Making the Case for Calm Technology
Technology – often accessed at our fingertips – is changing how we seek and get information, communicate each other, and work. Amber Case, an advocate for calm technology, believes marketers and others can learn a lot from when a “smart” pet food feeder went offline.
Internet searches for terms like machine learning, IoT, drones, driverless cars and other “smart” searches are trending upward by double digits annually. Artificial intelligence is becoming ubiquitous in our lives professionally and personally. Startup entrepreneurs, marketers and others are racing to either bring the latest new gizmo to market; or they want to adopt the latest new gizmo for themselves. Established companies such as Budweiser, Marriott, and even the Philadelphia 76ers are creating innovation labs.
Scott Brinker’s MarTech Landscape Supergraphic, which began in 2011 with 150 marketing technology companies, now counts close to 7,000 companies in the space.
But do we need all this tech? Or is it just getting in the way?
“Technology, like a gas, expands to fill every available space in our lives. And we don’t notice that 10 years ago, 15 years ago, none of us had a phone with a camera in our pocket,” said Amber Case in a recent interview on the Rethink Marketing podcast. “Yet, because we’re so used to these technologies, they become invisible. And it’s the anthropologist’s goal to look at how that affects us so that we have tools to think about it more.”
Case (@caseorganic) is the author of the book Calm Technology and the upcoming Designing with Sound. She is a cyborg anthropologist, UX designer and public speaker. She studies the interaction between humans and technology. She’s been splitting her time between Portland and Boston, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society and a visiting researcher at the MIT Center for Civic Media.
This transcript has been edited for length. To get the full measure, listen to the podcast.
What is a cyborg anthropologist?
Nathan Isaacs: What is a cyborg anthropologist?
Amber Case: Well, the idea of the cyborg anthropologist is that a traditional anthropologist goes to other countries and looks at tool use, and kinship, and does this kind of anthropological other. But a cyborg anthropologist turns inward and looks at themselves and their own community. And they say, this is weird that we wake up next to our phones, and that they cry, and we have to pick them up and talk to them to soothe them back to sleep, and that we have to plug them into the wall and feed them.
It becomes, as Donna Haraway might call them, a companion species. And so how does that rewire our sense of time, whether free time or working time, or our sense of identity in relation to others.
Basically, we’re talking about tools. The word cyborg comes from a paper on space travel from 1960. And the idea is that a cyborg is anybody who attaches some external component to them to adapt to a new environment.
A person in a spacesuit would put on something to allow them to adapt to a new environment, somewhere where they’re not supposed to go. Humans can put on a pair of flippers and swim one day and put on a snowsuit and hike a mountain the next day.
It’s our tools that allow us to be flexible and adaptable. But a lot of the tools that we had from the beginning of time were extensions of our physical selves, like a hammer is an extension of the fist, a knife is an extension of a tooth. It was really writing and cave painting that started to extend our minds.
And now we’re able to sit on one side of the world, think something very small, and have it hit the other side of the world within a couple seconds. This is this kind of present moment that Rushkoff would call present shock. There’s so much happening that we can’t even keep up with the present, not to mention Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock book that Doug Rushkoff wrote Present Shock as a sequel to.
These are the concepts in that space that I looked at. And cyborg anthropologist is just such a ridiculous phrase that it gets people to reconsider the relationship of technology instead of just feeling that it’s the norm.
What happens when the technology fails or the server goes down?
Nathan: In your talks, you tell a story about a pet food dispenser and how we just latched on to technology when we didn’t really need technology there to begin with. Can you tell us that story and why that might be a good example of how we’re letting technology get ahead of us instead of helping us?
Amber: When I was doing my research, I found this startup called PetNet.io. And if you’ve had a pet before, you probably have one of those automatic feeders that you just plug into the wall, and then you can leave, and then your pet gets fed for the next week or something like that.
The problem is that this new one said, ‘We’ll do everything, but we’ll be internet connected.’ You could actually Skype your pet when you’re away. You could see it. A lot of people loved this idea. I don’t have to worry about feeding my pet again. Great. So, they bought it. What they didn’t realize is that it relied on an external server for the feedings and the water schedule, as well as the Skyping.
And when that server went down, as severs do, there was no backup server, there was no notification to people that the server went down. There was a tweet that said, ‘Oh, we’re down, we don’t know when we’ll be back up again.’
The most basic thing they needed to guarantee was that there would be an offline feeding schedule that was not dependent on a server. But they didn’t. And when I tweeted at them I said, ‘What happened?’ They said, ‘Well, we didn’t implement that yet.’
