Tom Chi  

Their Own Devices

December 24th, 2004 by Tom Chi :: see related comic

I once heard a theory positing that central heating was the root cause for the decay of the family. Granted, this wasn’t a scholarly paper or anything of the sort, but there was definitely something to it. In the days before central heat, homes were warmed by a single source — usually a coal or wood-burning stove in the main room of the house. The result being that on cold winter afternoons, one could choose to be either in their own room — freezing — or warm in the living room with everyone else. This naturally lead to more face to face interaction and ‘family time’. Thus the arrival of central heat marked the end of this sort of forced together time.

Technology has followed a similar path. People used to gather in living rooms around radios and televisions. They used to share a single phone line or computer. Even though the quality of the contact was not always that great (fighting over the remote, anyone?), the need to share brought us into more contact with each other. Now more and more people have their own walkman, gameboy, cell phone, and of course, central heat.

I remember watching a presentation on the ‘digital nomad’, which was the concept of individuals being ubiquitously wired with all data at their fingertips. A digital nomad could wander the woods, constantly aware of their position, weather conditions, possible dangers tagged by location, and check the lastest sports scores to boot. Beneath this vision was the philosophy that self-sufficiency was the ultimate of goals, and that we are best off when we depend on others only in rare and abstract ways (you still need people to populate those databases). This is ‘central heat’ taken to the extreme, and it makes me wonder at times whether there is a different direction for technology that could encourage us to interact and rely on each other in productive ways.

Social networks are trying to do some of this, but I’ll leave that discussion to another day (and comic). KC has plenty to say on it, but he’s likely in Turna Tuva or some other random spot. Suffice it to say that it gets interesting when engineers (who rarely understand the nuances of social grace) take a go at designing applications to facilitate social activity.

10 Responses to “Their Own Devices”
Bob Salmon wrote:

At college we were deliberately given poor cooking facilities so that we had to eat in the canteen. (Maybe this was also a cunning money making scheme by the college.)

Julian wrote:

My Visual Interface & Interaction Design professor this past semester was very much into the idea of designing technology to encourage social interaction. For 3/4 of our projects, in fact, that was a stated goal for our designs.

My hope is that if enough people do consciously make this a goal in their designs technology will come to support and promote social interaction–perhaps in a different way than it used to happen, but in a way nonetheless.

The Internet seems to me to be a strong indicator that social interaction is possible through technology. The Internet in and of itself doesn’t force or promote social interaction, but the WWW, IM, IRC, email, usenet all make interacting with vastly different people (though in an abstract fashion) more possible.

I could go through my life story, but instead I’ll just offer a summary statement: if it weren’t for social interactions over the Internet my life would be very very different. The social networking that happened took me places I never would have imagined without the Internet.

Ash Donaldson wrote:


Perhaps as Julian intimated, social structures aren’t disappearing with technology - merely changing.

Of course, all new technologies will have their detractors (traditionalists or Luddites) that yearn for ‘the good ol’ days’, and we’ll hear seemingly weird, negative anecdotes of ‘novel’ uses of this technology, but that’s not to say it’s not also going to bring about positive change. Humans are malleable creatures that very quickly learn to exploit the facets of the things they interact with to their benefit.

To pick on one traditionalist establishment, I browsed the BBC headlines in the UK for the Internet and Church, and this dichotomy was clearly evident. On one side, there was “Methodists lose faith in online society”, an article about this issue of ‘central heating’ (“the erosion of face-to-face contact in society”), but on the other side, there was “When www spells World Wide Worship”, an article extolling how “modern technologies are helping the devout keep their faith”.

For another example, look at the Short Messaging Service (SMS). Someone aptly described it as “the impersonal way of being personal in the naughties”, as it can be delivered without the usual context of pitch, pause, pace and intonation (allowing for greater ambiguity, and therefore less accountability in communication). On the other hand, it has generated so many new avenues of communication. How else could you keep almost synchronous contact with loved ones overseas, flirt with someone on the other side of town during those slow work hours, or find friends in a noisy club? Bamrud (2002) did an interesting article on this very topic, entitled “SMS: The Human Factor”.

But it doesn’t stop with online versus offline. Technology is developing so rapidly now that people are lamenting the good ol’ days of discussion lists. Blogs such as this are blamed for shifting the attention from them. Even as far back as 2002, there were articles such as “Will Blogs Kill Listserv?”

Personally, I think that it’s great that we have such choice. As a human, I will satisfice i.e. exploit the first thing that seems to fit the minimum requirements to achieve a goal. In communications, since I now have a broader range of delivery media, I will tend to use the first medium that satisfies my minimum requirements. So when I’m at work I can ask my partner if she needs me to pick up anything from the shop on my way home. I will be more likely to do this, because instead of calling her (potentially disturbing her if she’s with a client or in a meeting), if I’m at my desk I can see if she’s at her computer and simply IM her, or if she’s not on Messenger, I can SMS her.

Dave wrote:

I tend to agree w/ Tom on this one. While I agree w/ Julian that the Internet has created a vast opportunity for people to interact from diverse backgrounds and geographies, that connection for the most part remains superficial in true meaning until such people meet in person.

This comes from a person who …
1. Met his wife in a Yahoo Chat room
2. before getting married used every personal service out there
3. was a listserv and aol forum junky for many, many years where I traded boots, met other fans at concerts, etc.
4. did a few papers as an anthropologist on “virtual communities”

That social changes are occurring that seem like they are good, but so long as we are loosing physical proximity from those whom we are supposed to be closest to, then this can’t be a good thing. Being able to call and e-mail is not the same as being together. Sending pictures over flickr or ofoto, etc. … All these are, are “drugs” that make it “easier” to be separated, to make us more comfortable.

