Looking Back To Move Forward
This past friday Gill Wildman and Nick Durrant of CMU stopped by for a full day workshopping with us. We started the day by sharing what we wanted to be when were kids, then imagined our futures and considered how our thesis projects could bridge the gap in this timeline.
When I was a kid I wanted to invent super-hero suits so badly. I would raid my father’s winter gear drawer and pull out face masks and fanny packs and spandex running pants and imagine the possibilities. I’d sketch elaborate designs and plan what I could make with my meager resources. I usually resorted to making some kind of bow-staff out of a mop handle and nunchucks out of paper towel rolls, string and duct tape.
I didn’t know it then, but I was trying to use technology to expand what people were capable of. That’s what technology does best. It’s what makes it so desirable both as an idea and in practice. In the industrial era it gave us the muscle no human or animal had ever been graced with. Today, in the information era, it carries our consciousness to any corner of the earth, whether through 140 character tweets or complex multi-person video conferencing (or soon holographic conferencing). Technology is immensely powerful. But—here comes the Spiderman reference—with great power comes great responsibility. (*pushes Poindexter glasses up nose)
I think technology, while innately augmenting our humanity, has a responsibility to connect us more fully to that humanity. Our emotions, our social connections, our bodies, our creativity, our empathy, our sense of play: These are just a few of the things that make humans human. For too long technology has focused on augmenting our power at the cost of our nature.
My thesis is a microcosm of this situation.
Music making has long been intricately tied to our humanity. It’s postulated that our cognitive ability to make music perhaps preceded our ability form language. In many ways, music is perhaps the most human thing in existence. Other creatures make homes, use tools, have social lives and relationships, but no other creature can create or understand music like human beings do. Computers have expanded the possibilities for making music, but have also forced on musicians and listeners a mechanical, metronomic way of thinking about and experiencing music. Computer music interfaces have neglected their duty to reinforce and support the humanness (forgive the clumsy word choice) of music.
Technology’s oversight of that second responsibility can be see all around. We spend hours a day, sometimes all day, staring at a computer screen (see earlier rant)! In order to keep up socially (IM/Email/Twitter/Facebook/Etc), we have to keep staring at a computer screen! Technology should be extending our reach while simultaneously providing more opportunity for people to talk and work and play together. The input methods and display mechanisms required to allow for multi-person collaboration and face-to-face productivity are only beginning to form. Multi-touch is a fantastic technology, but until there are widespread productivity applications built for in-person, communicative collaboration with the display infrastructure and data portability required to support the natural flexibility of a human, we won’t see too much progress. That’s where I see myself in 5-10 years. I hope to dismantle the computer as we know it today (a bright light which requires our undivided attention) and distribute it’s benefits back into our physical world to allow for a powerfully augmented, but humane existence for us regular folks.