The principles of “calm computing” and “calm technology” were coined way back in 1995 by PARC Researchers Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown, in reaction to what they saw as the rise of ubiquitous computing and consequently “feeling overwhelmed and dislocated in the maelstrom of information flying all around us”. Their proposed solution was slightly paradoxical: that more information can be better, providing we are attending to it less. Anticipating the growth of the Internet of Things (IoT) and the sheer amount of technology that would surround us in our home and at work, they believed technology should act in such a way that “informs, but doesn’t demand our focus or attention.”
The concept is extremely appealing; today so many of us are enslaved by the apps, connected devices and technologies that surround us, which are all constantly screaming for our attention. Alerts on our phones, tablets and computers bombard us frenetically. To exacerbate things further, voice-enabled systems, such as the Amazon Echo, Google Home and Sonos One, are seeing rapid growth, and predicted to reach 55% of US households by the year 2022. Artificial Intelligence is also getting smarter, and virtual and augmented reality will soon be a part of our everyday experience.
According to Seely Brown, “the most potentially interesting, challenging, and profound change implied by the ubiquitous computing (UC) era is a focus on calm”. He explains, “if computers are everywhere they better stay out of the way, and that means designing them so that the people being shared by the computers remain serene and in control. Calmness is a new challenge that UC brings to computing.” Calmness, he argues, must be at the centre of all technological design moving forward, where relevant information is brought to a person without them needing to constantly monitor or watch it, or having their tasks continually interrupted. In short, they are able to return to being human.
As we enter the new year, hopefully feeling rested from our Christmas break with new resolutions in mind, the prospect of smart technology that sits on the “periphery” of our attention and can easily move to our central focus only when required, and then move back again, could mean that we are far less burdened by technology and our hyper-connected world. Furthermore, it would enable us to take back control of technology, and empower us to be more in control of our privacy and personal data also. There has been plenty of research to date documenting the damage hyper connectivity is having upon our mental health and wellbeing, not to mention the way in which it is rewiring the brains of our children, and so arguably it’s time we went back to basics and focused on designing for humans first, considering also the minimum amount of technology that’s needed to solve a problem.
“The result of calm technology is to put us at home, in a familiar place. When our periphery is functioning well we are tuned into what is happening around us, and so also to what is going to happen, and what has just happened,” Seeley Brown explains.
What’s also on the horizon this year is 5G which will enable faster download speeds and robust pipelines that will allow instant, seamless connectivity among the millions of devices that make up the burgeoning IoT. The way we design applications and devices around 5G will be a major factor in the move towards calm technology, and if done successfully, could untether us from our smartphones and move them to our periphery. For example, if our smart home controls were ambient instead of being controlled via our phones, following us as we travel from room to room, our attention would be significantly freed up for other things.
And so, as we move into 2018, it’s crucial that design begins to properly take into account ‘centre’ and ‘periphery’, so that calm technology can truly become a reality. While we wait for this to happen, I suggest we keep calm and carry on!