Luke Robert Mason: You’re lis­ten­ing to the Futures Podcast with me, Luke Robert Mason.

On this episode, I speak to cyborg anthro­pol­o­gist, Amber Case.

Calm tech­nol­o­gy is the idea that the scarce resource in the 21st cen­tu­ry is not tech­nol­o­gy, it’s our atten­tion. And how tech­nol­o­gy takes advantage—or not—of our atten­tion, is some­thing that we can change.
Amber Case, excerpt from interview

Amber shared her thoughts on new forms of inter­ac­tion between humans and com­put­ers, how we can design with sound, and the emerg­ing field of Calm Technology.

This episode was record­ed on loca­tion in London, England, where Amber was due to give a keynote presentation.

Luke Robert Mason: So Amber, I know you as the Cyborg Anthropologist. What is Cyborg Anthropology?

Amber Case: Cyborg Anthropology is a sub­sec­tion of the anthro­pol­o­gy of sci­ence. The idea behind it is to study how tech­nol­o­gy affects cul­ture and how humans co-create each oth­er with our exter­nal objects.

Mason: And what work were you doing in that space? I remem­ber you gave the very well known talk We’re All Cyborgs Now’. Do you still believe that we’re all Cyborgs Now’, or do you think there’s some­thing more nuanced going on?

Case: Of course we’re all Cyborgs Now’. We don’t have to be Terminator or RoboCop. These ideas that we have in our head, aes­thet­i­cal­ly, of these mil­i­tary machines come from film—because orig­i­nal­ly we had humans ver­sus nature, and it was a pret­ty easy nar­ra­tive to show in a play. You could have a tor­na­do; you could have a rain­storm; you could have ambi­ent sounds—but once we had the indus­tri­al rev­o­lu­tion it was man ver­sus machine. How do you show that on stage? How do you show that in film? Well, you need to make a robot in the shape of a human, and have them fight on the screen. And that’s where we got the idea of robots—Rossum’s Universal Robots. And we had ear­ly on in The Wizard of Oz, we had all these machine men. The Wizard of Oz is kind of the science-fiction idea of the indus­tri­al man—the Tin Woodman. Does he have a heart? Does the Scarecrow have a brain? He’s the farmer in America at that time, and this was writ­ten in 1901, so it’s a kind of science-fiction idea of the tran­si­tion from agri­cul­ture to the indus­tri­al rev­o­lu­tion. What does that mean? How are things shaped over time? Where are we, and what’s the future for us?

Mason: So you were say­ing back when you gave this pre­sen­ta­tion that the mere rela­tion­ship between us and our mobile devices makes us Cyborgs.

Case: Yeah, that we’ve been Cyborgs since we start­ed exter­nal­is­ing our evo­lu­tion out­side of our­selves. So for instance, a ham­mer is an exten­sion of our fist; a knife an exten­sion of our teeth; and then cave paint­ings, an exten­sion of our brain. We had these kind of sta­ble exten­sions of our phys­i­cal selves. A ham­mer has­n’t real­ly changed size, or shape, or func­tion over the last few mil­lion years—and yet writ­ing has cer­tain­ly changed shape. It’s changed size; it’s changed car­ri­er; it’s changed from the print­ing press over to send­ing some­thing over the air­waves, send­ing some­thing over com­put­ers. And so this exter­nal­i­sa­tion has increased in accel­er­a­tion, and often what we think is the norm—everybody hav­ing a cell-phone in their pock­et for instance—that was not the norm 15 years ago. And even if it was, it was for busi­ness peo­ple, or it did­n’t have a cam­era in it—it was­n’t this multi-sensory device that we now have, these multi-external sensors.

And the word Cyborg actu­al­ly comes from a 1960 paper on space trav­el, in which we attach exoge­nous com­po­nents to our­selves for the pur­pose of adapt­ing to new ambi­ent spaces. Basically, some­body in a space­suit is the ulti­mate Cyborg. Humans are not sup­posed to be in space, but when they are in space, they’re able to sur­vive because of these feed­back mech­a­nisms. A lot of this infor­ma­tion came from the Macy Meetings in the 40s. In the 1940s, these anthro­pol­o­gists and tech­nol­o­gists got togeth­er and said, At some point, tech­nol­o­gy will get small­er and small­er and be part of our every­day lives. What’s going to hap­pen at that point in time? We’ve lost some con­cepts, like in cyber­net­ics, of the feed­back loop, yet those are the most suc­cess­ful auto­mat­ed sys­tems that we have today”—they’re not, Hey, we’re our own eco-system out­side of our­selves; we’re humans and not nature”. It’s the idea of a human and a com­put­er work­ing along­side each oth­er in a feed­back loop, improv­ing the results, improv­ing the com­plex­i­ty of the sys­tem. That feed­back loop, that gets bet­ter over time, is much more of a nat­ur­al sys­tem than say­ing, Oh we have the solu­tion, here is a black box of AI—just throw it at your com­pa­ny and every­thing will be fine.”

We’re look­ing at Facebook and Gmail auto-reply. There’s these Gmail sug­ges­tions now, where you have three items, where it says, Oh, you know should I say yes, thank you very much’, or sounds good’ ”, that you can just use to start your email. It’s not try­ing to respond entire­ly for you, and it’s giv­ing you choic­es, because the moment a machine gives you choice and you pick a spe­cif­ic choice, it’s improv­ing that mech­a­nism over time. That feed­back is incred­i­bly impor­tant, and that’s some of the things that we’ve lost when we say, Robots will take over the world and they’ll make all of our deci­sions for us”—unless we’re going back to that poem where it says, And the future will be a cyber­net­ic dream­land all watched over by machines of love and grace”. Where we had from the 60s in San Francisco these ideas of the aug­men­ta­tion of self, we don’t real­ly have that as much any­more. We have, Weren’t we promised a future in which we reached tech­no­log­i­cal com­plex­i­ty, that was so good that we would­n’t have to work any­more? That we’d have more free time?”. Yet our devices are more media con­sump­tion devices now, and it kind of expands like a gas to fill all of the avail­able social space that we have.

We were promised some excess of time; more reflec­tion; ampli­fy­ing what machines do best so that we could have our own ver­sion of art—yet peo­ple want to auto­mate every­thing. Do you want to auto­mate hang­ing out with your kids? Do you want to auto­mate a sun­set? Do you want to auto­mate enjoy­ing some­body’s wed­ding? No—absolutely not. Yet, with this automa­tion cul­ture, peo­ple are fear­ful of it tak­ing over absolute­ly everything.

Mason: So where do you think we lost some of that agency over the sort of future that we want to live in? It seems—at least to me—that we’re giv­en these very defined, very lim­it­ed options of how we can be. How do we demand more options, rather than demand less and be giv­en less, only because that makes us more easy to under­stand as robot­ic enti­ties rather than human entities?

Case: I do feel like a lot of us are on pause and just turned into data, basi­cal­ly, for the pur­pos­es of, Oh, you’re this kind of data shape. This arti­cle on Facebook will make you angry. And when you’re angry, you will click more on this site, stay longer, and we’ll get our adver­tis­ing rev­enue.” We can trace this all back to pub­licly trad­ing com­pa­nies that are required to grow over time, 35% or even more. They have to keep sat­u­rat­ing and mak­ing sure there’s new mar­kets. Why else would Facebook want to go into Africa and give peo­ple WiFi, unless there was some eco­nom­ic incen­tive for them?

Once you reach mar­ket sat­u­ra­tion you have to keep going. How do you keep going? Well with Google, if you do a self-driving car, you might get 30 per­cent more time on Google when some­body is in a car because they don’t have to dri­ve, right. It’s open­ing up time. But the idea of a pub­licly trad­ed com­pa­ny work­ing as an enti­ty with its own rules out­side of humans? That is an algo­rithm. That’s a pro­gramme. That’s AI. And what peo­ple don’t under­stand right now, is I think we’re already in a world of AI. We already have plen­ty of search engine robots that give us sug­ges­tions of results that we choose from, but we as indi­vid­u­als are gov­erned by these sys­tems that are no longer just governments—they’re actu­al multi­na­tion­al cor­po­ra­tions, and if you don’t do well in those cor­po­ra­tions, some­one else will take your place, because peo­ple are now in sit­u­a­tions where liv­ing is so expen­sive, that they have to work, and there’s real­ly not a lot of oth­er options.

