Calm Tech, Then and Now

re:form interviews John Seely Brown on the paradox of information overload and designing for the periphery

Aug 11, 2014 · 13 min read

“In the twenty-first century the technology revolution will move into the everyday, the small and the invisible. The impact of technology will increase ten-fold as it is imbedded in the fabric of everyday life. As technology becomes more imbedded and invisible, it calms our lives by removing annoyances while keeping us connected with what is truly important. This imbedding, this invisibility, this radical ease-of-use requires radical innovations in our connectivity infrastructure.”
Mark Weiser

More than twenty years ago, then-Xerox PARC chief technologist Mark Weiser began articulating a prescient vision of the next wave of digital technology. His concept of Ubiquitous Computing, or Ubicomp, anticipated the arrival of tiny networked sensors and the Internet of Things. More radically, he saw the resulting explosion of information leading to a new “calm” design movement as an antidote to the far more common experience of tech rage brought on by poor user experiences and data overload.

Weiser died of cancer in 1999 at the age of 46, but his ideas seem more relevant than ever. re:form sat down with Weiser’s PARC colleague John Seely Brown to revisit the origins of calm technology design, and its subsequent arc. We’re also republishing by permission a joint paper by Weiser and Seely Brown, “The Coming Age of Calm Technology.”

re:form So to kick things off, I just want to mention this interview is the result of some research we were doing for a new design collection that we started on Medium. It’s called re:form and, full disclosure, it is sponsored by BMW…

John Seely Brown: That’s what I got here? [Looking at computer]

r:f This has just been up for a couple of days. Anyway, we came across your paper with Mark Weiser at Xerox PARC from 1996, “The Coming Age of Calm Technology.” And we thought, wow, that’s very prescient, yet seemingly very little discussed these days despite increasing information overload and tech rage. Maybe it’s time to bring those ideas back into the design conversation.

JSB: I started to laugh when you showed me the logo. [Full disclosure: JSB and Weiser used to drive BMW motorcycles.]

r:f Really? Why’s that?

JSB: Because when we first did a lot of these articles, we were talking about motorcycles. I happen to be a motorcycle fanatic. The amount that has actually influenced my personal thinking on this topic is astronomical.

[It] was important for two particular reasons, the first one has to do with ABS brakes and is the most beautiful example of calm computing because you’re completely unaware it’s there. Then it figures out when you need help and anticipates when you need help. It’s an interesting notion of anticipatory context, where micro sensors on a wheel tell when things are skidding and a few things like that.

And then it seamlessly moves in from the periphery to the center, helps you, and then backs out again. You know, it used to be my pun. I would say, “Here’s a kind of conversation we never have when you walk into a [motorcycle] shop or any car shop. ‘What operating systems are running?’” I mean it doesn’t compute at all.

Of course a car does have an operating system, but you never think about it, let alone what are the algorithms that are actually scheduling the way that the ABS brakes come on and operate. And so the whole beauty of this is, here is tremendous technology that is dramatically enhancing your ability to drive in a wide variety of conditions that you’re completely unaware of. But it brings us into calmness, too. So that was one origin of designing technology for calmness.

The second origin of calmness again comes from [motorcycles]. I used to drive Skyline Drive on a motorcycle and one day I realized—because we tend to drive down that twisty stretch very fast—and I suddenly recognized one day that I was processing so much more information riding a motorcycle down Skyline Drive than anytime sitting in front of that one, two, three, or four screens sitting around me.

And yet, I never felt any information overload. Why? Then I again began to realize that lo and behold, if you are still alive and a motorcyclist, that you are doing a very good job processing the periphery, as well as the center. And suddenly I began to realize that the way you cognitively process the center has to do with the standard ontology of objects and predicates. You notice things.

But the way you process the periphery is you might notice qualities, but you don’t know what things those qualities are associated with. So for example, you detect motion. You don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s the case that you don’t care what it is, because what it really does is it takes a weak signal in the periphery and alerts the center. It says, “You’ve got to be prepared to pay attention,” and it actually lets you shift seamlessly to bring that part of the periphery into the center, and helps do a very fast context switch.

You know, all the times you’re a good motorcyclist, you are processing huge amounts of weak signals in the periphery, but you don’t even necessarily think about it. And it is a tremendous sense of calmness in the way you’re streaming through the hillside at 100 miles an hour or more, depending where the curves are. That stuff is flying at you fast and furiously, but you’re completely in sync.

