September 19, 2004

Calm Technology

Calm technology. What an odd concept they pitch. Calm technology essentially comes into being via the act of frantic listening to its environment. Can a technology really be calm while its insides are stuck in an infinite loop, churning code, waiting for the moment to "calmly" react to the outside world?

Posted by Abe at September 19, 2004 12:31 AM


Calm technology was/is supposed to keep *us* calm by moving from the centre of our attention to the periphery...

But I like thinking about how *computers* can be calm...

yeah, I'm well aware of what calm technology is supposed to be, I just find it problematic. There is no net increase in calmness, just a potential transference, calming the user (anti-user?) through the utilization of a hyperaware device. And in a large majority of cases these aware devices are internally frenzied, looping through their microchip codes hundreds of times a second. Frantically waiting for the triggering event.

In a sense this is highly selfish act. It reminds me of massages. A massage is a great thing for the recipient, tearing away the tensions and stresses on the body. But to give a massage is actually quite a damaging act. The masseuse is essentially taking on a large degree of the stress in the recipients body, an act that can be quite damaging over the long term.

Calm technology, in its current construction replicates this sort of relationship, only using a machine to take on the stress. But one wonders what the effects are of this constant background electronic stress. Are we really going to get calmer by surrounding ourselves with an army of hectic devices?

Didn't mean to suggest you didn't know...

But what exactly do you see as current calm technologies? I might argue that Weiser's vision has yet to be realised...

hmmm, I think there are a few examples around. Clocks being the most prominent. But also baby monitors, radio triggered garage doors and occasionally webcams (say to make sure your garage door is closed as you no longer have the certainty of physically closing it yourself.

And thinking about that just makes me wonder if any technology can ever truly be calming. The same clock that calmly tells you that you can take your time also frantically tells you that you are late. Too much silence over the baby monitor can bring on a shocking paranoia. Perhaps the human physio-psychology can only handle calmness to certain point...

The breeze and the sunshine are calm technology, there are calculations going on all around us, all the time, and that doesn't necessarily imply franticness. How fast is the refresh rate of the atmosphere?

"imagine sitting at the edge of a swimming pool, stirring the water with your feet. How quickly the pool's surface is updated! The "computation" is so fast because it is parallel: all the water molecules are computing at once. And how does a molecule compute? It reacts to forces from its neighbors (locality), in accordance with the laws of physics (homogeneity)."

That's from Rudy Rucker's introduction to his Cellab CA software. It doesn't matter whether the technology itself is calm or calming to us, the implication is that it runs in the background until noticed or needed.

hmmm, that's stretching the limits of metaphor pretty damn far, no? Either that or it requires placing a god like faith in the fact that the "laws" of physics are more then just a model of events. Didn't Kuhn put that view to rest almost 40 years ago?

I dunno, Abe, the guy's done some amazing work in massively parallel cellular automata, and I've learned a lot from him. I'd be inclined to take him at his word.

Which is to say: not only do I not think it's stretching the metaphor, I don't even think Rucker's depiction *is* metaphoric. I think he understands nature as essentially one big computation. Stephen Wolfram does too, for that matter. It's not even necessarily a reductionist way of seeing things, when you grok "computation" the way they do.

The relevance to current ubicomp practices, though, *is* a stretch.

Yikes, man that's a scary thought, just because someone has proven to be intelligent in the past doesn't make them right does it? Especially when they start delving into other fields...

I don't much know Rucker's work, and I've got nothing against him using whatever metaphors and models he needs to work his magic. But so far the only way I can make that quote out to be anything other then metaphor is if you look at the world as basically being God's big computer.. Its the whole natural philosopher, uncovering god rules through science thing. I don't buy it. And I'm sure you've read your Kuhn too.

This whole next stage, "world is a computer" is entirely predictable. We use the best metaphors we can. Used to be mechanics to describe the world, now its computation. And the good thing is it doesn't have to be anything more then metaphor to be useful. But nor is it useful to pretend the metaphors are any more then they are. Actually that's not true there are plenty of uses for such distortion, I just don't like the ones I've encountered.

But yeah, whatever it takes to understand the world..

Sure, and computational metaphors might have unintended, nasty consequences - the old thermodynamic, darwinian metaphors sure brought some ugly baggage along with "them".

I'm just trying to say that an ubicomp model doesn't have to be always on - something like water "is" what it "does". The reactivity is inseperable from its material properties. Maybe that's just an analog/digital thing, though. The hyperaware, frenzied checking is just the sawtooth edge of curve being mapped to a grid.

On metaphors, again, though: how would we talk about the world (or even think about it) w/o them? Imperfect though they may be ...

Well, OK, here's a thought that a guy once had, while watching seedpods fall from a tree.

He thought: that tree is *raining instructions*. He thought: those seedpods are nothing but a dataset for the reconstitution of the tree, a recipe for more trees (and more seedpods).

I don't think this is metaphoric.

Now, as for ubicomp and metaphors and consequences: yeah, and again yeah.

I think, actually, I'm going to write a book on this, and I think you'll begin to see pieces showing up on v-2. Ubicomp is coming, because there are too many powerful institutions vested in its appearance for it not to be...but what if, say, the Web Standards Project had formed before there ever was a Browser War? What if we begin to enunciate standards for ethical ubicomp before it's an actuality?

We don't need to wait for this stuff to appear, and to suck, before we push back, is what I'm saying.