If you go inde­pen­dent, then you end up get­ting spon­sored by these large com­pa­nies. If we look at Generation—there is no longer the idea of sell­ing out. Selling out used to be horrible—now you want cor­po­rate spon­sor­ship. Oh, I became a Tommy Hilfiger mod­el. This is amaz­ing.” Right? And all of your friends are, Oh, I’m so sup­port­ive of you, that’s fan­tas­tic.” You don’t have the punks being like, Well he sold out, man, what the hell. That’s so dumb”.

Mason: The goal of a YouTube star or an Instagram star is to get that brand spon­sor­ship. They’re almost court­ing the orig­i­nal sys­tems of control.

Case: Absolutely, I mean they’re shap­ing them­selves to look like the adver­tise­ments that have been giv­en to them, so that they can work in that indus­try. The issue is: how long does that last? How long do you get as a YouTube celebri­ty? How long are you able to buy the newest aes­thet­ic? Are you buy­ing pre-worn items so that there’s a sense of authen­tic­i­ty, or are you actu­al­ly build­ing these items your­self? A lot of these sub­cul­tures now are just pur­chas­ing the aes­thet­ics to get into them, and for­get­ting the ideas behind it, and the philoso­phies behind it that led those aes­thet­ics to show up in the first place.

Mason: So do you think, to a degree, our dri­ve to opti­mise the inter­face has left some­thing behind in terms of aes­thet­ics? It feels like those sys­tems are designed to have a cer­tain sort of user expe­ri­ence and the only aes­thet­ic cues inside of those sys­tems are there to help us click more, or engage more, or stop, and pause, and con­sume more.

Case: I would say that Facebook is def­i­nite­ly an indus­tri­al spread­sheet game. We’re all just data­base ani­mals look­ing at row one, col­umn three, and plus one like, plus one com­ment. Ah this is great, I have the equiv­a­lent of social groom­ing, you know, exter­nal­ly, that’s attached to feed­back loops in my brain that give me dopamine. Even though no-one’s actu­al­ly touch­ing my hair, I feel as if I am close to some­body and my val­ue is inter­twined tem­porar­i­ly with this”. And that becomes weird because it means we’re in this very…the times­lice of our cul­ture, is these tiny, tiny pieces of time, instead of this longer term time. We don’t have the idea of work­ing on some­thing for 10 years and hav­ing that grow over time, because if you do, you end up see­ing the out­put, or plac­ing the out­put on some­where like Reddit, and then peo­ple are con­sum­ing it, and with­in sec­onds it can be excit­ing or go away, and you have to cap­ture that val­ue imme­di­ate­ly and hold onto it for as long as you can. But if you go back to Doug Rushkoff’s orig­i­nal Merchants of Cool—the idea of this oroborus, this feed­back loop. The snake eat­ing its tail is that the minute larg­er soci­ety and these larg­er com­pa­nies find out what’s cool and sell it back to peo­ple, then it becomes uncool.

Oddly enough I think we’re see­ing some­thing a lit­tle bit new, where the com­pa­nies are fig­ur­ing what’s cool and they’re sell­ing it back to them, and they’re also pro­duc­ing what’s cool—but the cool­ness is stay­ing firm­ly root­ed in the com­pa­ny, and the con­sumers are actu­al­ly par­tic­i­pat­ing in that feed­back cul­ture a lit­tle bit more, instead of it being, Oh, it’s hor­ri­ble now that it’s been co-opted by a com­pa­ny”, it’s, Oh, now it’s a cel­e­bra­tion of that com­pa­ny, and now I appre­ci­ate that com­pa­ny more”. I think there’s a lit­tle bit of a brand spe­cial thing where you want to be part of these brands and come home to them, and they’re pro­vid­ing you more mean­ing in your life than maybe your fam­i­ly or your friends, or you’re mak­ing friends though these feed­back loops and you’re get­ting sold this thing back to you—but, it’s OK now.

Mason: To a degree we want to go back to some­thing that’s com­fort­able or calm, and that’s some­thing in our child­hood. It feels like there’s no respon­si­bil­i­ty any­more, or mil­len­ni­als have no respon­si­bil­i­ty for their own actions—therefore they rely on brands to tell them what to do, and that feed­back loop self-reinforces the fact that they’re doing the right thing.

Case: I’ve been think­ing about this a lot because, well, I played Pokemon ear­ly on, and I trad­ed Pokemon cards. And I was a lit­tle bit old­er than the demo­graph­ic, because i got intro­duced to it real­ly ear­ly though a Japanese friend, and I played it in Japanese on a Gameboy—and then I got to play the English ver­sion. So I was a lit­tle bit old­er, because I was the tar­get demo­graph­ic just a few years before it came to the States, and then I would go to Toys R Us, and do the Pokemon trad­ing card game and all those things.

It was real­ly fun, but I think there’s some­thing going on, where, for the most part—living is very expen­sive, peo­ple have to hold two jobs now, there’s mas­sive stu­dent debt because we’ve all been told that we need to go to col­lege. Thankfully, I knew ear­ly on that I’d have mas­sive stu­dent debt so I tried to get as many schol­ar­ships as I could. I grad­u­at­ed in 2008 in the States, which is just career suicide—how you’re sup­posed to build some­thing. So I had to build some­thing from scratch, and it was a lot of, just, sur­vival for 10 years. I did­n’t get to have a sil­ly time in col­lege. I did­n’t get to have a sil­ly time in my 20s. It was all work. Because I found if I did­n’t do that, I had noth­ing else, and I would­n’t sur­vive, and I just could­n’t be set­tled with all this debt because my parents—you know—were in debt too, and so I did­n’t want to live like that again. I was so upset about that.

But you have a group of people—and you can see this in Japan, where, what’s the option? Either you work, you can nev­er afford a house, and it’s real­ly dif­fi­cult to afford a fam­i­ly, and you have no sup­port, and then you’re not even going to have retirement—why even do any­thing? So if you go back to a peri­od of time in which you did­n’t have those wor­ries and things were more sta­ble, Pokemon is fan­tas­tic. Suddenly, it rein­tro­duces you to your neigh­bour­hood and you have a rea­son to go outside—in a cul­ture in which you live in a con­do and you don’t know any­body in your neigh­bour­hood, because there’s no rea­son to do so. How many peo­ple have stayed in a place for long enough to know their neigh­bours and are with­in walk­ing dis­tance of every­thing? And if you are, you’re play­ing so much for your con­do, or flat, or apart­ment, that you don’t have any time to be there. So sud­den­ly you can go out­side and every­body is con­nect­ed to each other.

And of course, the game is still doing quite well. It’s just the plat­form it was built on, Ingress, has a num­ber of issues. First, if you’re in the mid­dle of nowhere you can’t get to all the Pokestops, because they stopped devel­op­ing more Pokestops, and there were a lot of issues with near­by Pokemon things like that. So we had this amaz­ing sum­mer where every­body was on the same page. You could talk to any­body in the city, because every­one was play­ing Pokemon. And it was real­ly cool—but you kind of see this nos­tal­gia for some­thing where things were a lit­tle bit sim­pler. People have these mem­o­ries, it was a sta­ble peri­od of time. Or there was this spe­cial cul­ture that you had that you can go back to.

But I was also think­ing what hap­pened to music? Where are all the new musi­cal move­ments? Where are we expe­ri­enc­ing change? You know, there’s exper­i­men­tal music and things like that. But where are we real­ly push­ing the bound­aries? Because a lot of the peo­ple who would have maybe made garage bands, gone over to band prac­tice at 16 or 15 or whatever—the minute you get a learn­er’s per­mit, you’re dri­ving to some­body’s house or they’re in your neigh­bour­hood and you’re bring­ing your equip­ment over and doing band prac­tice. All of those peo­ple are prepar­ing for school, for col­lege. They’re in tonnes of extracur­ric­u­lar activ­i­ties. Or, they’re in a city where there’s not enough room to have a two car garage to do some­thing like that. Or they’re not get­ting their learn­er’s per­mit or their dri­ving per­mit until lat­er, because every­thing has been geo­graph­i­cal­ly dis­trib­uted and all of their friends don’t live close enough—and so it’s eas­i­er to just con­nect to them through mobile devices.

