Technology for Humans

I have recently found myself a bit irritated by the way that current "web 2.0" startups are playing in people's lives. This isn't a, "technologists are evil and are trying to monopolize all our time" rant, but rather different: Is this it?

We have built these fabulous machines, and now, finally, some of us have begun to comprehend how they think — not in an empathic way, but an understanding of the abilities and limits these machines possess. This isn't an easy faculty: the data junkies at Walmart process whether their ability to tell if you're pregnant is scary for you, or Facebook engineers wonder where the line is between "creepy" and "expected," once our own thinking is circumnavigated by the logic of machines, it's difficult to see backwards through the eyes of the naïve. They have come to terms with the fact that machines will never think like we do, and we will never think like machines do. The conception of AI as a human actor is a 20th century anachronism; gone with it are those expectations in what we construct, and the futures we move towards. We recognize these machines will never be able to love, to prefer, to want, and so we go about hacking heuristics, ways for these machines to become things we can talk to, that can think, and can pass judgement for us.

It appears that we have not given up on this vision of computing in a very fundamental manner, neither in the mainstream, popular culture, nor the Ivory Towers, nor the meeting rooms of Silicon Valley. We have found that quantifying the essence of things is impossible — we can quantify price and size and weight, but how do we quantify all the pseudo-metrics along which we judge objects? Instead, we attempt to quantify humanity through technology: Which humans are like which others? If a human likes this object, will they like this object? If a human has this set of behaviors, what are they likely to do next? When we say "machine learning," these are the sorts of questions the machines are learning to answer.

This seems to be what the world thinks of when we remember Steve Jobs' infamous quote, "[The computer is] the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds."

Think about that interpretation for a minute: We believe in the computer as something that thinks, and seeks, for us. This is not all that dissimilar from how Vannevar Bush viewed machines in his seminal essay, As We May Think in, oh, 1945!




Have we not learned anything in 67 years?

But what if it's not so much about the computer making our steps more efficient, but rather, the places that we can get to on a bike?

Our approach was very different from what they called "office automation," which was about automating the paperwork of secretaries. That became the focus of Xerox PARC in the '70s. They were quite amazed that they could actually get text on the screen to appear the way it would when printed by a laser printer. Sure, that was an enormous accomplishment, and understandably it swayed their thinking. They called it "what you see is what you get" editing, or WYSIWYG. I say, yeah, but that's all you get. Once people have experienced the more flexible manipulation of text that NLS allows, they find the paper model restrictive. We weren't interested in "automation" but in "augmentation." We were not just building a tool, we were designing an entire system for working with knowledge. Automation means if you're milking a cow, you get a tool that will milk it for you. But to augment the milking of a cow, you invent the telephone. The telephone not only changes how you milk, but the rest of the way you work as well. It touches the entire process. It was a paradigm shift. Doug Engelbart

I don't have a problem with automation. I think it's wonderful. But I'm sitting here in the valley watching start up after start up churn out bicycle after bicycle, watching them construct evermore ways to fine-tune our lives as they are, we're having a hard time busting open the city walls, realizing that we can and should be traveling to entirely new places. We have a symbiotic relationship with computers, and that's something that we just have to accept. But, that doesn't mean that we can just let computers leech more and more from our worlds, we need to start leeching from theirs.

It starts with realizing the simple value in that — realizing that technologies can make us more human, not less. I adore Sep Kamvar's latest work, Mastery, and point to this:

The flipside was that the applications themselves were underwhelming. Most of them allowed users to do things like rank the attractiveness of their friends, send virtual hugs and have virtual pillow fights. The substance of the applications reflected what the metric left out. If it were possible to measure the value of a user's attention, or how enriching an application is to her life, the course projects would likely have been quite different. But sometimes, the important things can't be measured.

When I hear this, I can't help but think to myself, "this is what a machine would do." What are "virtual hugs" except an attempt to quantify the ultimate unquanitifiable, human affection? With the rise of the social web, in particular, we are so busy attempting to quantify and automate, that we forget that at the heart of this thing lies the human, a thing of follies and feelings and adoration and hatred. I have heard a cognitive scientist or two say that the conception of the human mind is driven by the technology of the day — Homo economicus isn't just something that exists with economists, but something that has slowly slipped into popular culture, as we conceptualize ourselves this way more and more.

