Prefer audio? Listen to this essay.
Humanity’s success as intelligent primates is owed entirely to technology. Without even the most rudimentary technologies like pointy sticks or woven twine, our species would have perished a long time ago. All species examine and manipulate their environment in order to survive. At the very basic level, this would be to extract energy to keep cellular machinery whirring. Life needs energy to keep going. Energy is always converted from sources found knocking around in the natural environment.
Over the millennia, some species have evolved the capacity to observe their natural environments and to make judgements upon observations. Homo sapiens are one of these species. We have the capability to examine the results of our observations, in order to choose how best to manipulate our natural environment.
Our ancestry bore the brutality of the natural world, so we no longer have to. Collectively, we have accumulated observations for millennia. The flow of information between generations is a defining characteristic of our species.
While information sharing between generations is observed in other species - the propagation of historical observations are implicitly necessary for Homo sapiens’ continued survival.
All species long to control their environments. Life is driven to subsist as comfortably and as easily as possible. Can you think of any creature on earth that doesn’t do something for some result? Unlikely. It’s an inextricable part of life itself.
In this sense, we are no different to a robin feathering its nest. However Homo sapiens are equipped with more processing power than is yet to be discovered in other species. We can invent new and whacky ways to exert control over our natural environment. Few aspects of the natural world remain unaffected or umanipulated by human technical progress. If you can dream it, it’s likely that someone, somewhere has deployed it to make a particular task easier.
Modern Consumer Technologies
In the last 30 years, consumer electronic technologies have firmly come of age. These electronics permeate every aspect of life in the modern world. Sometimes giving rise to heinous design decisions and driving conspicuous consumption. I would like to suggest that we don’t actually want consumer technologies for the sake of having more stuff (as many argue), but instead for how they give us (or how we perceive them to give us) some measure of control over the natural world. Yes, this includes how we satisfy curiosities, how we communicate and how we stay entertained - these are all ways we make our lives easier as comfort seeking mammals.
Take the vast apparatus that makes the internet possible - HTTP, HTML, TCP/IP packets, servers, datacenters, undersea cabling, industrial switches, home switches, fibre-optic networks, cellular towers… the list goes on. The processess necessary to load a page from Wikipeadia onto your screen are fantastically complex - yet that’s not the part you care about, you care about the results. It’s these results that help you achieve a level of control over your world. You may for example be eager to learn what can you expect on your visit to Thorpe Cloud, or if you’re cold and hungry, how you can start a fire.
Wikipedia - the world’s encyclopaedia, instantly available on the slab of aluminium and glass in your hand. It’s no surprise that smartphone manufacturers are producing nearly identical devices - they are converging upon a ideal form that solves a particular problem; an intuitive and elegant design which conceals the complexity of the technologies that make everything smartphones can do, possible.
You don’t care about the design of the wheel whilst its turning.
I think it’s true that what we really want from technologies has always been results and therefore, technologies should be designed to be as aesthetically simple and as unobtrusive as possible. The more subtle that complex technologies can become, the more harmonious our relationship with them can be. In turn, freeing us to live even more comfortable lives as mammals in the natural world. Now feels like a good time to throw in an Albert Einstein quote. “Make everything simple as possible, nothing simpler”.
Here’s an example from the TV Show Picard, seen in Figure 1.
In this utopian, fictional 24th century, a character named Riker is living an agrestic life in the woods. His humble life complimented by fantastical (but not inconceivable) technologies that run quietly, in the background. They are an empowering, freeing and complementary part of his daily life as a primate in the natural world. (Although in this example, the technologies are searching for aliens with nefarious intent, hiding in the woods!). The three basic interconnected components in this system are:
- A voice-activated computer
- A LIDAR system
- Software processing and returning results
Presumably the feedback from this system would be a natural language audio stream alerting Riker to the imminent danger or by sounding an alarm. An example of a complex system, that satisfies the end user’s demand for results, without any immediate obtrusion.
Closer to home, we need look no further than Tesla Solar Roof. Tesla have played a blinder here. In retrospect, Tesla’s implementation should have been the ambition for every domestic solar power installation from the start. By making solar cells indistinguishable from roof tiles, the technology has become a subtle and unobtrusive part of a home. Aesthetic qualms about these tiles are likely to be few and far between (every home needs a roof and they look like slate tiles), it’s generating electricity (good for the climate) and it earns income for the owners. All of which we should note, are results arising from a desire to control our natural environment.
Presently, this particular technology is prohibitively expensive for widespread adoption, but it’s a positive roadmap for the future. There are other manufactuers producing similar solar shingles, such as GB-Sol and Solecco.
Back to the micro
Scaling things down. Let’s say you’re trying to improve your own cardiovascular health. To do so, you need information about your resting heart rate, your active heart rate and a way to measure daily exercise to make effective decisions about changes to your lifestyle. These measurements should be collected and processed in the background (unobtrusively), then presented to you in a way you can understand. It is important that the machinery collecting the data augments your daily life. Anything that impedes your life as a walking, talking primate is going to cause frustration and distraction. Cardiovascular measurements can be taken through subtle technological implementations that are unobtrusive, powerful and when combined with software, give you the insights you seek.
Allow me to compare two examples, one unobtrusive implementation and one obtrusive implementation.
Figure 2, a piece of consumer technology that you’re probably familiar with (The Apple Watch). It’s a chaotic example of a wristwatch that has the capability to collect cardiovascular data.
Figure 3, another piece of consumer technology (The Withings Steel HR), that you might not be familiar with. It’s a wristwatch, but it’s considerably less obtrusive and garish than the device in figure 2.
Both of these devices do practically the same thing. Collect data from real-world sources, process it in the background and present it back to you. Except one of them becomes an elegant and unobtrusive part of your life, whilst the other becomes a fixture demanding attention.
I could write endlessly about how great software is, but in the interest of being unobtrusive, I’ll strive for brevity. Software is a way of getting results, with barely any kinetic interaction with your environment.
The beauty of software is that it feels like it exists in the ethereal. There’s almost zero bulk, or obtrusion, with software. It seems to float in a nebulous plane, to be called upon instantly when needed. It’s one of the reasons why I enjoy developing software for the web. The vast instruction set that can be packed into mere kilobytes, revised, iterated upon and rapidly distributed across the world means we can get serious bang-for-buck out of software, even if it is running on legacy hardware. Netflix achieved widespread software deployment across old hardware devices. How else could they get their TV shows in front of as many people as possible, without additional cost to the user? We also owe a huge debt to the Linux and open source development teams, old and new, for making the modern connected world a reality at little cost. Linux runs on 97% of servers around the world, in the background, unobtrusively.
Once you have one screen in your life - there isn’t much that can’t be piped to it through software. Software is the ultimate extensible general purpose technology. It’s an impressive tool that can give you an edge. An edge in the natural world that was inconceivable only 100 years ago.
Seek technological subtleties
Let’s live technologically remarkable lives, but in ways that compliment our existence as primates in the natural world.
Less obstrusive hardware combined with powerful software should be our route forwards. The desire for more results and more envrionmental control will continue to drive us. Abstracting away complexities will make our natural world a calmer, more sensical place to exist.