So there’s a lot of dif­fer­ent things going on right now. I think that just the aes­thet­ics of the 90s is like, Oh this is great. Well, I can buy these clothes, and I can be in this State and have a fun time, because what else am I going to do? What does an adult look like today? How can you be one? What does it even mean? How can you live in your own house?”.

Mason: The researcher Simon Reynolds calls that—especially with music—calls that retro­ma­nia’, and I just won­der if we’re caught in a feed­back loop that is inescapable. There is no new’ any­more. We realise that yes, tech­nol­o­gy might work by more is law, but cul­ture does­n’t. Culture stays very much the same. Culture does­n’t have that same expo­nen­tial change built into it, because cul­ture is reliant on us humans.

Case: Although we did see cul­ture change a lot, for instance Queen Elizabeth’s out­fits in the 1600s and the advent of sump­tu­ary law. If you look at that peri­od of time, you had Merchant Class becom­ing more suc­cess­ful than The Crown and hav­ing more mon­ey, more dis­pos­able income. So Queen Elizabeth imple­ment­ed sump­tu­ary law, which was the idea of, You can’t wear a skirt this long. You can’t have that many ruf­fles. You can’t wear this colour”, as a way of tax­ing the up and com­ing Merchant Class, and a way of dis­tin­guish­ing The Crown from these new mer­chants, and so there was this mas­sive growth in all of these dif­fer­ent tex­tiles and items to wear, and if you look at the cloth­ing back then, it was absolute­ly ridiculous.

We kind of see that now with a kind of frac­tal aes­thet­ic. We have these inter­faces and these changes that are just aes­thet­ic, and they are hap­pen­ing at this kind of frac­tal lev­el where it’s a thing, with­in a thing, with­in a thing, with­in a thing is chang­ing, and all of it does­n’t mean any­thing at all. But it means so much because it’s with­in this sub­cul­ture that I’m fol­low­ing on Instagram, and it’s with­in that and with­in that, with­in that and it’s like…You even see it with jack­ets. You ever go, Oh, here’s a jean jack­et, but then there’s these patch­es, and then with­in those patch­es there’s this thing, and then with­in that…”—you know. Or there’s jeans. Now, it’s not just blue jeans—it’s many dif­fer­ent kinds of jeans, and so you have to have all of them, you know. It’s this fun­ny thing that’s hap­pen­ing, where the sur­faces are get­ting com­plex and then emp­ty­ing out again. I don’t know entire­ly what to make of it.

It’s just that we have lots and lots of options and we’re all expect­ed to be very good at these options, but when I walk down the street any­more I don’t see peo­ple mak­ing wild fash­ion deci­sions any­more. I see a very con­ser­v­a­tive, very glob­al aes­thet­ic and sump­tive pat­tern that is con­sis­tent almost every­where I go. Where you just have this kind of nor­mal­i­sa­tion of cul­ture, and who­ev­er push­es that aes­thet­ic real­ly hard in terms of norm-core’—it’s these giant Instagram accounts—but it’s not them say­ing, Ah look at this weird thing I made.” You know, you don’t have these punk bands who have just made these incred­i­ble risks, and they’re super weird. Where are the weirdo’s? Where is the 90s and 2000s aes­thet­ic of your cyber­punk, where the stuff hap­pened from scratch and we were mak­ing new weird sounds. Where are the sounds? Where’s David Bowie show­ing up say­ing, Oh, there’s this new syn­the­sis­er thing that Brian Eno is try­ing out”, or, Oh wow, there’s all these peo­ple in Brooklyn that are mak­ing this insane sound with their voic­es”? I want to get in on that. Where’s that happening?

I mean you look at Tune-Yards, and you have Grimes that’s doing super weird stuff, you know. But it’s so dig­i­tal. You know, it’s some­body sam­pling some­thing or record­ing some­thing in a clos­et in a hotel room, and send­ing it to some­body else. You know, they’re not even—you just see this French artist who is tak­ing all of these ana­logue instru­ments and jam­ming out and you get these things but again they’re not new sound­ing, really—at all.

Mason: Could that be, just going back to Cyborgs, could that be a lim­it of the human sens­es? So the Cyborg artist Neil Harbisson—he’s a col­or­blind artist who has an anten­na that allows him to hear colour. It vibrates his skull, and through bone con­duc­tion he has this new sense—that’s not quite hear­ing, but it’s a new sense, and he’s able to con­vert pre-existing songs into these sound-scapes. Now, as an indi­vid­ual who might not be wear­ing, or have an anten­na embed­ded into their skull, we may only be able to expe­ri­ence that musi­cal art piece visu­al­ly. We may only be able to see the colours, and I won­der whether we’ve reached a plateau with the human sens­es and now to tip over to the next new’, we’re gonna have to start manip­u­lat­ing our own bod­ies for the abil­i­ty to hear ultrasound—and that might be a new aes­thet­ic expe­ri­ence. I won­der what your thoughts are on that? On that extreme Cyborg who remoulds their sens­es for a new aes­thet­ic experience.

Case: I’m a real big fan of Neil Harbisson—and also Moon Ribas, because they’re using the con­cept of synaes­the­sia. They’re say­ing, Well, if I can’t expe­ri­ence this one sound or this one colour, I’ll trans­form it into a dif­fer­ent sense—and then my brain will re-map, and I’ll be able to feel that in a new way”. Moon Ribas has the earth­quake sen­sor, so when­ev­er earth­quakes are hap­pen­ing, she can feel them. I love that, you know.

So there’s this idea that you can just add anoth­er sense onto you, and per­haps that’s a way to go. I mean, the dif­fer­ence is that when you’re pro­duc­ing music…Like a lot of the pop­u­lar music today is a lot of elec­tron­ic music—because you can’t hear the full range when it’s com­pressed down over stream­ing on Spotify; through your ear­buds when you’re on pub­lic trans­porta­tion or a plane, and in a 95 deci­bel envi­ron­ment. When you hear? You hear some of the drums, and some of the real­ly sharp synths. So, to make music that sounds good with all that back­ground noise when peo­ple aren’t using noise can­celling head­phones or sit­ting in a real­ly nice liv­ing room or din­ing room show­ing peo­ple music, or sit­ting on some shag car­pet that’s absorb­ing all the reverb? Well, it’s a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent experience.

You’re not tak­ing time to lis­ten to a song and putting a mem­o­ry with it. You’re just con­sum­ing infor­ma­tion, which is why pod­casts are becom­ing real­ly great and ambi­ent music is becom­ing a real­ly big deal, because now peo­ple are in these non-places a lot of the time. A non-place which Marc Augé described as, Something where you’re a human on pause. You have no rela­tion to any­body else, no iden­ti­ty, and no his­to­ry”. Like an air­port; a shop­ping mall; a den­tist’s office; a com­mute. That’s these places where we need to feel like there’s some humans around—and so even when we’re in those non-places we put on some ambi­ent music or a pod­cast to make us feel like there’s some­thing there; to give us some rela­tion to some­thing else; to give us some his­to­ry. And so this becomes these things where we’re just try­ing to have some­thing with us so we’re not so…I mean, these spaces were giv­en to us from indus­tri­al time, right? We got real­ly stretched out, and geog­ra­phy did­n’t mat­ter as much, but we as humans got put on pause a lot. So I feel like there’s a whole new genre that might have been considered—like nerd music before ambi­ent spaces—or you know like more or harsh exper­i­men­tal stuff, that’s kind of push­ing the bound­aries. There’s more than just instru­ments in it, but lots of sounds sam­pled from the environment.

I like to won­der a lot about when we go to Mars, because we’re gonna have to…We’re gonna have to go to anoth­er plan­et, and it’s sad that peo­ple laugh about say­ing, We’re going to space”. That was not a joke in the 60s, that was a big deal. Even though it was for mil­i­tary pur­pos­es. It’s a real­ly impor­tant thing to do, but I’m won­der­ing when you’re…you know—when you’re going up and it takes 30 days to get to Mars or what­ev­er, and you’re gonna have to do some­thing to keep your­self com­pa­ny. People will prob­a­bly make a bunch of music, and it’s gonna be sam­pling the weird­est space nois­es. Like, how long will these songs be? What will they feel like? Will they give peo­ple? Right now the songs are like, OK, this is giv­ing you some joy”, or it’s giv­ing you some sad­ness, or it’s about heart­break. But what about the music that gives you a sense of empti­ness, or a sense of dis­com­fort? Like what about all the dif­fer­ent senses?

