Medium and Message: Thoughts on Our Devices
It was a generation ago that Marshall McLuhan noted that the medium was the message. It was very apt. Norman’s Design of Everyday Things gave further insight that objects are inherently good at helping us perform certain things and not good at performing other kinds of tasks. A device that is inherently and explicitly good at performing a certain task is said to have an affordance for that task.
Computing devices have affordances we should examine to see what activities of ours they facilitate or not. I found the recent iWatch commercial highly compelling because it illustrated a wide number of ways in which the device had materially positively impacted a wide number of people’s lives. Hopefully, that is the point of all technology, to make people’s lives better.
And it was precisely that thought that led me to be so disappointed with Apple’s subsequent announcements, which did very little to describe what affordances those new technologies offered or what new experiences they would make possible. Actually, worse than this, it appeared that the new devices not only lacked vision for improving people’s lives, but offered affordances that would harm rather than help their users.
When a new phone comes out that has a larger and brighter display, it has an affordance for being looked at more often. If it has functionality that will scan your face and do useful things — but only if you look at it — it is expecting you to look at it more often.
Devices that do not have a display, or only have a small display, are not expecting to be looked at very much. As a thought exercise, it is possible to imagine an Internet connected keyboard with no display whatsoever. Without addressing whether it would be a market success, we could ascertain what it would say about its owner or user: that it was intended as a medium of production, and not a medium of consumption. The tool instructs our usage.
All of this is so obvious as to be banal, but gets more interesting and actionable when we reverse it. If we ask ourselves what kind of actions we want to perform, and whether we want to produce or consume, we should select a tool appropriate for the job. Here is where most of us fall down.
A smartphone seems a remarkably capable device. So we become tempted to use it for things like producing content, but a smartphone has so much richer media for consuming then for production that we usually find ourselves switching modes from production to consumption, by accident. We pull our phone out of our pocket to take a picture or compose a thought but soon enough are watching dumb videos or reading terrible news.
This was actually one of the major reasons why I was slow to switch from a BlackBerry to an iPhone: the BlackBerry, for all its shortcomings, had an absolutely incredible keyboard. I could type very quickly even without looking at the keyboard. I knew that I would not be as prolific on an iPhone, even with iOS having excellent spell correction. (And it was true!)
So when we see throngs of people staring at their phones that are designed to be stared at, and consuming content without producing very much — or only producing bland and simplistic content like selfies — we should not be very surprised, because that is precisely what these devices were engineered for. Modern phones are great at taking selfies and watching videos and are terrible at helping you produce complex content. If we want to be engaging in different activity, we should be engaging different devices.
I am not sure I believe in the long-term viability of the phone form factor for the knowledge worker. In times requiring focus but still needing the ability to be interrupted for something urgent, something like a smart watch (without the phone present) might be appropriate. It has been shown that having a very large screen improves knowledge worker productivity, one much much larger than what even large smart phones offer. So this suggests two modes that people should consider: one of being mostly disconnected and only reachable for urgent matters, and the other of being fully immersed in the active consumption or creation. The former with an “invisible helper” and the latter with a monster wraparound display.
If we care about productivity, I’ll note that for all such devices and interactions, we will need to master computer speech recognition and comprehension, as this is the most efficient way for a human to compose their thoughts. It is dramatically faster than typing or any other way of recording thought for the vast majority of the species.
The smartphone’s awkward middle ground between unobtrusive and immersive gives us a sense of the potential of productivity without giving us the means to actually execute on it, and a large enough display to be highly distracting without being completely immersive or completely useful for knowledge work. And AR? A dystopian future of people waving their phones around constantly to experience AR instead of making eye contact is neither particularly productive nor particularly immersively entertaining. We see ads for people observing a basketball game but instead of participating or cheering or even talking to each other they are looking at hallucinated dinosaurs on the court. Is this supposed to help them enjoy the game? Each other? To make a statement of sorts?
You control culture by choosing how to participate in it. You dictate your role by the devices you choose. What devices should we use to become the people we want to be?