This weekend I finished reading a book that played with the classic Theory of Relativity mind experiment of time dilation, exploring how people would react to leaving a place for a few days and coming back to see the effects of hundreds of years of change. It got me to ask, “If we did this to an technologist from the Dawn of the Industrial Age, what would he or see say about our technology of today?” More importantly, what could we learn from this?
So much has changed
We have introduced a vast about of technological change since the dawn of the industrial revolutions: power plants, manufacturing plants, electrical lighting, engines, horseless carriages, flight, medicine, long-distance communication, computers, genetic engineering…
It could be easy to get lost exploring the effects of individual innovations. However, what would someone from the past think about how have all of this has changed how we use technology in our everyday lives and work?
What someone from the past would be amazed by
Instantaneity. Between manufacturing, mass production, the Internet and mobile, we have become accustomed to getting things instantaneously. Online ordering for next-day delivery. Hourly airline shuttles. Our friends and family are in reach within seconds via mobile. Technology has compressed what used to take months or weeks into days or seconds. This has effectively made our lives longer, letting us do more than we ever could before.
Interoperability. Before there were standards, nothing worked together (it was even hard to get trains to connect due to differing track gauges). Today, we complain if we have to download a software driver. Someone from the past would be amazed by our ability to fly from London to Shanghai, pull out our mobile phone and make a cell, then go buy a replacement battery using this thing called a credit card.
Cost. Standardization, automation, efficiency and innovation have made technology affordable for the masses. You no longer need to be independently wealthy to use technology—even in emerging economies. This lower cost has increased our purchasing power, making all of us effectively richer (and letting more of us incorporated technology into our daily lives).
Of course, technology has not made everything better…
What about today would horrify someone from the past
Complexity. The rapid pace of technology development has made our world a complicated place. Not only do we need to know how to use a wide range of technologies from morning through bedtime, we also need to continuously understand new tech to keep up-to-date. Write two lists—one of all the technologies you need to use every week and one of all the fun things you did—which is longer?
Intrusiveness. It is almost impossible to separate life from technology today. Mobile phones are all around us. Work email is overflowing and accessible 24×7 worldwide—even during dinner and office meetings. All of our private information is online. Some have even argued that, “privacy no longer exists.” A person of the past, when life was less connected, would be stunned by how much technology invades our life and work.
Uniformity. The “dark side” of standardization and lower-cost is a lot of our technology is the same. We use the same smart phones and computers. Our cars look a like. Unlike how we decorate our homes or combine our clothing fashions, very little of our technology is individual. In contrast, past technology was often tailor-made. The uniformity of today’s technology would be coldly impersonal to someone from the past.
What the visitor from the past could teach us
It is easy to view the person from the past as backward and less sophisticated. However, their fresh look at today’s technology, unbiased by short-term trends, could provide valuable insights to improve how we build and incorporate technology into our daily lives.
Focus on the essentials. It is really easy to add technological “bells and whistles.” It is a lot harder to design technology that lets us do more WHILE making work easier and less complicated. By focusing on the essentials, we can build what is needed, designing it in way that makes it most useful (creating technology people will love to use)
Build In Negative Feedback Loops. Technology makes automation easy. Poorly designed technology becomes more and more intrusive at high use, flooding users with messages, alerts and interruptions. If you build in natural governors, your technology becomes more productive the more it has to manage (making it irreplaceable).
Allow some personality. Everyone is different. Each person works differently, uses information differently, has different routines for travel, shopping, etc. If you built technology that takes advantage of standardization to let people easily add art and personality to it, you will create something that becomes integral to their their lives.