I ended Intel’s Developer Forum as I started it: on a panel talking about people and technology. But this time we were answering questions from an audience concerned about what technology could do to us, rather than for us, and wondering what work was being done to assure that future technology would transition to become more helpful and less homicidal.
What was interesting was the organization hosting the round table. Headed by anthropologist Dr. Genevieve Bell and facilitated by futurist Brian David Johnson, it is one of the rare organizations that is focused on assuring that future products better anticipate our needs and I shared their efforts to bring some of the more attractive concepts from Steam Punk into the discussion earlier this week.
One of the first concerns raised by our audience during the last panel was the one concerning our tendency to build technology that harms us and, since this week was also the week the iPhone 5 launched, I saw some interesting parallels.
Given that kids use poor judgment and the iPhone in use is far more distracting than earlier designs, why do parents give their driving-age children iPhones? Is Apple trying to kill children? Of course not. The iPhone was simply not designed for them. If many parents with kids who have gotten into accidents with iPhones or the wave of iPhone clones had known this, they probably wouldn’t have given the device to them. Stories of kids using poor judgment with an iPhone are hardly uncommon.
Intel’s Tomorrow Project is focused on building future products that are better designed for the people who use them, and in this session they advocated for a practice where people could learn what assumptions surrounded a product put on the market.
Dr. Bell took us through a history of technology going back several centuries and cited a recurring trend where we develop a new technology and then imagine how that technology might kill us. She recalled how with the advent of electricity people in government argued against it, saying something to the effect that, “Electric lights would tell hobos that people were home and they would then break in and rob them.” Strangely, electric lights had the opposite effect because robbers would prefer people not be home given their tendency to call the police or to shoot burglars.
But this showcased a tendency for people to think the worse of a new technology, often unfounded, but then not really do anything to mitigate the real risks.
For instance, let’s take alternating current. This video of Thomas Edison electrocuting a cranky elephant that had to be put down (apparently she had gotten upset when one of her handlers tried to feed her a lit cigarette) showcases a very real danger with the technology. Edison wanted to showcase that AC electricity was inherently unsafe and that we instead should adopt DC power. It is an impressive, if very disturbing, video. AC was proven unsafe and that is the technology we currently use in our homes and businesses.
But the most interesting story was likely one that Bell herself told about how Canadians think U.S. car makers are trying to kill them. This is because the U.S. was slow to adopt seat belt requirements in many areas and so automakers designed air bags under the belief that the average driver would be male, 180 pounds and not wearing a seat belt. This resulted in airbags that deployed more violently than the lighter, and more typically seat-belted, Canadians needed and when they got into an accident the result was typically broken noses or worse.
The lesson learned is that we likely should try to find out the design assumptions in the product we are using, particularly if we are putting our lives on the line.
There is an IT lesson in this and one you can apply to the personal technology products you buy. If you know who the product was designed for and the assumptions that surround it, you can better determine whether it is right for your business or personal use. Often products are designed with a particular size company, a particular industry or even around a particular company if they are targeted at business, and around an ideal individual if they are designed for personal use.
If you ask for, or derive in the case of a personal product, those details, you’ll likely make a wiser decision about whether the offering is for your company or for you. For instance, an offering designed around a mid-sized company in manufacturing would likely perform poorly in a national government role even though a function (like accounting) can be found in both entities.
Look at the new iPhone. It is designed for a small hand and its case makes it both very attractive and very delicate, suggesting that this phone specifically targets a wealthy female buyer and it wouldn’t surprise me to discover that Steve Jobs’ wife was the design target. If you were to target a young adult, you’d likely build a more robust phone that had a feature that would disable portions of it inside a car or alert if it were used unsafely.
So the walkaway lesson here is that if you spend a little time thinking through or finding out if a product targets you, you can make a better determination about whether that product is for you. And we should also likely start asking whether a vendor that releases a product it knows will be misused unsafely by a certain demographic should provide a warning notice.
Something to think about this weekend.