You know, there’s just a lot to explore, and I think there’s a kind of idea of safe­ty. We’re just gonna make a pop hit, then we’re gonna make a pop hit with some 90s stuff in it. Then we’re gonna use a syn­the­sis­er pat­tern from the spe­cif­ic syn­the­sis­er that every­body loves”. But I would encour­age peo­ple to look at, just go on Spotify and look at Body Shame’. It’s just like push­ing these bound­aries, and when you watch it live, it’s every­body stand­ing in front of an amp putting earplugs in, and feel­ing the sound. It’s like a son­ic mas­sage but you can feel all over your body. And weird­ly enough, it’s not the kind of music where it’s like, I’m gonna think over this music”. It wipes out all of your men­tal process­es, and you just go into a state of flow. It’s like Bam”. You know, there’s that, there’s bi-neural audio.

There’s all sorts of dif­fer­ent things you can do, and the book that I’m work­ing on right now with my co-author Erin Day—some of that’s about what hap­pens in the envi­ron­ment. If you take a deci­bel meter and you find out how noisy every­thing is, and how that builds up on you over time: You go to your favourite cof­fee shop and say, It’s real­ly hard for me to work in here”. I like the ener­gy of the peo­ple, but the back­ground noise is real­ly loud. Because this kind of roman­tic indus­tri­al move­ment where we have these very con­crete spaces and there’s no soft stuff makes the sound rever­ber­ate all around the room, and that actu­al­ly wears on you over time—and you can get super over­whelmed by these noisy envi­ron­ments. Whereas some of these cosier spaces, you know, you go to your Grandma’s house—“It’s real­ly cosy”. You know, it’s all this soft, plush car­pet. It does­n’t look as great, but it feels real­ly nice.

You know, so, we for­get that…we process our spaces so visu­al­ly that we for­get that sound is part of how some­thing feels, and we can improve these spaces over time. And there’s so many dif­fer­ent oppor­tu­ni­ties that we’re miss­ing, because we’re so focused on the visu­al chan­nel, and just try­ing to block stuff out—versus, you know. Everybody should have noise can­celling headphones—especially for plane trips. The amount of exhaus­tion that I expe­ri­ence after eight hours on a plane with noise can­celling head­phones and without—I did­n’t realise. I thought it was me just sit­ting there that was annoy­ing, but it was actu­al­ly my brain pro­cess­ing all the back­ground sound the whole time. My ears aren’t shut­ting off. And that just wears me down over time. It’s just excess ener­gy that I don’t need to spend.

Mason: Do you think there’s a fear of silence? The only time that we can have silence—we need to be guid­ed through that silence. In oth­er words, it’s med­i­ta­tion. So we need a med­i­ta­tive app, or we need a med­i­ta­tion guru, or a yoga guru to kin­da help us through silence. And then when we have extreme exam­ples of silence, peo­ple can’t spend more than, I think it’s 15 to 20 min­utes in there with­out going absolute­ly insane.

Case: I would encour­age every­one to read essays and look at John Cage’s work on Silence, because it’s fun, first off. You look at the kind of friends he had around that time, and what they were talk­ing about, and how they were exper­i­ment­ing, and how they were visu­al­is­ing these dif­fer­ent envi­ron­ments and their exper­i­men­tal work. That’s real­ly excit­ing. And what is silence? There is no real thing as silence unless you go out to space, and then you just have no mol­e­c­u­lar move­ment. I’ve been in these ane­choic cham­bers, at Bell Labs, at SONOS—all these dif­fer­ent com­pa­nies. And yeah, you go into them and you can hear the blood pump­ing in your ears, and I like them, you know. They’re great. But again, your brain is used to pro­cess­ing input, and if there’s noth­ing there, it’s weird. And as you get back into the world after 20 min­utes in that, every­thing feels real­ly loud and chop­py. Imagine right before you’re going to sleep, before your ears kind of turn off, every­thing gets kin­da weird, and loud, and dis­tant. Or if you’re real­ly, real­ly tired, every­thing sounds real­ly sharp and jar­ring. That’s what it’s like to go out of one of those cham­bers, after you’ve had no input for a while.

There’s those lit­tle baths, where it’s sen­so­ry depri­va­tion tanks. So that your brain is used to cre­at­ing or pro­cess­ing some­thing. So you end up hal­lu­ci­nat­ing in these things and going inter­nal. And it’s inter­est­ing that we have to go through this guid­ed stuff in order to be silent, ver­sus, you know, you could just wake up at dawn, or stay up until dawn, and watch the sun­rise. There’s silence for you. It’s not real silence, it’s not John Cage silence, you know, but you do get the sense of slow­ness, and the sense of reflec­tive time.

I think there’s a good point to bring up the idea of the Greek con­cept of kairos’ and chronos’ time. Chronos’ time being a more indus­tri­al time. The sched­uled time of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and, It must be this time”, and, I have to do this thing right now”, and, My tax­es are due on this date.” And then there’s kairos time which is, Oh my gosh, after three years I realised that my Mom had this ring, and it was giv­en to me by this per­son” and, Oh, wow. This is a spe­cial moment.” Or like, These are the last days I have with my Dad”, you know. These like super—you can’t pro­gramme those. You can’t expect those. You can’t auto­mate those.

And I think often at times we have these simul­ta­ne­ous time zones on our phone, where we get inter­rupt­ed by all the dif­fer­ent peo­ple from liv­ing their own dif­fer­ent times, send­ing us messages—not know­ing whether we’re avail­able for that or not. I put my phone on air­plane mode to pre­vent this, by the way, so I can choose my time. But when you have all that going on, when do you have time for reflection?

If I’m writ­ing, I don’t need to write in a pub­licly avail­able journal—I can write in my note­book. Where’s the diaries? It’s not a diary gen­er­a­tion. The minute we went onto LiveJournal it’s like, Oh, I’m pub­lish­ing these thoughts for peo­ple to see. Oh I’m feel­ing bad, I’ll post on Instagram and get some likes”. No, no, no, no, no. What about the feed­back loop with your­self to fur­ther strength­en who you are and under­stand some­thing over time, and build up those thoughts. People need more of that. We also need things where, peo­ple are like, We need work-life bal­ance”. Well some­times, when you’re real­ly pas­sion­ate about some­thing you put all your effort into it and that should be fine, you know. But you should be able to be in more flow states with­out interruption.

Mason: I think this is some of the mis­un­der­stand­ing around vir­tu­al real­i­ty at the moment. The last four or five dis­cus­sions that I have had about VR have all been about, How does VR make us more empa­thet­ic with each oth­er?” but in actu­al fact I think the real pow­er is to make us more empa­thet­ic with our­selves. See, the crazy thing about the Facebook feed is that you see every­one else’s life, but you nev­er real­ly con­sume your own.

Case: That’s cor­rect. That’s why I’ve installed a bunch of Chrome fil­ters. I have Gmail Inbox When Ready. It shows me noth­ing until I click show inbox’. So the minute I log into my Gmail, it’s just a search fea­ture. I can search for the mes­sage, so I’m not inter­rupt­ing my time. You know, you can look at Tristan Harris’ Time Well Spent’ move­ment for more plug-ins—it’s real­ly use­ful. But one of them is for Facebook. It just does­n’t show me a news feed, and I actu­al­ly can’t post on the news feed. It’s great. So if I real­ly want to, I can do it. I can click some buttons—it shows me a moti­va­tion­al quote instead. Or some­thing that I can reflect on. But it’s fun, because you can actu­al­ly kind of change your expe­ri­ence of these things by adding plug-ins and real­ly under­stand your rela­tion to things. It’s not that—I don’t want to see a gen­er­a­tion of peo­ple like, Oh, I need some reflec­tive time, see ya”. Like, don’t do stuff like that. Oh I’m sor­ry, I need more reflec­tive.” No, OK yes. You can process and you can do all these things. I don’t want it to turn into some sort of like super-me’ movement.

