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"Technology is at its best when it augments our humanity" : Interview with Amber Case, {dive}'s Cyborg Anthropologist

Amber Case, "cyborg anthropologist" and experience designer, will appear at {dive}:event on July 7. After founding GeoLoqi, in recent years she has become one of the leading specialists in experience design and the evolution of the relationships between people and technology. An interview with an influencer who argues for a more harmonious approach to technology.

Can you define what is exactly the daily routine of a cyborg anthropologist?

A cyborg anthropologist looks at how technology and tools affect our culture over time. Now we have devices in our pockets that cry and interrupt us. We have to take care of them and feed them at night with electricity, and we have to protect them with cases and make sure they do not fall. Mobile phones are often the first things we wake up with in the morning, and sometimes the last things we fall asleep to. How do they change our identity, work and play, privacy and security?

What were the major changes/evolutions you’ve seen in the user experience field in the last 10 years?

The major changes I've seen in the user experience field is the introduction of the "use anywhere" device - the mobile phone and screen. Increases in battery life, cell networks and the creation of the app store allow us to use our devices for so many new things, but many companies still design for "the desktop". As PARC researcher Mark Weiser wrote, "The World is not a Desktop". We cannot interact with the world in the same way as we interact with a desktop computer. We need to design technologies that do not make use of all of our attention, just some of it, and only when necessary.

How did you develop the « calm technology » theory?

Calm Technology was first proposed by researchers Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown of PARC research (XEROX's famous research center in California) in the mid 1980s-90s in California. They imagined a world in which technology became so cheap that it would outnumber humans. Then the scarcest resource would not be technology, it would be attention. How a technology worked with a human - retreating from view when the human did not need it, yet appearing when a human did - was one of the aspects of this new idea. Technology is the best when it enhances our humanness and allows us to do our task, not when it interrupts and confuses us. Mark Weiser died unexpectedly in 1999. He was unable to see a world where his thoughts would ring true. When I discovered his work 10 years ago when working on my thesis, I wanted more of the world to become acquainted with Calm Technology. We are in a world of interruptive technology that will only get worse. We need a framework for improving these interactions.

What kind of feedback do you get from tech brands?

Tech brands know that their customers can reject them if they are interruptive in the wrong ways. Technology companies have flown me out to meet with them and review new product designs to make sure they are "good to live with" and not interruptive. I've been able to suggest different alert styles, buttons and interfaces for those devices. Good design is often quoted as "taking everything away until their is nothing to take away". A good design gets to your goal in the least amount of moves. A calm technology gets you to a goal with the least amount of mental cost.

What are the emerging trends you look at or investigate those days?

Small art collectives and researchers are often asking the right questions about emerging technologies. They are often playing with what can be done with technologies instead of trying to design it within the constraints of a serious technology company. It is often these experimentations that lead to new discoveries and methods of interaction. I do a lot of digital archeology on Archive.org, Google cached pages, and links from old websites. Many people do not think to look back in time to understand the future. We have been trained to fetishize the "new" so much that we do not realize the wealth and discovery of of the "old". What we saw happening 20-30 years ago we will see happen again at a larger scale.

What are you expecting from your participation in {dive}:event?

I’m very excited to go to {dive} because of the people and the ideas I’ll get to meet. I imagine it will be like an art museum where people are the exhibits instead of paintings.