When I started out, my initial rough idea (following up on Thither and Yonder) was to develop a physical, context-aware navigation platform that would send users down different streets to get to their destinations. I liked to refer to it as the “Jane Jacobs wearable.”
The idea was to subtly encourage an exposure to environs that might not happen with simple muscle memory or herd mentality. One that would recommend, perhaps, not just the top-rated coffee shop on Yelp, but the one with a half-star lower on a street that needs a little more love.
But as I thought harder about it, the idea of building a navigation wearable felt far too self-indulgent. I wanted to design for real, clear, unmet human needs, not just implement technology for technology’s sake — I didn’t want to build something just because it’d be a fun thing to do.
This decision was reached in part by articulating the root goal of my thesis — creating a mechanism for connecting people. Rather than build for the sake of building (I’m looking at you, Robert Moses), I prefer to think about my solutions through lenses such as Genevieve Bell’s principles for being human in a digital world:
- People need friends and family.
- People want to belong to a community.
- People need meaning in their lives.
- People need objects to talk about who they are.
- People need to keep secrets and lies.
This is the level at which I’d like to inject my work. Too much future-casting is done with technology as an end goal, rather than the means to a human-centered end goal. But I prefer to build things that continue to optimize the human experience, not supplant it.
This may sound far out, but I see implications all around us. For instance, designers love to use Siri as a barometer of the future of automation, a future in which our virtual assistants become friends or lovers (as seen in the 2013 film Her, which finally overtook Minority Report as the only film any interaction designer is capable of citing).
To me, this fetishization of technology harkens back to an atomic-era sensibility. I spent a lot of time researching the (Robert Moses-designed) ’64 World’s Fair last spring, as part of a conceptual design project for our Design in Public Spaces course, in which we designed an interface for a gigantic World’s Fair-themed screen to be sited at the Queens Museum. So much of the blistering postwar optimism, especially GM’s Futurama ride, absolutely blew me away. How confident we were that we would end up colonizing the moon!
Compare that to something like AT&T’s prescient You Will ads, which famously predicted many of today’s common technologies back in 1994. These ads turned withstood the test of time not because they took moonshots, but because AT&T understood that the tasks of the future will look a whole lot like the tasks of the present — and the best strategy is simply to figure out how make those essential tasks faster and easier to complete.