Thursday, 8 May 2014

Making IT Beautiful - TEDxExeter Video and Transcript

I haven't blogged here in way too long. This has been the busiest six months of my life I think and something had to give, unfortunately it was posting here (normal service will resume I think, I've got some ideas for how I can put things up more regularly here again). The good news though is that the hiatus should be paying off: as it stands I have three book chapters coming out in edited collections over the next few months, I'm editing a couple of collections myself, and my first monograph is moving into the final stages of drafting. I also managed to keep on doing my teaching job (which sadly comes to a close in September) and I'm pursuing the next stage of my career (hopefully a little more research focussed while keeping up plenty of the teaching that I love). It's been an exciting time.

In amongst this I managed to do a TEDx talk in Exeter which was a terrifying and wonderful experience. I've never had to memorise anything before, and I may never attempt it again to be honest, I like having notes! But it was great to get a taste of delivering a performance. Below is the video and a transcript. The experience of seeing myself from multiple angles giving a talk that I can now barely remember (adrenaline is a weird thing) is profoundly strange, but it does look like a TED talk, a genre all of its own. That might be what's strangest of all, like suddenly finding myself in a soap opera or on the pages of a novel.

A Kind of Progress: How Boring Technologies Change Our Minds

So I’m sitting near the front of a bus. It’s pretty packed, and every seat is taken. We get to the next stop, and another big group get on, and I give my seat to a youngish mum and a baby. So now I’m standing up in a scrum of people, and the baby, it looks only a couple months old, but it already knew how to be angry, it was an angry angry baby, deep down, and it looks up at me, and it decides that I’ve somehow wronged it in some really fundamental way because it starts to just bawl while looking me right in the eye. And the mother, she looks down at her infant child, and I’m guessing she really loves this kid, and she follows its eyeline, and she tracks up and she looks at me, who’d just given up his seat, and she glares and looks away, out the window, like her child’s...integral fury was somehow my fault. So this bus journey has just gone from kind of uncomfortable to just awful, for everyone on board. And that’s when this group of teenagers in a huddle next to me start to play music on their phones.

There’s 5 of them, they’re probably about 14 years old, old enough to have stopped caring what adults think, but not old enough to have decent taste in music, and you can actually hear the passengers on this bus collectively sigh, because it’s not a long journey, and no one’s going to cause enough of a fuss to push through the crowd and tell them to stop. But, in this crappy public transport moment, while the older couple behind me start to grumble about how rude teenagers are today, I’m no longer frustrated, no longer feeling guilty for trying to stare down an overly aggressive baby, because one of these teenagers and her friend start doing this mundane thing, they start putting on their makeup. But it seems weird because I think that one of them has this big mirror that she’s pulled out of her bag, and then I realise that it’s an oldish iPad, with the front camera turned on, and it’s being used just like a mirror.

Its case was covered in stickers and the tip-exed names of various bands, but what was so striking was just how normal this advanced plastic and glass thing had become. It was a trivial moment, but it was also one of those oddly vertiginous moments of modern life where you realise that experience has changed in some small but significant way. A 15-minute journey and I saw this thing used as a mirror; a stereo; to send an email; to look something up; to play a game. Every time I glanced over it was being put to some new use; it had been built, for this girl, into the practice of being a teenager. In the same way that that baby was angry, right at its core, this girl was switched on.

It’s simple to say that we live in a moment of profound and rapid technological progress. This has become a truism, a less than interesting fact about our world. We're told that we don't have a choice about progress, that we can be either for it or against it, and TED speakers, and attendees, for the most part, are meant to be for the advancement of our material culture, of the things, the objects that we surround ourselves with. “Progress” is a hard thing to define though.  What does it mean to say that things are getting better? The American essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in the 1860s
“Tis too plain that with the material power the moral progress has not kept pace. It appears that we have not made a judicious investment.”
I think that I agree; I have little faith in an idea of progress that doesn't include us getting better too, as a species, and as an increasingly globally coherent group, but that's another, much longer discussion. The science fiction writer Neal Stephenson, however, makes the simpler, but related point in a talk called “On Getting Big Stuff Done,” where he notes that:
In the first 70 years of the 20th century, we went from not believing that heavier than air flight was possible to walking on the moon.
Stephenson argues that if you took an American from 1900 and put them in a time machine and sent them to 1968, then when he or she went home again they wouldn't really even have the vocabulary to say what they had seen. But if we took someone from 1968 and sent them to now then their articulation of the change would be far easier. Stephenson says that in that case he or she would likely think that the internet was cool, and typewriters had become computers, but what had happened to supersonic air travel, what had happened to the national investment in space exploration? And he also has this fictional time traveller say things on their return which are haunting:
“Diseases that we [in 1968] can easily treat with antibiotics have become intractable and are making a comeback. And even diseases that can easily be snuffed out by vaccines are coming back, simply because parents aren't getting their kids vaccinated because they don't believe in science anymore.”
I guess my point is simply that "things are getting better faster" is a more complicated idea than we often give it credit for, and dramatically so if we consider the state of the entire world.
But there is a way that rapid change does occur through technology, and most often for the better I think. And that’s when a technology becomes boring. Cars will probably always be too exciting; we get drawn to them, we can’t really talk about them, everyone wants one regardless of how much they mess things up. We’re just not going back to horses, and, in the UK at least, we’re doing a really sterling job of trying to give up on trains too. But tablets and e-readers and smartphones are maybe starting to become just the right kind of dull.

