Our technologies shape us

As the world around us changes, we need new technology and improved interaction to help us. But what causes the world to change? The very technology that we introduce.

I saw this quote stuck up on the wall of a furniture shop the other day.

Winston Churchill: We shape our homes and then our homes shape us

It set me thinking: if you replace “homes” with “technology” you get an insight into the business of interaction design.

Modified quote: we shape technology and our technologies shape us

Hitting a moving target

Good interaction designers know that their job is never done. As people adopt a new technology, their behaviour changes. And the technology needs to change with them, if its going to stay useful.

  • When everyone has a mobile phone, we discover we like sending text messages.
  • Multi-tap is a bit cumbersome for creating text messages. So predictive text helps us send more texts faster.
  • Blogs are great. But we can’t keep up. So we subscribe via RSS.
  • We can’t keep up with RSS. So we use an RSS ticker to help me stay on top of the flood.
  • We’re stuck in front of computers all day so Twitter helps us stay in touch with our friends and family.
  • We need the best quality information to be filtered from the noise. So Digg and Delicious help us share attention and opinion data.
  • We have lots of information available to us but we discover we want to mix and match it. So RDF, promises the next evolution, along with interfaces like Ubiquity and Aurora.

I think there’s a recurring theme here:

Information technology empowers people to produce more information more quickly. (SMS, Predictive text, Blogs, Twitter, HTML, IM, Ubiquity…)
Information technology protects us from the flood of information we have been empowered to produce. (RSS, Digg, Google, Technorati, Aurora?…)

We’re in a bizarre arms race with ourselves. I think the “producer” team is winning. Some people say that the “protect” team don’t stand a chance.

That’s progress

So, it seems, it has always been. Venerable sociologist and economist Thorstein Veblen put it like this:

“Invention is the mother of necessity.”

This probably means two things, but I’m interested in just one meaning: When we use technology to solve one problem, we often create a new and different one, which in turn needs a solution.

Technology for our children

Well, since I had a few minutes to spare I asked my daughter to take that photo in the furniture shop, using my mobile phone. She’s 4. She managed it fine.

When the first mobile phone designers started out, I’m sure they had no idea of that requirement.

3 thoughts on “Our technologies shape us

  • September 2, 2008 at 6:24 am

    I often refer to that rather profound Churchill quote (at least the original version), which seems to demonstrate a depth of understanding rarely shown by contemporary politicians. Technologies are often created to solve current problems, but pressage new possibilities, which those with (conscious) insight and creativity exploit. In a roundabout way desktop publishing tools – created to make ink on paper printing more efficient – laid the foundations for online publishing. New tools also allow unconscious phenomena to take form – such as personal publishing, in the form of Weblogging– and these phenomena may even drive the adoption (and adaptation) of technologies. But we need to be wary of the idea that technology simply drives social change, which is the current – and un-Churchillian – view.

  • September 2, 2008 at 8:31 pm

    Thanks, Nico.

    I think I actually need to hear more from you on this. Seems you’ve been thinking about this for longer than me.

    Working directly with people using technology invariably teaches you the same lesson: you can’t force people to adopt anything that they don’t want to. So I agree. Technology can’t drive/force social change. It can create the means for new behaviours to come into being. But it can only do it one step at a time. Because the way people use technology tends to outstrip the vision of its designers.

  • September 9, 2008 at 7:42 am

    Technology doesn’t drive change, it facilitates change. Wording can change the meaning of life dramatically. 🙂

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