It would just be nice to have some time where you don’t have to be pro­duc­ing your iden­ti­ty exter­nal to your self for the con­sump­tion of robots, and oth­er humans, and likes. And some Oh I don’t feel real­ly great today and that’s fine.” You don’t need to tell every­body about it. You know, you don’t need to make it a big deal. Like, it’s just OK some days are good and some days are bad”. I’m human. I don’t need to be on a bil­lion anti-depressants to be ok with it. Some peo­ple do.There are chem­i­cal imbal­ances based on indus­tri­al soci­ety that are dif­fi­cult to avoid, but also giv­ing our­selves a lit­tle bit of a break and being nicer to our­selves and say­ing Oh, it’s ok. I over­re­act­ed to that thing because of this thing. Hm. I know myself a lit­tle bit more to do that”. Or, I’m feel­ing bad so instead of tak­ing it out on some­body else I’ll draw a car­toon about it.” I mean, there are these kind of old meth­ods, or, I just need some time to stare into noth­ing­ness”. Right—you don’t need to have a med­i­ta­tive move­ment of a $75 a month yoga sub­scrip­tion to do that you can just take that time.

I can just zonk right out on a plane. I can be in the most stress­ful crowd­ed sit­u­a­tion and just turn inward and go into a state of flow, and just be super cosy. Which is why I like New York. New York is full of those spaces, I’m just super chilled out, I don’t care what’s going on”.

But it’s tak­en a long time to get there. It’s like turn­ing air­plane mode on in your own brain. And so, it’s like when you used to be on a plane and there was­n’t WiFi, and you were like Oh my god I have noth­ing to do. I’m going to rearrange all of the desk­top icons and clean up my files” We need a lot more of that.

I think there was this Rick and Morty episode that a lot of peo­ple loved about Pickle Rick. This Grandpa does­n’t want to hang out with his fam­i­ly and go to their stu­pid ther­a­py appoint­ment cause he’s way to smart for that. He’s this genius sci­en­tist, so he turns him­self lit­er­al­ly into a pick­le and gets him­self into an actu­al pick­le of a sit­u­a­tion, and then final­ly shows up on the ther­a­pist couch and was like Fuck you, I hate ther­a­py”, and Therapy is the worst”. And the wom­an’s like Yeah of course ther­a­py is way beneath you. You don’t need any of this stuff.” But there’s this thing in life called main­te­nance, and it’s not this great adven­ture, it’s not pack­aged and sold back to you. It’s not shiny and it does­n’t have all these likes on Facebook. It’s the idea of putting your bed back togeth­er, and main­tain­ing fam­i­ly relationships—it’s that bor­ing stuff.

And the prob­lem with the con­stant pro­duc­tion of iden­ti­ty, and val­ue, and cul­ture is that we miss all of those things when we hyper-produce our­selves. And we for­get that half of it’s that main­te­nance. And it’s not sexy. It’s going to the freakin’ den­tist. It’s hug­ging some­one and telling them that you appre­ci­ate them. It’s hang­ing out with some­body when they’re feel­ing bad, or being in moments in which peo­ple are bor­ing. Fine—you know.

And those things don’t work well on Instagram. They don’t work well on Facebook, unless it’s a super­mod­el that says Look, I’m with­out make­up and I’m real­ly tired!”—OK great, but you already had 14 mil­lion fol­low­ers. And there’s been some peo­ple who have done this. Actually, behind the scenes my life looks hor­ri­ble, it’s full of non-places, and I hate it—but I’m always pro­duc­ing these things for you, and you’re get­ting the mis­con­strued notion of my actu­al life”. So I think we just need to be like, OK, we’re human. We need a break just like our phone needs to recharge, we need to recharge as well.

And if we’re doing things that don’t mean any­thing over time, it’s usu­al­ly because we’re con­sum­ing more than we cre­ate. And that’s real­ly hard to change, because on the ear­ly web you did­n’t have to have one sta­ble full name iden­ti­ty. You could be flu­id in your iden­ti­ty and just be a per­son made of text on a forum, and be super clever—or not—based on what you were doing, and you know, have some time to research. And then you could change that around or run your own web­site. But it was much more about cre­at­ing more than con­sum­ing, and you’re par­tic­i­pat­ing instead of just buy­ing or just absorb­ing. And you just had these real­ly spe­cial spaces where you could be real­ly good friends with some­body you’d nev­er met before. It did­n’t mat­ter whether they were a male or female, or trans, or embod­ied, or not—or a dog. It did­n’t mat­ter, because it was about their brain. You were meet­ing their brain before you ever met their body. And that was the real­ly cool thing about it. Now we’ve become not embod­ied, but a two dimen­sion­al, flat­tened tem­plate self of our­selves online.

Mason: I won­der to a degree how we help the next gen­er­a­tion nav­i­gate that. They have that ques­tion: Am I nor­mal?” and the way in which they’re try­ing to find the answer to that ques­tion is by look­ing at the indi­vid­u­als who they believe have a degree of nor­mal­i­ty in their life. But the rea­son that nor­mal­i­ty exists is it removes all the stuff that’s fuzzy. It homogenis­es a form of iden­ti­ty that’s good for con­sump­tion, but not good for col­lab­o­ra­tion or conversation.

Case: Yeah, if you think of nor­mal. A brand is nor­mal because it’s very well defined. All of the joy comes from the fuzzi­ness. If you look at the ear­ly move­ments of com­pa­nies, or art move­ments, it’s just super fuzzy, and peo­ple are play­ing around with ideas, and what a thing is’ and what it isn’t’. It does­n’t mat­ter if you’re right or wrong—but it’s play­ful. And that’s what I like about VR.

I like to take peo­ple into the sim­u­la­tion where you can be an office cubi­cle, and you can be a food prep per­son, or you can be in a con­ve­nience store, because the first thing a lot of peo­ple do is that they throw every­thing. Because you can’t do that any­more after a cer­tain age, that’s con­sid­ered vio­lent, you know. But as a kid, you can throw every­thing cause it does­n’t mat­ter, and so you get this child-like behav­iour again of, Hey, look. You can change your real­i­ty”. We can’t change our real­i­ty on the web any­more, because it’s about tem­plat­ed self—and even get­ting into build­ing a web­site is real­ly gar­gan­tu­an effort.

Now there’s a new thing called Neo-Cities which is a new ver­sion of Geo-Cities, where you can just make HTML/CSS web­site real­ly fast. But a lot of it’s like, Oh, you need a group of 20 peo­ple to run a server-side appli­ca­tion and then every­body is gonna use it and then you’ll have to scale it up”. Like, what about run­ning some­thing on your own serv­er? Like, I ran a real­ly bad phpBB forum, and if some­one was being a jerk on it—I could ban them. But it was a small enough com­mu­ni­ty that if some­one was being obnox­ious, I had con­trol over it. And now, the com­mu­ni­ties have scaled so much that report­ing some­body or get­ting some­body banned is no longer with­in the user con­trol. And so we have these inter­faces made for us by oth­er peo­ple, that we sub­scribe to, and they’re free, and they’re ad spon­sored, and the con­trol keeps going fur­ther and fur­ther away from us as individuals.

Versus: I thought we were going to go into a world where any­one could be a web devel­op­er with a one-click install of some PHP mech­a­nism. Make your own forum, and choose what­ev­er way you want to par­tic­i­pate in the web. And now we have five ways to par­tic­i­pate in the web. Either you binge on Netflix—which is very unhealthy, or you go on Reddit, or Hacker News, or Twitter, or Facebook, and you make your­self 5÷12÷5÷5÷12 pix­el with your inter­ests and your real name, and then, that’s it.

Mason: To a degree, you’re look­ing to solve some of the issues that we’ve been talk­ing about, through this thing called Calm Tech’. What is Calm Tech’?

Case: So Calm Technology is the idea that the scarce resource in the 21st cen­tu­ry is not tech­nol­o­gy: it’s our atten­tion. And how tech­nol­o­gy takes advantage—or not—of our atten­tion, is some­thing that we can change. So, there’s two sides. One: com­pa­nies that make devices or prod­ucts that are like what we’d use in the world of the desk­top, that take all of our atten­tion, are real­ly obnox­ious. And also, the way that we use our own atten­tion. Like, we should be allowed to just have these things in our lives that aren’t tak­ing over all of our time.

