But do more gadgets really combat the tyranny of the digital age?
As you’re reading this, you may be conscious of your attention wandering. It might be your phone alerting you to a tweet or text message; a bleep as a contact logs in on Skype; your calendar popping up a reminder for your next meeting. Or it may just be a creeping case of the fidgets as you anticipate the next status update.
The response to this from maverick product designers is a wave of sleek, quietly clever products for our age of interruptive technology. Rather than monopolise attention, these devices encourage people to spend less time immersed in their digital lives, while recognising that a full-on detox is unrealistic for anyone working in today’s knowledge economy.
Kate Unsworth launched Vinaya, a research and technology company, in London in 2013 with, she says, “a view to exploring the role that technology should play in our lives, then building the tools to help us live that life.” Eastern philosophy and mindfulness are key to Unsworth’s company culture. The anthropologists, technologists and designers she hired together created Altruis, a high-end piece of connected jewellery that gently vibrates to alert you to important calls: no need to check your device every five minutes. US brands Ringly and Beacon & Lively have products that do much the same thing; the latter’s cuff bracelet gently flashes red, blue or green, depending on who has messaged.
Maverick designers are building sleek, quietly clever products for our age of interruptive technology
At its core, calm technology espouses a set of design principles and considerations that prioritise the user’s wellbeing. The phrase ‘calm technology’ was first used in the mid-90s at the R&D company Xerox PARC. In January 2016, a structured set of guidelines was outlined in a book, Calm Technology, written by academic and researcher Amber Case. She says that more tech companies should use quiet, less intrusive status alerts such as ambient lighting, gentle bleeps and vibrations, as these sit at the periphery of one’s attention and take up less mental processing capacity. Five well-known tech companies (she can’t say which) have asked her to apply calm principles to their existing work.
“The book came out of people being annoyed with technology’, Case says. “Every time you want to do something you have to update your software, or you can’t run your dishwasher in the middle of the night because it’s too loud. We can choose our products but we can’t choose our alerts.”
The Roomba automatic vacuum cleaner is one of Case’s favourite examples of calm tech, because it emits a sad tone when it needs repositioning, and sounds triumphantly when its task is complete. “It’s cute and it doesn’t take all your attention away,” she says.
Sound is such an important element of calm technology that it’s the topic of Case’s next book. A UK survey conducted in 2014 on behalf of the retailer John Lewis found that almost 50 per cent of people shopping for home appliances factored noise levels into their purchase decision, rising to over 60 per cent for those living in an open plan space. Sales of products with the Quiet Mark seal of approval increased by 33 per cent between February and June 2016. When constant connectivity blurs the boundaries between work and life, particularly within the home, then quiet, focus and privacy are at a premium.
Calm tech is pitched at an aspirational target market, which may tell us something about disconnection as an emerging status signifier in today’s always-on society. But you have to get the pitch right: Vinaya was conceived as a luxury brand but is now, according to Unsworth, “entry level luxury”, a label with a much wider appeal. The company recently launched the Zenta, a bracelet that collects the wearer’s biometric data so it can be analysed and the results used to promote less stressful, more mindful behaviour. It debuted on a crowdfunding platform and reached its target in 48 hours, eventually raising more than double the original goal of $100,000.
“We used IndieGoGo because we wanted to get feedback,” says Unsworth. The final product will nudge you along very subtly and be as passive as possible. My hope is that humans will evolve to the point where we really value eye contact and physical presence, and technology will evolve to become less distracting.”
The Monohm Runcible, which has been labelled as an “anti-smartphone” that its makers promise will never “beep, alert or otherwise interrupt you”, was also successfully crowdfunded, in July 2016. Created by former Apple executives, its design is inspired by “devices humans have carried around with them and loved for hundreds or thousands of years: the pocket watch, the compact, the compass, the magical stone in your hand.”
People creating new products for the age of ubiquitous computing, including Unsworth, can struggle to pinpoint the extent to which they should make the user experience passive and invisible, or give the user control (or factor in the perception of control) over the product and the data it collects. “Some technology is bad because it makes decisions for us’, says Case. Working on the security aspects, alongside better alerts, means creating a product that is trusted and easy to use. This can lead to reduced customer services and tech support costs – in short, says Case, “calm technology can make or break your product.”
The pressing question for businesses is whether measuring attention and frequency of use is really still the best indicator of long-term success. The rules of calm technology suggest precisely the opposite: the less you need to use something, the better it is. As more companies wake up to the consumer demand for fewer interruptions, we may begin to move away from the attention economy to a new set of metrics that base success on quality of life.
Debbi Evans is a journalist and cultural insights researcher who has written for Wired, Stylus and Google.