When you’ve used them for a while you can make them do a few things really well and reliably, and you can lower the cost, and you can start to make sure that everyone has one; and only then do we start to find out their potential. Radio was like this, and TV, and telephones, and books, and photography. It was when each of them became kind of boring that they became really really powerful, and we never stopped being able to have conversations about them, about what they are and what they can be. They are not aspirational totems; they take on the same reliability and rhythms as sunrises and tap water.

What tablets and ereaders and smartphones do, what they are doing, like the great boring technologies before them, is starting conversations about how we work; how we relax; how we learn; and how we view the world, and the worst possible thing to do would be to shut down these conversations and to not see where they go. Which is why every time I see articles about the death of reading, and videogames destroying our kids’ minds, and why can’t we all just curl up with War and Peace rather than investigate the potentials of virtual reality, then I want to scream a little, because…give it a chance. We’re still all learning what TV can be, and ubiquitous high quality photography; we have no idea, for instance, what carrying a small powerful computer around with us at all times might yet do.

We should be exploring great new devices and responsibly seeing what they can offer, not damning innovation based on the strength of our old mythologies. By “old mythologies” I mean the ways in which we develop a way of looking at things that ends up making them seem to have always been true, so that when they get changed, even slightly, we experience this profound sense of wrongness. But this shows how much we care.

We place a lot of weight upon our objects and endow them with a life of their own. It's obvious that anyone who truly loves books, for instance, knows that they are much more than words on a bundle of pages. But they're not of course, the bundle is exactly what they are; we just bring something else, something better, do our best to attach it, and, with practice, do. We make things special. Physical books allow us to play with paper and bring it to life: half turning pages so that they pass by quicker; running a nail under an important line; dog-earring corners; doodling and making notes; mourning and then relishing the bangs and bumps and creases of the cover as they accumulate. It's hard to pinpoint the psychological effects of all these little things beyond a broad notion of adding importance, but that people mourn their loss suggests the pleasures, and maybe the necessity of physical interactions in daily life. But if this is the case then the outlook for things like e-readers and tablets is actually very hopeful: rather than being these mass produced lumps of plastic and glass that are so homogenous and so featureless that we cannot possibly fall in love with them, users will, instead, always work to adapt new human practices. This is part of our relationship with mundane objects: that in our bid to find the boundaries of the things that we use every day we also give something of ourselves back to them.

I think that some commentators doubt that the users of new technologies will find a way to place importance onto their digital things in the same way that they have with older and seemingly more sensuous technologies like print. But, to my mind, that’s what being human is all about: making things special, making things more than just things. We should continue, and, in some instances start long overdue conversations about vital issues such as conflict minerals and the types of social, political, and environmental impact that occur whenever a technology becomes essential. But we’re also allowed to marvel at how adaptable we are as a species, at what power we can wield when we become experts with the very items that the last generation said would threaten to destroy us.

Every stickered laptop; every annotated electronic text; every emoticon-ed instant message; every nailvarnished mobile; every comedy home movie; every tagged photo; every lovingly curated blog is testament to the fact that people have, once again, worked with these things until they are beautiful. We are building the history for our digital devices that on a long enough timescale will imbue screens with the same richness as paper pages. They traverse the same path: we make the objects, or cause them to be made; we use them; we establish what makes them work; and they get made again; and we become one with them; and we make them sing.

There is a profound bravery to letting the next generation try something new. We will always find ourselves in a state of consternation because one thing that’s always true of young people is that they will insist on the experiment, but the question always then becomes: Do we have the guts to allow them to explore what scares us, let alone to support them, let alone to follow them?