The real question is why do we need to be made more comfortable? Why are we “leaving” or being separated at all? How many people who read this board still live w/in an hour of any member of their nuclear family by car or train? Often so that we could be part of “the economic machine” we’ve been asked to create distance from our loved ones and so we need new ways to either distract ourselves, or ways to make us feel more comfortable with the thought of, “it’s not so bad … I can still e-mail and send photos.”

Maggie wrote:

We cant deny that money is a big issue which could drive the development of technology further in today’s market. Even though we can list hundreds of pages of how technology can bring us together or virtually seperate us here,development of technolgy wouldn’t terminate the journey because of the change of social structure. Tom has hit the point by saying that whether there is a different direction for technology that could encourage us to interact and rely on each other in productive ways. Whether we could arrive a more reasonable direction and bear such issues in mind when developing is what we actually need to pursue.

Reed wrote:

Interesting, though central heat is the opposite direction from self-sufficiency.

To be self sufficent in heating, each member of a household woud have to have his or her own heater is his or her own room. A family heating stove is more self sufficent than central heat, but for the family, not each individual member. I heat partially with a wood stove, as do many neighbors. We are partially self sufficient, but as a local community, since we can buy firewood from neigbors who cut and sell it. Or rather, we are locally sufficient, using nearby resources rather than oil or gas from far away.

The conceptual problem is that you are *never* becoming more self sufficient as you add electronic gear, you are becoming less so. You are dependent on electrical power, on global materials trade, on global manufacturing and transportation, and on global communications networks. It’s much more like a gas pipe network. We rely on each other more, but in a way that stretches around the world, and is scattered and dispersed likewise, rather than on our family or neigbors.

Renate wrote:

When reading this thread about the role of technology and our apparent desire, or propensity for social affilliation, I can not help but be reminded of some lessons proposed by the field of
Here, what society does, is viewed in terms of evolutionary principles, regardless of the tools people employ. Technological gadgets or not, the singular underlying motivational force said to underly and influence all of human behavior is: Procreation!
Sex and evolutionary forces are seen as the single most powerful engine that drives all of our behaviors [see Harvard’s Edward O. Wilson]. In this vein, here is my sociobiological attempt to explain society’s status vis a viz technology gadgets.
We could see our current situation as one evolutionary instance that gives evidence for its adaptive reasons and persists because it is beneficial to our survival as a species.
Perhaps as the mass catastrophic events in Indonesia unfold the evolutionary “survival lesson” for this discussion becomes apparent:
It is technology itself that enables our family/social groups to be widely dispersed. At the same time this separation strategy enables our survival. We may in fact be less likely to be wiped out all at once by natural disasters and other predatory forces if our clan is not all at once in the same place - (Wilson argues that we will do whatever is needed to preserve our affiliation groups’ genetic advancement in the world.) According to this view then, we develop technology to survive as a species. Using the internet to find the perfect mate, to get early alerts about impending disasters, to check on the kids, to send pictures all over the world - all these can be viewed as particularly adaptive instances of the same biological principles of human procreation.
As to Central Heating - it was just another strategy that worked to grow the population.
P.S. If I remember correctly, Wilson had some interesting explanations for such phenomena as Altruism and other Social Group “Betterment Behaviors” which are emulated in movements such as Open Source and Linux communities.
Happy Holidays!

noah wrote:

Reed hit it on the nose. It’s an illusion to think that more technology allows us to be more free. We become more and more reliant on it and the increasingly nebulous forces that provide it than ever before.

Kubrick put these thoughts to film over thirty years ago in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Sadly, we get closer to HAL every time we allow a technology to lead our decisions instead of being another tool at our disposal to be used wisely.

I doubt social networks can solve the bigger questions unless they are somehow involuntary systems–otherwise, that’s still looking at technology first and purpose second. They would have to reflect an honest view of our real world relationships–where we do business, who we support, what we believe in, who we see every day–or end up being glorified newsgroups, elective and non-binding.

Vicente Carrari wrote:

Hey Tom, here in Brazil it’s not cold enough so that we need any heating for at least 11 out of the 12 months. So it couldn’t have any effect on families, at least in warm countries. just a thought, but as always, congrats! for the strip.

Bob Salmon wrote:

It’s interesting (and scary) how thin the veneer is of our modern civilisation. A power cut, an unexpected snow storm or flood (soon to be coming to a country near you A LOT MORE OFTEN due to global warming), a fuel blockade, and we realise:
a) what’s important
b) how modern technology doesn’t really help us with that.

In fact, often things have got worse. Good communications, computers and so on have enabled just in time deliveries to shops and factories, all in the name of improving efficiency. Improved efficiency means eliminating waste, but waste can often be another word for contingency.

Another salutory experience I’ve had is trying to step back into the Tudor period through Kentwell. (It’s a lovely Tudor manor house that turns itself into a living museum every year, and volunteers live as Tudor people to bring the place to life.)

Glasses? Ah, unless you’re being someone who’s rich you either use contact lenses or squint and bump into things a lot. What skills or interests do you have that would help you choose the Tudor person you want to be? Speech recognition: no. Designing high performance concurrent computer systems: no. Err, can you chop wood?

I’m not saying we ought to all become survivalists or anything, just realise where we sit in Maslow’s hierarchy.

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OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?