They were so excited about getting the product out, and the promise on the cover of the website, that they didn’t implement the crucial thing that was necessary. And it’s all fun and games if you make a site like Twitter and it fails, and you can laugh about it and show a fail whale. But if somebody’s dependent on this technology, like somebody in a hospital, or a pet, and it’s that close to you, and the website says you can rely on us, then it needs to have reasonable failbacks that work even when certain systems fail. Just like an escalator turns into stairs when it breaks. How do we make products that gracefully degrade so that under certain circumstances or imperfect circumstances, they still work?
And this is one of the problems we have when developing technology. It’s oftentimes that our developers work in the best environments, with the fastest computers, with the latest technology. They don’t build for the least amount of bandwidth, or the idea that somebody’s battery might run out, or the idea that the server might go down. I looked at the terms of service for petnet.io. And it said, you agree not to rely on petnet.io for any crucial needs of your pet. We will not guarantee service or reliability. And this was incredible. There was no consequences for them or anything like that. And it was very upsetting.
The problem is we’ll have more and more technology like that. And the only way for us to get regulations or consequences is when people die. That sounds awful. But the Titanic was really helpful for SOS, radio standards, shipbuilding. It provided a lot of standards. I would love for this to happen before people died or pets died. But right now the company, the developers, nobody is really responsible. That’s not to say a developer should be responsible for this. They’re usually the ones that are pressured by managers to develop something really fast and release it. And oftentimes people are just so excited about the new, that they don’t get out in time.
How can marketers can adopt calm technology?
Nathan: I work in marketing technology. Many of our audience are B2B marketers. They’re buying the latest marketing technology. Seven years ago there was 150 companies identified as marketing technology companies. And last year there was close to 5,000. I’m just wondering what advice you can give to marketers about how they think about technology that they are either consuming, buying, whether that’s marketing automation, or the technology they are marketing themselves. What should they be thinking about?
Amber: For marketing, it’s different because you’re dealing with ideas, and trends, and temporary everything. So, with marketing it’s kind of like a Swiss Army Knife. You want to just try everything and see what sticks. And you want to be able to very quickly switch from one interface to another. Because people will abandon one space in favor of another. Or the demographic will split and you need to follow them into all the different demographics, or demographic splits, or interfaces, or surfaces, or communities that they’re part of.
So, as a marketer it’s not, ‘Here, have this one really good piece of technology that can last for 20 years.’ You might stay with something for 15 months, but that’s probably the maximum. Twitter’s been pretty long, but remember all the different Twitter tools that there were, search.twitter.com, and Twitter Analytics, and Twit Stats. They’re all gone. But for a while, marketers were like, yes, these are great. And then they went away. I think for marketers, it’s all about constantly being on the exploratory edge, discovering new territory, finding new tools, seeing what’s there, using a mix of market research, qualitative and quantitative approaches.
I’ve gone to a number of market research conferences last year, all the way from Dubai, to New York, to London, it was all about quantitative analysis. And then all the speakers came in and said, ‘Well, in quantitative analysis you could find that the pet treats aren’t selling very well in the store. And you could just stop carrying the pet treats, the dog treats.’ But you could have an anthropologist or a qualitative person come in and look at the purchasing pattern in the store, and realize that it’s grandparents and kids that want to buy pet treats, and not adults. When you put those pet treats on a really high shelf, nobody could reach them. And that’s what’s declining the sales, not the pet treats themselves.
But if you just rely on the data, you’re going to be missing out on the other miniature stories. And there’s less funding for qualitative research, and information architecture, and things like that. But once you get somebody who can come in and give you more of the macro trends, and the kind of universals, and start applying those, then you can balance your strategy from this kind of whiplash effect of, ‘My gosh, we got to do this, and this, and this.’ To where we’re going to do this and this this, but there are universals on every interface in sight, and tools for how we approach things.
And that kind of slower method, let’s say that kind of Calm Technology, that calm approach, is what I saw made the biggest difference for Wieden+Kennedy. I used to work there in 2009, and it was really a dangerous time to work anywhere because the economy was so bad. We could’ve lost Old Spice, and Levi’s, and a bunch of other accounts. But it was Wieden+Kennedy Entertainment in the basement that came up with these crazy ads for the Old Spice guy. And being able to watch that happen was really interesting because it was, ‘OK, we’re going to look at the space, we’re going to do something totally outlandish, and mix the new and the old, and make these incredibly high production value ads, and respond to people on Twitter.’ And it was just right out of an old advertising playbook, which is well you have to have a mascot for the brand like the Marlboro man. But let’s just make a crazy one that’s over the top and experiment. And it was those experiments with the new media in all these different shapes that did a really good job.
I mean it’s also like learning from art, hiring artists, and mischief makers, and weirdos, helped too. I mean that’s what got Crispin Porter & Bogusky so much pickup, but also so much trouble from all those Burger King ads. But fundamentally it’s memorable, it’s that experimental lab-like nature of playing, and having fun, and mixing things up. I think there’s never one solution for marketers at all. And it’s exciting times. Just kind of expensive times.