But we know now that this is false — these computers will never think like us, and we will never think like them. So where can we get together? Two things:

  1. The use of cyberspace
  2. The use of technology and cyberspace in the physical world

Firstly, cyberspace is a wonderful, wonderful place, full of things that just possibly couldn't have existed before. It is full of ponies and unicorns and MAGIC! But in all seriousness, this isn't just odd subcultures. This is a celebration of humanity, in all it's strangeness. Technology, at it's best, is something that gets us to see the world differently, and not in a New Aesthetic type lens, but in the way that it enables us to scale distances effortlessly, to release pieces of our own creativity and imagination that we never knew, and see humanity as a diverse and thriving cesspool. Computers have created a global urbanism.

We are so busy crying foul at the way that computers have made us think like them, have chipped away at our humanity, and caused a "flight from conversation", that we don't realize the immense opportunity in front of us. We have got to start taking cyberspace seriously. "IRL" is one fantastic source of relationships and richness, but "URL" is another opportunity for enrichment and giving. I find the person who spends their entire life sheltered from this fantastic place as depressing and sad as you find the person who spends their entire life in front of the computer. When I think of cyberspace, and I think of the places it takes me, I think of Github, and DeviantArt, and Wattpad. These are outpourings of human creativity and ability, and we desperately need more.

We cannot afford to attempt to commodify conversation, either. Increasingly, it is machines that are shifting through the cruft of Twitter, taking away its tradition as an open, talkative space, and replacing it as simply another way of ranking and finding information. The same goes for Facebook.

Secondly, the use of technology in the real world is truly getting somewhere interesting. The rise of custom manufacturing and DIY is bringing toolkits of immense flexibility to the average person's hands. Tools like Makerbot, Arduino, and Techshop are just the first iteration, as we begin to explore what a world where the objects around us are not centrally designed and manufactured, but rather, reflect the true diversity of the populace. These objects will not just be useful, or self-expression appropriated from others' vision, but rather, reflections of our own creativity and being. When we interface with the work of designers, we will do so not just as consumers, but rather, co-creators. In many ways, these objects will be even more human than when we built these objects on our own, because these objects will be social. These objects will be a conversation between designers, as socially influenced as our own thoughts.

Collaborative consumption is one of those buzzwords people have slowly fallen in love with — we're sharing cars! Textbooks! Clothes! But that's not very interesting to me; it strikes me once again as the "computing mindset" clouding our thoughts. Are goods the most interesting thing we have to offer one another? There's a second type of collaborative consumption that begins to use the power of technology to connect people in more meaningful ways. The collaborative consumption poster child, AirBnB was driven by this, partially. The stories you hear aren't just about visiting some place else, but rather, experiencing another person's world. I believe this is the kind of motivation of startups like Kitchensurfing, Indiegogo, and HowAboutWe. These startups are ones that from the get go, struck me as being very human. Their humanity is enhanced by the way they embrace technology, not detracted from. Specifically, they bring things into our real-world interactions that are far more enriching because of the way technology has been used to streamline the interaction: never before could I sift through things so quickly, looking for the things that truly inspire me.

This is not an attempt to say that the things that all of the things that are being done shouldn't be done, by any means. I appreciate the computing, seeking, and thinking that machines have begun to do for me. But we've got to realize that this isn't the most exciting technology is offering us. To make technology truly rewarding, we've got to realize our differences, and find a way to create a relationship that highlights what both partners are good at. I also truly believe that this is the technology that will win in the long run as well — the technology that helps us create meaning in our lives will end up being more rewarding in the long run, as well. We get tired of spending time with false friends, and we will get tired of trying to fulfill empty promises. The challenge is trying to make technology that is worth running towards, not from, when that moment comes. As a designer, and in whatever capacity I can be considered a "technologist," this is what I aim to do with my work. For now, we are still filled with awe, for the most part: "Look at me sharing this photo of me and this hot girl I talked to for thirty seconds at a party!" But I have enough faith in humanity to believe that we will tire of this eventually, and that it is already happening at the fringes. So, those that want to create futures aren't looking to the here and now, but rather this entire paradigm shift of the dominant role technology will play in our lives.

Since the invention of the desktop metaphor, computers have drawn inspiration from that old standby, paper and pencil. But paper and pencil are a tool and technology, one that interfaces with us so well that we don't even think of it as such. This is a technology that does not do our work for us, but rather, makes us better. Practically every technology has arisen from this first: our human ingenuity, combined with the way that paper and pencil have enabled us to take it faster, further. Technologists should draw inspiration from that, as well: building tools that enable us to do more with this endless source of creativity.