Skip to main content

Passive Tech on the Ocean

Posted by joshy on September 9, 2003 at 12:07 PM PDT

Last week I spent a much needed vacation in The Outer Banks. If you ever
see a sticker with OBX in a circle on it, that's the Outer Banks.
Beautiful and isolated barrier islands off of the coast of North
Carolina, they provide great rest and relaxation. And also the
opportunity to think about how technology fits in our lives. I've got
lots of new ideas to discuss in my coming entries, but one in particular
struck me: Passive technology.

Passive technology is, or at least I'm using it to mean this until I
find a better word, technology that acts silently on your behalf. It
doesn't require your active attention. It only makes itself known when
you ask it to or when something unexpected happens. We have some of this
philosophy in our technology now, but we need more.

I came to this realization when my friends and I rode on a boat out to
the gulfstream for some tuna fishing. You see it's very quiet out in the
ocean. Actually it's very loud. There's the lapping of waves and the
roar of a disel engine. Always there and very repetitive. But that's
it. Just the two constant noises with the occasional sound from a human.
While there is plenty of audible noise the information density is low.
I'm not bombarded with hundreds of different systems vying for my
attention like I am in normal non-vacation life. It's informationally
quiet and simple on the ocean. That's why it's relaxing!

The boat isn't simple though. It was a 65 foot ship with a huge engine,
beds, bathroom, kitchen, and a deck specially outfitted with chairs and
mount points for more fishing rods than I could count, but everything
has it's place. All features of the boat are either designed to be flush
with the boat itself or carefully hidden in a specific place. Rods are
placed in special fittings built into the hull. All furniture is
attached to the floor. All corners are rounded. They even have special
cabinet knobs that recess into the smooth door, only popping out when
you need to use them.

But back to technology. What we have is a system designed to be
unobtrusive because the user can't have any distractions. They always
need to be focused on the task at hand: sailing and fishing. Anything
else is just overhead. I can only assume that this design is the result
of hundreds of years of ocean fishing experience. In a world before GPS
and combustion engines these considerations had to be made or people
could die. Now that's some human centered design!

So why don't we see more of this in our everyday lives? Technology
that just fades into the background, letting the user get on with the
real task. Probably because it's expensive and takes time. Quality
products always cost more. Better materials and better design simply
cost more money and resources. But it also takes time for a solution to
evolve. No matter how much money you throw at building the first version
of a product it won't be perfect. It has to be refined as people use it
in the real world. The first cars were expensive and hard to drive. It
wasn't until the standardization of the steering wheel and the invention
of the automatic transmission that driving became truly accessible. It
takes time for a product to mature into something easy to use. Most of
our gadgets are too new to be easy to use.

But what if they weren't? I'd like you all to choose an
application you use today and imagine what it will be like with 10 years
more development. Don't think about new features but more on how the
existing features can become more passive and fade into the background.
I'm going to choose email. Please post your ideas and I'll collect them
in another column a week from now.

Have fun dreaming on the beach!

- Joshua

Related Topics >>