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Juxtaposition: Creating tech to get away from it

Ted Cullen, @twisterdotcom
06.10.15
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We live in auspicious times. They are the best of times, but to roll with a Fitzgeraldian cliche, they are also the worst of times. Technology is infusing every aspect of our lives. Fleeting moments away from the tiny glowing screens which bear fresh fruitful notification goodness seem longer now than ever before. A flash of light in the corner of our eyes or a slight movement in our pockets bring with them vindication and conversation to the previously most private and silent of situations. Networks within networks within networks have brought about connected homes without so much as a square metre of unfilled unconnected space. Lightbulbs, fridges, ovens, house plants, fireplaces, instruments, dishwashers, kettles, pets, alarms, locks, vacuum cleaners, sound systems, picture frames, windows, mirrors, remote controls and air conditioners all feeding, using and straining the home network's now traditional partners in TV's, games consoles and personal and handheld computers. All customisable at the touch of a tiny glowing capacitive connected screen, providing ever more pings and pops and dings and buzz's for which we forever fear about missing out on because god forbid, in this easier tech controlled passive lifestyle, the fridge forgets to order more yoghurt, the vacuum misses a spot or the front door doesn't open automatically on your arrival home to a perfectly timed rendition of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Freebird". As your foot hits the welcome mat and the lighting dims and brightens as you enter and exit every room of your house, your pre-programmed dinner has just finished slow cooking to perfection and all you need to do is plate up your TV tray because Netflix has already loaded up the last episode of Orange Is The New Black at ten seconds before you finished watching it last night. And I mean, hell... when it doesn't just work, you can bet your ass we'll all be screaming at our tiny glowing screens and lightbulbs and fridges and door locks and ovens and sound systems and "F***ING BULL***T ROUTERS BECAUSE WHY WON'T YOU JUST WORK YOU PIECE OF S**T?"

Maybe it's come as no surprise then, that there is now a growing trend in technological product design to sideline the screen. Our current and ever increasing Fear Of Missing Out is real, but is also spurring a burgeoning set of anti-gadgets in the hope of restoring some of that pre-millennial nostalgia we all now yearn for after a tiring days worth of our pockets and wrists buzzing like an actual millennials eyeballs at a Kygo gig.

Kickstarter is always a good place for these things to come about. It would be rare to find any of the major internet behemoths attempting to sway your valuable eyeballs away from glowing pixels, so it's by no coincidence that the leaders of this charge take to crowdfunding.


Numio is just one of these such devices. It's a connected device sure, but it does away with the pesky screen and the multi-touch capacitive pinchy zoomy swipey upload crap and instead brings buttons and dials and waving to do stuff, and who's Kickstarter video culminates on the tagline, "let's get away from screens and closer to each other". Similarly, the Light Phone, a credit card sized mobile phone with just the single function of calling received a plethora of coverage from more prominent tech blogs. The team behind the idea are strong believers of "living in the moment" and maintain that it is "designed to be used as little as possible". The MIOT, from Valencia based, MIOTtech is a "retro-styled device" which will even turn your digital notifications into the epitome of the 90's, analogue split-flap clocks and the Atmoph Window from Atmoph aims to supplant your tiny screen with a larger 4K view into the serenity we crave without leaving our notification fuelled livelihoods.

All this is great, but it's also easy to poke holes in. Anything like this is still dependable on that 5"-7" screen, the apps which run on them and the network they all depend on. In fact, we're still not really 'missing out' on anything, we've just alleviated the ability to constantly check and in doing so, become distracted by less important notifications. This in itself is the problem the latest slew of smartwatches were supposed to address, but having watched the first batch come and go, the biggest complaints from the tech journalists have not been the inability to receive notifications or the decreased dependance on our smartphones; it has been that the watches simply cannot do enough. They cannot work alone well enough, which poses the question; will we always want our tech to do more?

Two years down the line, will the Light Phone evolve into an ecosystem consisting of a set of Light Phone's, each the size of a credit card, but with just one for calling, one for texting, one for simple google searches and one for your preferred CortanaSiri digital assistant of choice to blurt out whatever piece of information you think your smartwatch has forgotten to inform you about for today?

Will the Atmoph Window have ceased in it's initial goal of providing escape and simply provide another means with which to receive our pinging, buzzing, daily bombardment? Will the MIOT and Numio's portable buttons and dials and number of split-flaps not be enough or never have an adequate amount of tactile movements to control or feedback the ever increasing amount of apps they need to control both seamlessly and simply? And what's the point in even designing away the screen when every study states that we are actively engaging in more and more time spent staring at them, consuming and creating the content we crave?

In actuality, the situation is not as dire as I have made it sound. Numio, MIOT, Atmoph, the Light Phone and every other subservient tech-rat-race-escapist Kickstarter are all trying to solve a real issue we all know to be true, and we all know to be growing because of these trends towards heavier media content consumption. It's a testament to this fact that these products are mostly fully and over funded, with the newest, the MIOT, a recent Kickstarter Staff Pick already over a fifth of the way there at the time of writing with over twenty days left to fund it; and lest we forget that not just any old crap will get funded by the crowd these days. Sorry Uwe Boll.

Jake Jarvi, creator of the popular YouTube series, "The Platoon of Power Squadron" has discussed the relation between consumption and creation in a recent vlog which is really worth a watch, but even setting aside the need for spaces where ideas can properly germinate, the need for spaces where we can cultivate human relationships is also the goldilocks zone we should be striving for. We are trying to find a way to not be alone together as Sherry Turkle has posited, but more together, connected. Moving away from the attention absorbing hubs of control and notification distracting pocketable screens and toward the return of satisfying interactions with both the technology we want and the people we need.

In an era where we are only now discovering what a truly ubiquitous connected home might look like, these gutsy product designers are attempting to save not only our poor eyes, but our poor relationships too. I'll be the first to jump on the bandwagon and stand for the fully autonomous connected home. It's in my nature as a card carrying, ironic t-shirt wearing, spectacle adorned nerd, but even we in this RSI-riddled club realise the need for quiet moments and true face to face interaction. Our new fictitious leader Richard Hendrix from HBO's Silicon Valley even said so too. On the flip side though, I'm also worried that these fairly indie products may not be the seeds of a new era for the technological human but just another cycle in our uptake of technology playing on our social disquietude.

Are we stuck in a rut, endlessly creating more technology in order to somehow subvert our dependance for a while? I mean, I don't want to go live in the woods on my own, and I probably don't even want a Nokia phone, but just for a while, it would be nice not to be infuriated or notified of anything without the gut wrenching fear that I may not have responded to a Facebook comment or missed out on knowing within two seconds of Tim Cook uttering it, what the name of the next iPhone will be, because god forbid I tweet about it after it's already trending. #Lame
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