It’s kind of a sense of harmony with the world you get on occasion. People used to get…they’d come up to us and they’d say, “I don’t want calm. I want exciting.” I said, “Calm and exciting can go hand in hand. What you don’t want is to be bogged down with bullshit.” And so what we’re interested in is that.

The thing that brought initially Mark and me together was phenomenology, and the whole sense of that is totally true. Take a blind man and give him a cane, preferably his cane. And he’s sitting in the chair and he can tell you everything about the handle on the cane. As soon as he gets up, he starts walking, that handle completely disappears and it becomes much more like my wrist. Very few of us can tell you about the feeling that protocols between this junction here [points at his wrist]. It completely disappears.

And so we were then kind of interested in what enables technology to profoundly disappear and let you look through the information, look through the interface onto the domain. Just like the blind man does, his eyes are now touching the concrete, so to speak. Of course, ears have to play a part. So we were exploring that sense of why can’t we design technology that lets us look through the screen instead of at the screen, and then move with the information as if there’s no screen there.

And the more we started thinking about this, we were led to this counter-intuitive idea. Mark said we will always feel information overload unless we up the amount of information that we have to process by a factor of at least 10.

If you go by a factor of 10, you then stop thinking about putting more stuff on screens. You start thinking about something else and that’s what got us thinking much more about how are you processing the total context. And then that is the simple example that led to why we became fascinated by the twirling string. Because if everything is working, you don’t pay any attention to it at all.

But as soon as there’s a problem, it becomes the focus. For example, your machine starts to slow down. Don’t forget, everything was on the Ethernet back in those days. You’re wondering, is there another machine on the network? Is that why you don’t have the Ethernet? You listen to the string, and then you become attuned to the string. So it’s the sense phenomenologically speaking of how do you become attuned? Attending and attunement are slightly different.

r:f And then you notice the deviations.

JSB: Right. And it’s the same way that you might notice come lunchtime, you could be hard at work at a conference. But suddenly you’re aware of…

r:f People getting up and moving?

JSB: Yeah. Moving by you, even if this window’s closed. You’re just aware that the noise now is signaling a change…you start processing differently. So those are the kinds of factors that we were looking at.

In computer science, even user interface people talk about user “centric.” Most user centric focus is on how do I look at the GUI [graphical user interface], and how I display information — always in the center—to make it most intuitively graspable. And eventually, how do you create dynamics to that center, so you start to understand trends of things, and so on and so forth?

r:f So let’s go forward now and say could you imagine this device [points at iPhone] being at the center? Basically a PC in your pocket?

JSB: And we did. In fact, I think it was 1998. Comdex, where I actually gave a keynote, and showed the stuff that Roy Want had done working with Mark and myself. We actually embedded all kinds of MEMS accelerometers into a PDA in the cell phone those days. And actually showed a Rolodex that…

r:f That flipped the page.

JSB: Well actually tilted it. So there’s a whole sense here of the most obvious extension is once you have accelerometers and now of course they do more than that with cameras, et cetera, now you and the interface get to have a conversation. And that becomes a whole new world and now you’re seeing Amazon’s taking it much further than any of us ever thought in some of their newest phones. It has taken this whole notion of tilting to the extreme. But phenomenologically speaking, you and it are kind of in a conversation, you are kind of unaware that there’s an actual interface. It’s kind of like you’re having…especially if you’re Italian, you’re having a gestural conversation. And it’s a great feeling.

r:f So how far do you think we’ve come in terms of designers understanding and working on the problem, and solving some of the problems of calm technology? Would you consider a device like Google Glass a step in the direction of calm, as you described it earlier, in the sense of seeing through the information, past the screen?

JSB: There are a lot of reasons Google Glass is interesting. Why I consider it interesting relative to this conversation is something I’ve never talked about much and it’s how Google Glass leverages Google Now. That’s to say Google Now is wrapping up so much about you, if you’ve been using it all the time in Gmail and all that kind of stuff, that it’s capable of anticipating what you need.

So it’s what I’m going to call the “beginnings of an anticipatory system.” That means that I don’t have to tell Glass much. I mean because Glass is not a keyboard. It has pretty simple stroke interface, and sure, it does limited speech recognition, but that depends on being able to guess about what you’re going to ask them.

So it’s anticipating and that anticipation is a kind of context awareness. In that sense, it’s wrapping up the context very much like the periphery is doing in the periphery/center distinction. Except it’s using a completely different set of cognitive mechanisms, I think, than what we’re used to in terms of how the periphery vision actually does work. But it just strikes me as that is the first attempt that Google Now, for the purpose of Google Glass, is building and amplifying an anticipatory system. It is a huge step, completely transforming my experience of interacting with the world behind me.

r:f And then there’s the world in front of you…it feels like Google Glass is an enraging technology for many people in terms of being on the other side of that screen when people encounter it. Is that part of your concept of designing calm technology, in terms of attempting to address how devices can be enraging, for example, to parents when their children are constantly absorbed in their phones?

