An open-mind about new technology will help lead us to discover endless possibilities for its use in our daily lives
I have a nostalgic memory from my childhood that conjures up that youthful sensation of limitlessness, of the feeling that the day will be so long and full of opportunity that it couldn’t possibly be filled.
It was a full hour until my best friend was due to arrive and, I’d spent a restless minute or two fidgeting by the front door in anticipation. To an eight-year-old, an hour seemed like waiting until the end of time.
Then, time seemed elongated, as if without all that assumed knowledge and the prejudices of experience, the perception of time was changed. This is a blissful, open-mindedness with which to view the world, learning by doing, getting stuck in. But that openness of mind seems extremely hard to retain into adulthood.
There is an easy currency in the curmudgeonly tradition of dismissing anything new, a default superiority given to wry scepticism over youthful enthusiasm and intrigue. In other words, technologists have to work damn hard to get ideas accepted by the mainstream and there’s a tediously charted route through uninterest and scepticism, the ridicule and hype of early adopting, the undulation of that scrutiny and eventual, often reluctant, acceptance. And then before you know it, everybody has a mobile phone!
This is not to be confused with the vital scrutiny of new technologies and their place in our lives; one such example is the personal privacy implication of the Memoto lapel camera, which automatically takes nearly 3,000 pictures throughout the day. And then there are the Guardian’s revelations that the US National Security Agency has systemised access to swaths of our online activity – nothing less than a devastating crisis of trust for the consumer web and deserving of a separate analysis. That crisis also illustrates how vital it is that we understand the risks of the technologies we rely on daily, rather than absolving ourselves of responsibility for our online lives to others who allegedly know better.
Often under-considered in our attitude to new technologies is that the human side of engaging and improving that technology is half the point. Technologists present us with the tool and we help work out what it can do; the shopfront for mobile apps was built by the technologists, but their success was down to hundreds of thousands of developers and designers who had ingenious ideas about useful or entertaining things to build. Google Glass, another of a swath of wearable technologies slowly drifting into the public consciousness, is an exciting, challenging case in point.
There is no app store for the life-augmenting tech of Google Glass yet, but its success depends on it. So what can our open-minded imaginations – to recall that sensation of limitlessness and exploration – conjure up? A speaker by our ear, a camera for stills and video, voice commands and a small, basic screen in our peripheral vision. Forget that you’ll feel silly wearing them (because you felt silly and unsure when you first used your pager/mobile/Skype) and think of the opportunity. It could be great for sport, with live radio coverage playing into your ear and statistics displayed. Or maybe for travel, where the headset will translate everything you see and hear instantly. Boom! Another industry disrupted. All in a day’s work for Google.
Rethinking the mini-computer that is our smartphone makes sense. Our mobile lozenge is a legacy format that started with the candlestick telephone, a format determined by the size of the technology and the dimensions of the human body. We deserve better! We are comfortable with a watch format because we know it and Samsung’s Galaxy Gear or the Apple iWatch combine that format with the success of wearable fitness devices, like FitBit. But add new sensors, as well as imaginative software, into these mini-computers and the impact could be significant. Non-invasive blood testing will soon be a reality, transformative for diabetics who will no longer have to puncture themselves several times a day, as well as those who have to monitor cholesterol.
To scratch the surface of what’s possible: health apps will be able to monitor those blood test results, and sync with the restaurant as the wearer walks in, to suggest the most suitable low-GI or low-cholesterol meal. The behavioural implications could be profound, but we need to be interested in understanding and exploring the potential so that we are ready for the debate about who has access to this data, and whether it could ever be shared with a health insurance provider.
Picasso reportedly said computers were useless because they could give only answers. It’s a beautiful idea that without human inspiration, without knowing the questions we need to solve, we can’t create anything really powerful. But he also told his lover and fellow artist Françoise Gilot he saw painting “as a form of magic, designed as mediator between this strange hostile world and us”. Perhaps that’s the best way to see technology, and with the limitless possibilities of an open mind.
Breaking the mold
Free with every purchase of Sugru is the wonder of what you ever did without it. It looks like play-dough, but dries as a flexible, silicon rubber. The real delight is the playful, hack-it-better mentality of users, who have created glow-in-the-dark tent pegs, a kettle for the visually impaired and camera housing on a helium balloon that took photographs of the Earth from 100,000ft. Its appeal is the ethos of modifying and personalising mass produced products, and in repairing rather than throwing them away.
The magic of old tech
Technology of an even older kind at the Proms recently, where I was mesmerised by Janine Jansen of the Orchestre de Paris leading Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto. Whatever the technological secrets behind that Stradivarius sound – wood infused with potassium borate, or an unidentified music – it was the elemental technology of a 286-year-old violin and the manipulation of horsehair, gut and precious metal that created all that magic. With more than a touch of artistic genius, too.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013