A Romantic View of Technology Design

... but not romantic in the lovey-dovey sense.
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Caspar David Friedrich's The Wanderer Above the Sea (Wikimedia commons)

Designers and entrepreneurs have long imagined a world where everything is digital. Here, lamps, clothes, furniture, and all sorts of accessories of modern life would communicate with their users and with each other, creating a network of smart technology that goes way beyond phones and computers. Examples of this are already cropping up in nascent iterations of the Internet of things, which currently include applications that tell you when you're running out of eggs, etc.

This dream presents a serious question: What's the point? Do "smart" objects have a raison d'être? One obvious answer is that it might be cool if homewares could talk (because who wouldn't want to live in a world like Beauty and the Beast?). Another potential answer: Making everyday objects "smarter" could increase efficiency by streamlining energy use, reducing the number of gadgets necessary in everyday life, and preventing user error in cars and elsewhere.

But a third explanation lurks in the background: Technological progress could create a world that more closely resembles what it "should" be. During a talk at the Aspen Ideas Festival, two graduate students from MIT Media Lab offered interesting versions of what this "should" might look like, painting a remarkably un-techy theory of technology design: In the best world, digital creations would facilitate a "return to nature" and create aesthetically moving experiences. In other words, they believe that the next generation of technology should serve the same purpose as art, at least in part.

But more on that in a minute. The first designer to offer up one of these perspectives, Lining Yao, said that her work actually fights against the tidal wave of digital information. Soon after arriving at MIT from her home of Mongolia, she realized that "there are so many smart people on this planet trying to add even more information to the real world. They are trying to put information on mobile phones... and even on glasses nowadays. And I started to wonder: Instead of adding more information to reality, could you try to maybe subtract some information at some point? Maybe by cleaning up all the noises you can pay better attention to the things you really care about."

This has led her to work on a few different projects. The most interesting is her team's effort to create material -- literally, cloth -- that can be digitally programmed to respond to human touch and shift into different shapes for multi-function use. For example, aquatic adventurers could wear sandals that transform into seaworthy flippers - maybe not the top priority for most commuters, but a fascinating option nonetheless.

For Yao, all of this is part of a deeper philosophical drive to create technology that mimics nature. "Could it be that material is so smart? Could it be expressive, responsive, and so intelligent as to interact with humans? Well, if you look at nature, the natural material actually talks," she argued. For her, nature provides a roadmap for man-made technology, which is an unexpected throwback to Romanticism in late 18th and early 19th century Europe. Instead of the steady forward march of man v. nature, in which technological progress is a way of beating back, outsmarting, and dominating the natural world, Yao is describing a theory of tech design that shows deference to and even takes tips from nature's playbook.

Presented by

Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also writes about religion and culture.

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