So, the idea Calm Technology came from Mark Wiser and John Seely Brown, who were researchers at Xerox Park in the 90s. And they cre­at­ed a future in which every­thing was con­nect­ed. They had a whole Internet of Things. Future—Mark Weiser coined the term ubiq­ui­tous com­put­ing’, and they realised that, Oh my gosh”—everything was just beep­ing at them—“How do we make these things work in an envi­ron­ment, in a nice way, seam­less­ly, with us? How do we have tech­nol­o­gy take the least amount of our atten­tion, and only when nec­es­sary? How do we make vis­i­ble what was for­mer­ly invis­i­ble, so that we have ambi­ent aware­ness of things in our envi­ron­ment and we can act on things with­out hav­ing them take all of our atten­tion? How can we com­press infor­ma­tion from our pri­ma­ry high res­o­lu­tion focus into sec­ondary and ter­tiary focus, which is like hap­tics or sense of touch—you know—using the prin­ci­ple of synes­the­sia. I real­ly like the Roomba robot­ic vac­u­um clean­er because you know, when it’s done clean­ing it does dun-duh-duh-duh!” And when it’s stuck it goes dun-dun”—but you can tell what that means because it’s just a tone. It does­n’t have to be this dis­em­bod­ied human voice telling you what’s going on. There’s this light faucet that has LEDs in it, that actu­al­ly shows you the tem­per­a­ture of the water through colour. My co-founder and I made an ambi­ent light­bulb that was con­nect­ed to a weath­er report that would show the colour of the weath­er that it was going to be for the day. So, if it was sun­ny it was yel­low; if it was rainy, it was blue. And you did­n’t have to have this weird com­put­erised voice tell you Hello Dave, here’s the weath­er report!”

Mason: Is Calm Tech real­ly a way of tech­nol­o­gy talk­ing back to us that isn’t vocal; is more a visu­al form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion? A rela­tion­ship with your faucet that does­n’t feel forced?

Case: Sometimes, the visu­al chan­nel is use­ful. Sometimes, the audi­to­ry chan­nel is use­ful. It real­ly depends what it is. Like, the record’ light on the video camera—that tells both you and the per­son you’re record­ing that it’s record­ing. It’s a real­ly Calm Tech. Streetlights are a real­ly Calm Tech. Imagine build­ing street­lights today. Wouldn’t you have to con­nect your car to them by Bluetooth or some­thing? And they’d have this real­ly inel­e­gant dis­play and they give you a counter for how long it would take for—it’d be awful. You just feel what the light is, and you go through. You can use your sec­ondary atten­tion. You can use your periph­er­al atten­tion to under­stand when you need to go or not, and pay atten­tion to the road. The whole point of a car is to keep your pri­ma­ry focus on the road, and use your sec­ondary and ter­tiary sens­es to con­trol it. The lever on the floor; the ped­al. It’s your ter­tiary sense—it’s just the sense of touch.

Doug Engelbart, when he cre­at­ed the mouse, actu­al­ly had a thing under the table where you could click with your foot. You would use more of your­self. And so, a lot of these weird, dif­fer­ent ways of interacting—they just went by the way­side and we have this per­sis­tent tech­nol­o­gy of here’s the mouse”, and here’s what this looks like”, and here’s what -”, and you know, peo­ple for­get that we’re just in a gen­er­a­tion of the web where things are real­ly cor­po­rate, and very tem­plat­ed, and things can change, you know. But we just need to be ok with mak­ing weird­er stuff and using alter­na­tive meth­ods, and my num­ber one thing is: Go back in time, find out what peo­ple did in the past, because it’s real­ly cycli­cal and peo­ple make exact­ly the same mis­takes. But, 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago—there were all these amaz­ing move­ments about how tech­nol­o­gy could aug­ment our capa­bil­i­ties. And look at things like hyper­car. Somebody real­ly needs to remake hyper­car. There’s all these cool things that can be remade, that offers a more aug­ment­ed per­spec­tive on the world with our tech­nol­o­gy, and empow­ers us and makes us superhuman—instead of takes up all of our time and makes us feel depressed because we’re end­less­ly click­ing, and our brain is bent over and we real­ly need to take a nap for 20 minutes.

Mason: Is Calm Tech as a field a way to make sure IoT does­n’t become as noisy and as com­pli­cat­ed and as unsat­is­fy­ing as inter­fac­ing with the web through a screen, through a shiny glow­ing rectangle?

Case: Yeah that’s right, and I would sug­gest going to calmtech​.com to read some of the papers by Mark Weiser. One of the papers is called The World Is Not A Desktop”. Why do we keep design­ing for the world as if we had unlim­it­ed atten­tion and band­width and bat­tery life? Because we don’t. So why don’t we make tech­nol­o­gy work well when it fails. If an esca­la­tor turns into stairs when it’s bro­ken, why can’t we have things have Offline First’ sup­port. You know, how many things actu­al­ly work on your phone when you turn it to Airplane Mode? Do we need all of these things? No! Do they real­ly enhance our life? Some of them—but we need to take a hard look at it and say, if we’re going to entrust our­selves to an algo­rithm writ­ten by an arbi­trary group of peo­ple that haven’t real­ly test­ed it out into the real world and that algo­rithm puts our life in that algo­rith­m’s hands and we can’t even see inside that black box, where are we as a cul­ture? Are we going to be back in the dark ages where we don’t know how to mea­sure some­thing because we’ve lost the math­e­mat­ics? Where we look at the source code as wiz­ardry and very few peo­ple under­stand how to change it, because there’s like one COBOL devel­op­er left and we study the code as ancient his­to­ry and there are so many depen­den­cies that we can’t actu­al­ly fix any of the stuff, and so we have entire parts of the grid that don’t work any more because we’ve said, Well, it has to be pro­pri­etary and we can’t hide any­more because we can’t doc­u­ment it because the per­son who wrote it in the newest pro­gramme lan­guage left before they doc­u­ment­ed every­thing and now we have no believ­ers in this mag­i­cal pro­gram­ming lan­guage that was only around for two months because it was the hippest thing to do”.

Yeah, oh god. I hope we don’t get a dystopi­an kitchen of the future because every­thing is depen­dent on every­thing else. It all sucks all of the Bluetooth. You can’t con­nect to more than one thing at a time. You have a fin­ger­print sen­sor on your fridge that you can’t use because your fin­gers are dirty because you’ve been mak­ing some­thing, and it locks you out of eat­ing any of the sweets, but your friend is dia­bet­ic and you need to get into the fridge, but you need to file a sup­port tick­et to get into the fridge to add an extra user.

Consumer pro­tec­tion aside, you should try to not pur­chase things that when they fail, you’re stuck. A lot of prod­ucts are devel­oped for the opti­mal use-case. They’re devel­oped in San Francisco where there’s plen­ty of band­width, and where your phone is always charged, appar­ent­ly. And of course, there’s one story—I think it was on NPR—where this guy said Oh, I want to auto­mate the tick­et sys­tem in the Bart Station, in the San Francisco tran­sit sys­tem”. And the pod­cast host said Can you tell that to the per­son down­stairs, at the infor­ma­tion booth at the sta­tion?” and the guy was like, Sure”. So they walk down­stairs and said Hi, I want to auto­mate you”, and the woman looks at him and just laughs and says, Are you seri­ous? You real­ly think you can auto­mate me?” He says yes, every­thing should be on your phone, and you can just tap your phone and go through”. And she says, That’s great”. And she says, Excuse me, I need to help this cou­ple”. The cou­ple comes up, and they bare­ly speak any English, and she’s help­ing them out with a phys­i­cal sub­way map. And then anoth­er per­son comes up Oh my gosh, I had a tick­et but my phone ran out of bat­ter­ies and I need to get out of the gate”, or, My cred­it card does­n’t work in the machine, can I pay with cash?” you know—all these edge cases.

Because maybe the world on the com­put­er is per­fect, and maybe when you go onto web­sites you can get all these clicks, and every­thing works—but the real world has sub-optimal sit­u­a­tions and I think a Calm Technology assumes that every­thing is sub­op­ti­mal to begin with. A tree in the real world does­n’t grow par­tic­u­lar­ly straight. If it does, it’s scary look­ing. You don’t want a per­fect frac­tal, a rhi­zomat­ic frac­tal grow out of the ground, it’s terrifying—you know. You want the knarly, knot­ted stuff—that’s what cre­ates beau­ty. So if we say things are going to fail, how do we going to make some­thing work all the time? Well, a paper tick­et’s pret­ty useful.

