraining participation, it’s more effective to create other kinds of guardrails. As with a wiki, the role of a moderator becomes more crucial as participation expands, so that norms can be adhered to and quality contributions can be recognized.

Thread on barriers to participation in wikis and elections | J. Nathan Matias

4: Do you hear what I hear?

Shortly after the movie “Her” came out in 2013, Matt was in a conversation with a media executive about the future of audio and video, in which this person asked “So, when do you think we’ll all be wearing earpieces all the time?” The answer he gave was “whenever the tech is good enough and there’s enough reason to,” which is a non-answer, if we’re being fair.

If you’ve been out in the world lately you may have realized the same thing we did: that time is now, and creators are finding more interesting uses for audio in our every day environments. We were excited to read about PairPlay, an audio-based game for two that uses a single iPhone and a pair of AirPods that are shared between participants. Each participant is given different directions and information in secret as the game is played, like an audio version of the clue screen in an episode of $25,000 Pyramid. The games themselves are fairly light and simple for now — playing secret agents, or a high-tech hide-and-seek — but the applications of a differentiated yet communal audio experience are vast. Imagine getting prompts to help you behave like a difficult client for corporate training purposes, or roleplaying in a group game like Diplomacy, being fed new information or strategies based on your status and progress.

Our favorite aspect of this possibility is how it flips the idea of augmented reality on its head. In screen or glasses-based AR, a person is seeing the physical world with a layer of digital context superimposed; in audio-based AR, a person engages with the physical world directly, but with an added layer of context that is processed entirely in their mind.

Augmented Reality Is Coming for Your Ears, Too | Wired

5: Does it play Frogger?

Over the summer, Tesla delivered an over-the-air software update to its cars, giving owners the ability to play video games on its giant touchscreen display. I don’t think you need us to tell us why that’s not a great idea.

A new Tesla safety concern: Drivers can play video games in moving cars | The New York Times

6: The power of small design decisions

We got very excited about Lisa Maria Martin’s book, Everyday Information Architecture, when we saw Jeff Eaton tweet this excerpt from the introduction. In it, Martin discusses how a bureaucrat in Virginia’s state government in the 1920s upended many people’s lives when he reconfigured the labeling for who was considered “white” or not, in order to conform to his narrow views.

The framing here reflects the core concept behind Ethical Futures Lab. It’s all well and good to talk about ethics in the abstract, but as makers of things, we have outsized power in the everyday, detailed decisions we make. The label on a button or the organization of a database can shape the expectations, possibilities, and constraints for how people engage with the world around them. Making those daily decisions with thoughtfulness and intention goes a long way to creating a better, more humane experience for everyone.

This is the best opening to a technical book the world has ever seen and i will fight anyone who says otherwise | Jeff Eaton

Everyday Information Architecture, by Lisa Maria Martin

One joyful layover

Allison Robicelli was recently stuck overnight at O’Hare airport coming home from a press trip. Her excitement and positivity gave us a huge lift, and inspires us to greet all our setbacks with such enthusiasm.