Too often, that great innovative leap forward sees people left behind. More and more, we need innovation to bridge the gap between people rather than between things.
There’s no getting away from the fact that life today is immeasurably better as a result of the machines. Mechanical innovation has prompted great leaps forward in human development from the very beginning. Whether we were fashioning stone and wood into a rudimentary tool, building the first printing press or forging motorised horsepower, human life is immeasurably easier and richer, thanks to the changes wrought by the inventers.
So why the growing sense of unease mixed in with excitement as we anticipate the ever-faster rise of the machines? As human life becomes richer in so many ways, why do many of us feel it’s somehow becoming poorer too?
This unease is nothing new. Whilst the early mechanics were often deemed unholy, their work an affront to the gods, even the more recent wave of innovations during the great industrial revolution prompted some of the most enduring horror literature and the emergence of the science fictions that have become a mainstay of popular culture in the last century and this one.
It seems that deep down we have always instinctively mistrusted the mechanical, the world of intelligent things, where the machine appears to develop a mind of its own, fearing that somehow we’re becoming redundant, pushed aside and left behind. Now, when we countenance a world of intelligent objects, and talk of an internet of things, many of us are mistrustful of that new world, even whilst we’re thrilled at how much easier, how much better life will be there.
So how can it be that the more connected we are through things, the less connected we can feel to one another? This same sense of social unease that we have when we tell ourselves the stories of the fast-arriving future are borne out in much of our experience of this brave new world. As the things we use become ever more intelligent, it seems that many of the social ties that bind us are loosened or cut, and we’re given license to be rude, indifferent or bullying, captured brilliantly in the Little Britain comic trope ‘computer says no’. And as those who sell to us learn more about us, find out more about our needs and wants through how and what we buy, it somehow feels as if they don’t really know us at all, and care less than ever about giving us what we really value.
Is this because the makers of the machines, the inventers of this internet of things, see people’s human needs and wants as somehow inconvenient and intractable? Are they ignoring the social life of things, those qualities that can connect people to one another. Bluntly put, if the machines, the robots, are being given more human qualities and characteristics, becoming more like real people, why can’t the inventers make them nice people, rather than bullies and boors?
Because it can be done. One of Steve Jobs’ underestimated contributions to society was his determination that his technology would break from the tradition of computing machines that were ugly, stubborn and intellectually elitist, and create intelligent tools that are beautiful, helpful and friendly. He has imbued his machines with human qualities, and these are nice people, cool but not cold, good-looking but not unapproachable.
And not only Steve Jobs can do it. Here in Dublin, someone designing the text that’s sent to tell you that the clamp has been removed from your car after you’ve paid the parking fine has thoughtfully added a few simple but powerful words to the short message, to send you on your way a little less angry: ‘please drive carefully’. This acknowledgement of you as the driver of the machine eases some of the frustration you feel at being clamped.
So if we are to approach the rise of the machines with a little less trepidation, then we must ensure that our designers acknowledge the people who will use these things and introduce human qualities into everything we make. We must design so that people behave more sociably, make it easier to do the right thing than the wrong thing.
In short, we need to ensure that whilst there is an internet of things ready to explore and evolve, it needs be first an internet of people, then things.
Published on: June 11, 2018