Mason: What are some of the best exam­ples you’ve seen of Calm Tech? Where are we get­ting it right? You’ve described some won­der­ful exam­ples of where we’re get­ting it des­per­ate­ly wrong—but where are we get­ting it right?

Case: Examples of Calm Technology. On my house, I have a Schlage Lock. It’s real­ly nice because it just has a PIN code, and then I have dif­fer­ent PIN codes for dif­fer­ent friends and and things like that. I can just type in the PIN code—I don’t need to have a phone—and I can press a but­ton and it lights up the PIN code and then I can press the keys, and the bat­tery lasts. It’s just a phys­i­cal battery—it lasts for two years, and it’ll tell you when the bat­tery is going to go dead, but you still get 50 key­pad press­es before you actu­al­ly have to change the bat­tery. It’s amaz­ing. That thing is so cool, because I don’t have to car­ry my key with me. I don’t have to wor­ry about being locked out. So I can just get home late, I don’t have a key, and my phone is out of bat­tery. I punch the code—I’m done. That’s so nice. And then if I need to have some­one come over to my house and water my plants? Here’s your key code. And then I can change the key code after they’re gone, and it’s real­ly good. So I like that sort of tech­nol­o­gy. It’s real­ly straightforward.

I do like South-Korean wash­ers and dry­ers. They have a lot of com­pli­cat­ed fea­tures, but when they’re done they sing. It’s like duh-duh-duh-duh!” It’s like a hap­py appli­ance. I like the Zojirushi rice cook­er. That has a lit­tle tune. Kids love that thing because, like, the thing is done. I grew up with these singing rice cook­ers, you know. My par­en­t’s friends were from Japan, so of course they’d bring us rice cook­ers and like, that thing was done. I’d be like Mom, the thing’s done! This is cool!”

Mason: Is there a dif­fer­ence between how this stuff is designed say in the West, and designed in the East?

Case: Well, in South Korea, I think there’s a lot of cel­e­bra­tion of tech­nol­o­gy. The idea that two gen­er­a­tions removed from ener­grat­ing soci­ety and like you know, you want to show off your appli­ances. It’s the crown­ing achieve­ment of the cul­ture, it’s like Wow, we’re high tech, this is great.” In Japan, there’s a lot of automa­tion hap­pen­ing because employ­ees are expen­sive, and so you have these lit­tle vend­ing machines on the street cor­ners because you can’t afford to have the square feet and the peo­ple to host a lit­tle bode­ga. So you’ve got you know, lit­tle robots and you have tick­et machines for ramen instead of hav­ing a wait­er, you just press the but­ton of what you want, slide the tick­et under the counter and get your ramen from a cook. So there’s a lot of automa­tion in that sense just because of the expense.

The PARO Robotic Seal—I love. It’s for demen­tia patients. It’s just in the shape of a seal, so you don’t have the uncan­ny val­ley of a dog or cat, which is just going to seem real­ly weird—or a human. A seal? Not that many peo­ple hang out with seals in real life, and so you don’t have as much uncan­ny val­ley when it just looks like a cute stuffed ani­mal that does­n’t have to walk. It just has, like, some flip­pers and a tail. So it takes the demen­tia patien­t’s minds off of what they’re going through, and they can pet it, and you don’t have to wor­ry about feed­ing or water­ing it, and it just lasts for a real­ly long time. So there’s some cute things that are show­ing up.

Mason: I think that’s a great exam­ple. Because every­one goes Oh, that PARO Robot, it’s arti­fi­cial intelligence”.

Case: No!

Mason: In actu­al fact it’s artif­cial life. It has just very few cues that make you feel like it is arti­fi­cial­ly alive, in so far as it breathes; it has a degree of warmth; it’s fur­ry; it blinks; it does these very small things that are just enough to trick the brain into believing -

Case: That’s the ulti­mate cue for this stuff. It’s reac­tive technology—not proac­tive. The min­i­mum amount of these lit­tle sym­bols, and the brain does the rest. We already live in a vir­tu­al real­i­ty, since we had the imag­i­na­tion of people—that was vir­tu­al real­i­ty. Religion is a vir­tu­al real­i­ty. Education is a vir­tu­al real­i­ty. Language is a vir­tu­al real­i­ty. Everything is a vir­tu­al real­i­ty. Facebook is a two dimen­sion­al vir­tu­al real­i­ty that we believe in, and we use—and it’s flat and a lot of the idea is we think when we’re on it. We imag­ine all of these dif­fer­ent futures and sce­nar­ios, and that’s the thing. We don’t need that much. The two dimen­sion­al inter­face of a book and those words are so pow­er­ful, that we imag­ine a vir­tu­al real­i­ty in our heads, and can like some­one in a book and even know them more than we know our next door neigh­bour. It affords this like inner thing. And the com­plex­i­ty of a book is amaz­ing, because you close it, and all of the com­plex­i­ty is encased with­in that inter­face, and it’s just a lit­tle spine.

Mason: There used to be, at Lucas Arts—a researcher…I think it was a researcher, a senior  man­ag­er at Lucas Arts, who used to go around and give this pre­sen­ta­tion about this ter­ri­ble thing that was hap­pen­ing across America, where young chil­dren are going up to their rooms and they’re spend­ing hours in front of these things called books’, and they’re cre­at­ing these vir­tu­al real­i­ty envi­ron­ments between their ears, and we’re not see­ing them for days as they turn these things called pages’. And he was equat­ing that the fear we have of kids spend­ing this time in com­put­er game envi­ron­ments to spend­ing time in books.

Case: Yeah, I mean, a news­pa­per is a vir­tu­al real­i­ty, and if you read that on the train and then you talk to some­body about it, then you’re just dis­cussing the vir­tu­al real­i­ty game that you were just a part of. I think the key to this is remem­ber­ing that some­times, when you make some­thing as a joke, or art there are all of these com­pa­nies who are like We’re going to hire devel­op­ers to test out our soft­ware”, it’s like No. You should get artists in here”.

Mason: Or kids. I used to say to AR devel­op­ers, You need to have a child in res­i­dence”. I think tech­ni­cal­ly illegal—but you would have this child in res­i­dence, they would run through, test all your demos, and go, you know what—if it does­n’t work in the first five sec­onds: Broken; bro­ken; move onto the next thing; throw it away; bro­ken. And I think there’s some­thing in that abil­i­ty to have an intu­itive response with a piece of technology.

Case: Absolutely. And there’s the atten­tion span. So I like putting kids in VR—good VR demos—because they know exact­ly what to do. Because they’re used to real­i­ty as not entire­ly defined yet. And I think we need to have these zones of play. So you know, the sto­ry of Eliza Chatbot, right, in the 60s? Joseph Weizenbaum was say­ing, Artificial intel­li­gence? Ha-ha-ha. I’m going to show you how shit­ty this sys­tem is. I’m going to make a chat­bot, and I’m just going to put all the stereo­types in of what psy­chol­o­gists say, and I’ll make Eliza the psy­chol­o­gy chat­bot”. And then his sec­re­tary was sit­ting on it and she was like This is great. It does­n’t judge me. It allows me to get in a feed­back loop with myself, and under­stand more what I’m expe­ri­enc­ing”. Because it was­n’t try­ing to be per­fect. There’s no such thing as per­fect tech­nol­o­gy; that’s assum­ing there’s per­fect humans. At some point, tech­nol­o­gy will be able to under­stand us completely”—yeah right. We don’t even under­stand each oth­er com­plete­ly, not to men­tion all the dif­fer­ent lan­guages that we speak. Who’s going to under­stand that? That does­n’t matter.

