This piece, written by NBBJ CMO Tim Leberecht, originally appeared on the World Economic Forum blog.
“In skating over thin ice,” the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “our safety is in our speed.” But what if we can no longer cope with the speed? There are signs that technological innovations are outpacing us as individuals, as well as the institutions we rely on.
At the individual level, the Internet and all the things that it connects has pervaded all aspects of our lives, from companies like Amazon and Google using consumer data to create highly targeted products and ads, to the “Quantified Self” movement enabling consumers to monitor and govern their lifestyles, from how many calories we burn to how well we sleep. As our own media channels, we’re always on the air, always on the record. Big Brother has become “Little Sister”: we are volunteering personal data at massive scale and operate in a state of permanent self-surveillance.
With it come dramatic changes to our social customs and behavior. Our always-on culture and business — “time machoism,” as Ann Marie Slaughter calls it — has turned us into victims of attention-deficit-disorder or, more mildly, “continuous partial attention,” to use a term coined by Linda Stone. Social genomics studies suggest that not only our productivity, but also our evolutionary capacity to connect with others is diminished by digital overload. A popular recent video on YouTube, “I Forgot My Phone,” illustrates how much we miss out on living our lives as we rely on our gadgets to capture them. Furthermore, in a world where everything is recorded and stored, we may deprive ourselves of the ability to form memories, and consequently, to forget and to forgive.
At the societal level, there are concerns that technology is causing huge shifts that our institutions and value systems can no longer keep up with. Others fear that technological innovation is erasing the middle class, as Jaron Lanier contends in his book “Who Owns the Future?”: “Kodak employed 140,000 people, Instagram 13,” he points out. Finally, Evgeny Morozov warns us of “solutionism,” a mindset he finds preeminent in Silicon Valley and rejects as a myopic belief in solving the world’s problems through software fixes and patches “designed in California.”
But it’s not all doom and gloom. In return for our apparent losses, we gain two compelling benefits: comfort and efficiency. As consumers, we appreciate technology because it makes life easier, and the world smaller and flatter. As institutions, technological innovations not only enhance our productivity and sense of control, but also open up new commercial opportunities.
I would like to propose a third gain, hoping that amidst the age-old dialectic between the good and bad sides of new technology there is space for a new notion of value: what if technology is there not only to serve us but also to challenge us? Only if we familiarize ourselves with discomfort will we be able to cope with the unexpected, the inexplicable, the messy: in other words, life.
What I’m advocating is “poetic technology.” Poetic technology is driven by curiosity and aims to create moments of sheer beauty, delight and surprise. It makes our lives richer, not faster, and makes us wiser, not smarter, in the process. It adds strangeness and romance to our lives, instead of demystifying and commoditizing them. Poetic technology can be a single feature, or something embedded as a ‘hidden treasure’ in otherwise more utilitarian products and services.
Here are some examples:
Twitter is a news and information sharing platform, but it is also a poetic medium: a powerful vehicle for self-expression, for impressionist musings, and even new art forms (such as the 140-character novel or NeinQuarterly’s bitter-sweet haikus). The School of Poetic Computation in New York focuses on “artistic interventions." The founders say their intention is to promote work that is strange, impractical and magical. First projects include an “Eyewriter” that allows graffiti writers to draw with their eyes and a “Sonic Wire Sculptor” that uses a 3D drawing tool to create music.
Online flight tracking sites such as FlightRadar 24 or FlightAware not only provide useful information but, with their congested air traffic maps, also serve as pure visual spectacle. I know people who spend hours on them in front of their computer — a seemingly senseless activity and yet an example of focus and “thick” presence.
Apple’s Siri and other speech recognition avatars offer some built-in friction as well. The small deviances in the program —when Siri doesn’t know the answer to a question (see, for instance, what Siri responds when you ask her about God on a Canadian iPhone) are moments of poetry that bring us back to a childish sense of wonder.
These are small, humble examples, but they make the point. Poetic technology is not a substitute for the critical role that technology can play in our lives. It can, however, be an extension, a third way that balances the benefits of conventional technological innovation with small moments of attachment and meaning. Poetic technology can be pointless, but it provides us with a sense of being in the moment that we seem to have lost under the regime of hyper-connectivity. To return to Emerson, poetic technology may not slow down the speed at which we’re skating, but it might make the ice thicker.