JSB: No. That’s why I took a slice. I’m talking about how do you build context over our systems and the anticipatory part of that has nothing to do with what enrages people. In fact, you could build an anticipatory system like Glass without even there being a lens, a normal lens, on a camera.

It could be very interesting if you put in only a fundamentally defocusing lens. So it’s actually picking up qualities, not objects and predicates. I know we haven’t tried that. It’s a random new idea, but I mean it’s interesting. So you may be able to have devices that don’t intrude. What I’m talking about now is people thinking that they’re being photographed. And we can do a lot of things to mitigate that, like putting a defocusing lens in a machine running behind it. You’d be surprised what you might be able to do…

r:f So what areas of design and development do you see where calm technology is being most actively developed right now? What is not being developed where it ought to be?

JSB: Well let me go back to your field here. You may or may not know that my first book is called the “Social Life of Information.” There is in the very structure of the book a guide of exactly how to use the book, all the affordances that this physical artifact provides you that are basically all subliminal that you don’t necessarily think about directly.

And the design of that artifact is achieving an amazing sense of communication and in some sense to a lot of us, a calming factor. For someone who lives with electronic books, I have a hard time getting used to the fact that many of the cues that I personally have brought up to use subconsciously just aren’t there.

I see electronic book readers trying to keep up on that and sometimes create fundamentally new forms that help to compensate for the lack of these kind of cues that those of us that love physical books come with. So I think if you’re beginning to take much more seriously the broader field of affordances and how do I design the affordances around me in the new medium that provides me some of the cues that the old medium provided me in terms of this reading context, not content. We tend to overlook the generative dance between context and content.

r:f That’s interesting. Medium’s been sort of unofficially connected to, I don’t know, when does something become an actual movement? But people have used these phrases together, which are “calm reading,” and “calm reading movement” where people are talking about taking web pages, stripping them down, removing a lot of the clutter, really focusing on a much cleaner space for reading, much more inducive to engagement and focus. Medium pages are designed that way.

JSB: That’s really one aspect of making it calm. There are a lot of other factors that go into the subliminal affordances, affordances that one may want to look at. The actual page layout matters, how that page gets read. Now you can control that pretty much in the way you do it. But then go up to the next level. You look at the page layout of a newspaper. How do you decide what story should be adjacent to what story? So how do you kind of orchestrate serendipity?

Well-designed newspapers—we don’t have much of anymore. Designers of that front page understood stuff happening above the fold versus below the fold, how things were adjacent that would capture your eye that you wouldn’t necessarily think you wanted to know about, but capturing enough of it to say, “Oh.” So it would actually orchestrate serendipity for you. But to orchestrate serendipity, you have to be a damn good designer.

r:f A lot of that work’s been handed over to algorithms on the web and streams of information and information flows where you’re pulling lots of disparate information together and it’s self-stitching and it’s ordered in different ways, not just recency, which it is in a lot of cases. People try to use social signals of, “My friends reading this article” and so on. We’re trying to delve into some of this as well.

JSB: Yeah. I mean those are complimenting the sources that designers used to use. I mean there are good algorithms also that do smart page layout of newspapers today and you use all the additional information you’re talking about as well to do that. You don’t play with fonts much and this is particularly on my mind since I’m just in the process of finishing up a fairly major book with a co-author of mine, and a huge amount of work right now is how we’re designing the artifact, designing the book.

r:f What’s your new book about?

JSB: It’s called “Design Unbound.” It’s designing for Americans. So it’s trying to take design to the next level up.

r:f When you talk about designing calm technology, is sounds like a prescription for using technology to solve the problems of technology. Would you say that’s fair? Some people might say it is a cultural shift that’s required to get control of our devices and our information obsession, and not so much a problem of more and better design engineering.

JSB: I wouldn’t say technology is going to…we never viewed technology as solving the problem. We always viewed technology as a complicating factor often, but design is rarely informed, and that’s the whole thrust of this new book. It’s really re-thinking the design game, up-leveling our relationship with technology with better design thinking. So I think that this is a sense that the need for design as the world gets more and more complicated goes exponentially up. And sometimes you’ve got to really break paradigm and think about design in brand new ways.

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Photos by Talia Herman


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