George Orwell’s 1984 is rightly a hugely famous novel of the twentieth century. His depiction of a totalitarian future was so griping and compelling that the words and phrases he coined in the creation of his vision have embedded themselves in popular language and culture. I wonder how many teenagers watching reality TV understand where that catchy title came from?
There was one aspect that Orwell did get glaringly wrong: the impact of technology. the limited technology shown in 1984 is all very much in the service of the state: the newspaper re-writing tools and the continuously broadcasting screens for example. But these two are both very poor predictions of how technology actually evolved over the three and a half decades between writing 1984 and 1984. Photocopiers deeply limit the effectiveness of re-writing newspapers — people would have their own copies, not much point in changing the centrally stored version then? And a network of screens continuously streaming into everyone’s homes? That’s just crying out to be subverted as a peer-to-peer network.
But these are just details and a symptom: Orwell got something much more fundamental, and surprising, wrong.
Technology is inherently liberating, not controlling; equalising not oppressive.
How is this possibly so? Modern history is replete with examples of dictators using weapons technology to do pretty horrible things in stamping out rebellion and even more recent history shows huge corporations attempting to do exactly what Orwell predicted, to their customers. But these are just anecdotes. Other anecdotes show mobile phones and hand-held GPS units being of incalculable aid to rebels. Corporations are trying to spy on their customers precisely because they were completely blind-sided by developing technology. I want to address a more fundamental point than these anecdotes.
Technology is probably reasonably described as the output of humanity’s tool-making instinct. No one really thinks of it as broadly as that, especially now. It’s inconceivable to regard the chair and the kettle as technology even though they were both once cutting-edge. Instead, technology is regarded as the recent output of our tool-making instinct. There is a question going begging here though: how do recent technological developments migrate into that background of things we just have?
Going back beyond the kettle and the chair, the spear would have once been cutting edge technology, developed after extensive R&D and in the face of punishing market conditions and intense competition by some family somewhere in the African savannah. The immediate effect of this new development within that family would have been stunning. Instead of only the elite runners capable of running down an antelope being the ones providing meat, anyone strong enough to wield a spear suddenly could. Given the very different physical requirements for the two hunting techniques this was certainly a different set of family members. And right there, the spear as a piece of technology has liberated some members of the family. Sure, hunting is still the domain of strong, young males, but this is the savannah of African a million years ago we’re talking about; it took until 1900 before we even gave women the vote. Equality is a luxury the ancient savannah could never afford.
This is still just a fascinating theory, but think on the implication: the spear was a valuable piece of technology because it helped overcome a physical limitation of the family. And this is generally true of all technology: it is valuable when it lets people do something they otherwise couldn’t. Technology is about placing the unobtainable within more people’s grasp — but not by devaluing the goal, instead by extending the grasp. As the spear placed more meat within the grasp of the family on the savannah, so the mobile phone places more of your friends within range of a chat or a helping hand now. Technology is leverage; it takes what you are already capable of and then by adding a little more in just the right way, makes you capable of something new. By it’s very nature technology is about raising the average standard of what can be achieved, leveling the field for all.
It is, in two words, inherently empowering. And to me, this is the answer to that question. When technology perfectly articulates its own empowerment it migrates into the background of society, no longer a big deal. Just there for everyone to enjoy.
Of course, that’s not to say all technological developments achieve this holy grail of leverage. Much development results in brand new technology that never sees widespread use. Many times this is the natural inefficiencies in a capitalist market. Frustrated technologists try to cope using open forums for ideas and development. Open source is a modern example, but public universities have always openly shared their work.
But still we see failures of technology.
Now, if you accept that technology has succeeded when it multiples out the abilities of humanity then the development of the technology is just part of the problem. Just as important is the interface between it and actual living, breathing humans. For technology to effectively leverage our abilities, it must become an invisible extension of ourselves; the interface, the line the technology draws around us, must be a perfect fit between humans and that goal, right there, the one they’re really after. Without something close to perfection, you’ve got just another disappointment, and worse: a waste of someone’s time spent thinking. There is a huge class of ignored and overlooked problems here in these interfaces. These are problems of design; not in the narrow ‘how-does-it-look’ sense, but in a much deeper ‘how-is-the-functioning-of-this-going-to-interact-with-a-human’ sense.
And I have come to realise that this is a question that I care deeply about. Technology is not an end-in-itself. It must be designed to be used. No, that’s too weak. Technology must be designed to make people’s lives better. When designing something don’t just think ‘how will this be used?’ Instead, think ‘how will this make someone’s life better?’ Don’t waste your life on simple, easy half goals: aim for the big one. Find your target market and work out how your idea will make their life better. And I mean, really make someone’s life better. Imagine your product fully integrated into their life. Can’t see it yet? Well, back to the design then. You’re aiming for a glove here. Accept nothing less.
Looking back at some of my essays I can see that I’ve been talking around this indirectly for some time. I recently listened to a podcast by Merlin Mann of 43 Folders and John Gruber of Daring Fireball that managed to crystallise my obsession for me. So I’m now planning of focusing on this idea. I want to see technology designed first and foremost to interact with humans, to fit into their lives invisibly and to thus make their lives better.
There will still be book reviews, because I love to read and writing those makes me a better reader, but I will be attempting to focus my other writing on this central idea: Technology Designed around People. I have no idea if I’m going to succeed, but at least focusing my rants might make me less annoying to be around. I also believe that society has a fixed amount of attention, this will be an attempt to focus some of that attention where I think it should be.