What mat­ters is say­ing, This stuff sucks, just like humans do, at under­stand­ing everything—so let’s just work with that and make it sil­ly, and have artists tear­ing apart our tech demos, and kids tear­ing apart our tech demos, instead of peo­ple who are going to rein­force the bland­ness of the thing that we just built, and make it so seri­ous”. You know it’s like the Microsofting of every­thing. It’s like, do you know where Microsoft came from? Bill Gates was drunk and hang­ing out in New Mexico and like break­ing into weird equip­ment at night and dri­ving it around. If you have a new thing—like VR—there should be far more arts fel­low­ships and spon­sor­ships to just do what­ev­er you want with it, and break it, because if they’re going to find a glitch they’ll find a way to aes­theti­cise that and make fun of it and write an essay about it. When I was in the geo-tech world I was read­ing Mary Flanagan’s book Critical Play, which was all about these geo-locative move­ments and moments, and I saw Dennis Crowley and all these dif­fer­ent peo­ple’s game on Pac-Manhatten, and I was inspired to rebuild these things. It was this excit­ing thing of, That’s that cul­tur­al stuff, that a lot of the tech is miss­ing”. And when we just say Oh, only tech peo­ple can build this, and let’s slap some user expe­ri­ence on”, and then it’s just to serve ad-revenue, you miss out on all of the amaz­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties that you can do to get peo­ple to do, to work togeth­er and be togeth­er, and you lose the oppor­tu­ni­ty of help­ing to empow­er peo­ple. And it’s sad that the idea of per­son­al empow­er­ment is now a soft term. Well that’s not effi­cient. Well duh-duh-duh’—well when even­tu­al­ly when the snake eats its tail, and every­thing’s so effi­cient, then what do we do? What hap­pens when some­one sells their com­pa­ny for 20 or 30 or 40 mil­lion dol­lars? Usually what I see is they buy a bunch of syn­the­sis­ers or they go on a one year road trip and they’re like oh my gosh I’m on lev­el 99, oh my gosh what have I done?” and they try to get them­selves back into a real move­ment, or peo­ple burn out in tech and they go out into a pasture—like they lit­er­al­ly go to a farm and they say oh I’m going to work with the code from the earth, you know. Animals and veg­eta­bles and min­er­als, and I’m going to build stuff, and be re-associated with like the sun­rise and the sun­set, you know”. Because it’s only so long we can do this before we say What is the mean­ing of life?” And what are we doing in this envi­ron­ment in which we say, like, We’re sep­a­rate from nature”. No, we are nature, and that’s fine. Eventually we need to remem­ber that all this stuff comes out of the ground that we have to eat, and there’s stuff in the envi­ron­ment we that like, we expe­ri­ence, and peo­ple get old­er, and if the world is only going to be great for peo­ple who are 1520 years old, like get me off this plan­et. Because there’s a lot more. Like get­ting old, and rais­ing kids, and hang­ing out with friends.

All this kairos time that peo­ple are like OK, I’m in my con­do in San Francisco, and I’m click­ing the but­tons to get every­thing deliv­ered so that I don’t know any­body, and my neigh­bour down the street even though I live two blocks from The Mission and there are awe­some bur­ri­tos, and then I’m going to go and pay $3k to go down to South America for an Iowaska rit­u­al to try and get some mean­ing back in my life, because I have tak­en that mean­ing and exter­nalised it and put it some­where else,” you know. It’s not the, like, Silicon Valley of the crazy dot com boom, where every­body was into tech­no music, and had fun, and par­tied. It’s like, these peo­ple in these tiny con­tain­ment pods just reminds me of work­er bees.

Mason: So how do we get to the point where sud­den­ly, tech­nol­o­gists felt that the human con­di­tion was a prob­lem that need­ed to be solved?

Case: This is a good point. Yeah, it’s like, humans need to be solved, death needs to be solved, all of these things. And on the one hand it’s like, heck yeah—I want some of my Professors and teach­ers to live for­ev­er because they’re awe­some, you know.

Mason: Some of those Professors would not want to live forever.

Case: No, no, no!

Mason: Some of them are like, just get me off this planet.

Case: There’s this kind of mean­ing to life when you know that there’s not enough of it, and you pan­ic and you say, Oh my gosh I haven’t done enough yet and I haven’t expe­ri­enced enough yet”, you know, and it’s not just going to anoth­er coun­try and con­sum­ing the cul­ture which looks the same as every­where now—because every­body buys the same stuff, but it’s about these nuanced moments that are incal­cu­la­ble. It’s about try­ing to mas­ter things that are unmas­tered. Things like—how long can you push ceram­ics? Well, that’s not mas­ter­able. Can any­one real­ly mas­ter the piano and all of the per­mu­ta­tions of those keys? What about the vio­lin? What about paint­ing? What about singing? What about dance? There’s all these soft archi­tec­tures, so to speak, that can’t be ful­ly con­sumed, or auto­mat­ed, or programmed.

And when you see shows like Star Trek you have, on the earth, every­thing is kind of main­tained, you know. You have vine­yards, you know, with John Luc Picard’s fam­i­ly still doing vine­yards, you know, and you have all the tech up in space but there’s this preser­va­tion of these cul­tures. These unique items that—you know, cul­ture comes from geog­ra­phy, and most­ly geo­graph­i­cal­ly based. Now we can have straw­ber­ries any time of year in the super­mar­ket, there’s no rea­son to cel­e­brate straw­ber­ry sea­son any more. So part of it’s going to need to go back to local envi­ron­ments and cel­e­brat­ing the geo­graph­i­cal dis­tance and what that means, and the unique­ness of where peo­ple are from. And anoth­er part is just say­ing, like, We need sup­port for peo­ple who are above 35 and who are no longer able to be employed in tech, and we need to have mean­ing for peo­ple that are old­er, and we need to go back to a bal­ance where you can par­tic­i­pate at lots of dif­fer­ent lev­els and there’s pur­pose and mean­ing in all these dif­fer­ent lev­els, and peo­ple can have a long, ful­fill­ing life if they want to, and feel like they did some­thing. That the things that are val­ued aren’t just glo­ri­fied plumb­ing, like pro­gram­ming, where you’re just deal­ing with some­body else’s mess that’s poor­ly doc­u­ment­ed, and that’s in a rush because some cor­po­rate exec­u­tive is breath­ing down your neck and you have tonnes of code debt and you don’t even know the lan­guage that you’re in because you have to learn the new lan­guage. I would real­ly like to see the abil­i­ty to make, like, struc­tures last for more than a cou­ple of years. I don’t want to have to upgrade my phone all the time. I want the next ver­sion of the oper­at­ing sys­tem I down­load to be small­er than the last one. I don’t want every­thing to be con­nect­ed like Pet-Net style, where it’s like this auto­mat­ed pet feed­er that was serv­er based and the servers went down and all the pets got stranded.

I want there to be just a lit­tle more thought put into the prod­ucts around me, and I find it fun­ny that when peo­ple get enough mon­ey, they buy mid-century mod­ern teak fur­ni­ture from Denmark, because they want the hand­made; they want the long last­ing; and they want real objects made of real stuff. So no mat­ter how much we get auto­mat­ed, there’s more and more of this need to have nature and real­i­ty come back into our lives, and the more sat­u­rat­ed peo­ple get in tech, the less they want their kids to use tech, and the more they want to just go and live on a farm, you know. So I think at some point, we’ll…something will hap­pen. There’s only so long that wealth can be ridicu­lous­ly con­sol­i­dat­ed, and only so much mean­ing we can extract before peo­ple say Oh man, I’m real­ly sick of this. I want to go and make music, and I want to go and be bad at what I do, and I want to be an ama­teur, and I want to explore, and it’s OK not to be per­fect, and I’m going to go and share it with these weird groups of peo­ple, and I don’t care what they look like, and their skin is tanned, and if they’re wear­ing the right clothes, because they like me uncon­di­tion­al­ly and that’s fine, and we can all be awk­ward togeth­er”. You know, that’s where the great stuff comes from. It’s just hard to find those groups any more because every­body’s like Oh, it needs to be per­fect”, you know.

Mason: Thank you to Amber for shar­ing her thoughts on how we might design tech­nol­o­gy that respects our atten­tion. You can find out more by pur­chas­ing Amber’s new book, Calm Technology: Principles and Patterns for Non-Intrusive Design, avail­able now.

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Further Reference

Episode page, with intro­duc­to­ry and pro­duc­tion notes. Transcript orig­i­nal­ly by Beth Colquhoun, repub­lished with per­mis­sion (mod­i­fied).

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