Studying how things become unremarkable

Technology is a word that lives on a bleeding edge, and images of fire, language, or ballpoint pens don’t exactly come to mind when we use it now.

Perhaps I'm a pessimist in some sense, but things we bucket into “technology” today seem to buy the title because they are just not right, be it due to insufficiency in practical application, or a lack of the requisite scale to lay opinions and uncertainties in the industry to rest. The best stuff we’ve built routinely disappears from surrounding conversations, graduating from the dynamism of it all on some side of cause and effect. Overwhelmingly, they tend to remind us less of technology than they do our own humanity.

An old Times article describing the humble beginnings of wireless cell phones dates the first call made from a hand-held, wireless cell phone back to 1973, by Martin Cooper, a Motorola executive. At over ninety years of age, Cooper recollects this first call from a perspective few people now are capable of relating to:

Remember, this was the first public call ever made and I only cared about one thing: Was the phone going to work? This thing was a handmade prototype — thousands of parts carefully wired together by an engineer, not a production guy — and there were only two in existence.

When we hit the green call icon now, we rarely consider if our phones will work. The thoughts on our minds are a discrete step ahead of the call connecting, and our focuses are instead on the topic of the call before the call is even made. This transition in our thoughts surrounding our use of the cell phone is quite powerful, however natural it has become, because it clearly suggests our relationship with our phones is one that has become invisible. The cell phone is no longer just a tool— it is a modern human faculty and it is very likely one future generations will continue to grow up expecting to incorporate.

After his call, Cooper worried his creation would prove too much of a distraction for people to handle, and made sure to advertise that these devices would come with “off switches.” Now, there is little talk about whether the fundamental ability to call another person is anything between the curse of distraction or symbol of social status early adopters of the cell phone once thought it would come to be. Our phones might be silenced, but, from the moment we first get our hands on them, we never really “turn off” our ability to make phone calls.

All this written, I believe envisioning what solutions would look like when they are not merely useful, but so well-integrated into our lives that they are hard to notice is a technique that’s incredibly underutilized, and can uniquely allow us to treat technology as a relationship rather than a point of focus. It brings us to interrogate the methodologies we use and the design decisions we make from a speculative perspective I find has great power to teach us about the solutions we create and the roles these things could actually play in our daily lives.

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