Slow Tech: An Idea Whose Time Has Come
Is the pace of technology too fast for most people?
With a mobile phone in nearly everyone's hand, technology is everywhere, accessible at all hours and in most places in the U.S. With a device as powerful as a computer in our pocket, we've become accustomed to doing an array of electronic tasks on the go and in the tiniest pockets of opportunity: writing e-mail, checking into our social networks, browsing the Internet, playing games on apps. Many people even take their devices to sleep with them, determined not to miss a message. Our daily lives are slowly shaping themselves around our technology usage, as devices start to creep into once-sacrosanct areas of our lives.
There's a dark side, however, to constant connectivity, an impulse that powers every "10 Signs You're Addicted to Technology" article you read on the Internet: a growing exhaustion and bewilderment at how much time we spend doing activities online and on our phones, and this real-time constant interruption is backfiring for some. More and more people report feeling overwhelmed by the omnipresence of online activities and the expectation to be constantly accessible. It's wreaking havoc on schedules, ruining a full night's sleep and disrupting relationships.
But a group of technology designers and thinkers are stepping into the fray, and this "slow tech" movement is gaining momentum, pushing people to rethink how we approach technology from the ground-up. Instead of being obsessed with an overarching drive towards efficiency in our technology, slow tech thinkers advocate a more livable, mindful relationship between consumers and devices.
We have a "slow food" movement that has helped shaped the conversation around the need to eat locally and in season; now the time has come for a slow tech movement to recalibrate the saturation of technology in our everyday lives.
The Roots of Slow Tech
The idea of slow technology isn't entirely new. It has its roots in the ideological movement called "appropriate technology," a term eventually coined by economist and proponent Dr. E.F. Schumacher in his book "Small is Beautiful," first published in 1973.
Appropriate technology as a whole concerns the relationship between technology and economic development, particularly in developing countries, saying small, local technologies benefit societies best. But on a consumer level, it centers on ideas of proper scale: technology should be "people-centered."
Connected to the idea of appropriate technology is the concept of sustainable development, another ideological cousin of slow technology. Sustainability in technology concerns the renewability and durability of technology, as well as its environmental impact during its use and how it is disposed of afterwards.
The core values of both appropriate technology and sustainable development concern the relationship between technology and its users: will a device detract from the user's quality of life, both now and for future generations? Both methodologies stand for a certain thoughtfulness not only in what devices we create and consume, but how we use them.
Slow technology as an ideology extends that thoughtfulness to how devices shape our relationships to time, emotion and energy. The movement has its origins in a seminal article by two Swedish designers, Lars Hallnas and Johan Redstrom, who in 2001 described slow technology in the "Journal of Personal and Ubiquitous Computing" as "a design agenda for technology aimed at reflection and moments of mental rest rather than efficiency in performance."
They argue that the increasing availability of technology in environments outside of the workplace requires designers of tech devices and software to reexamine how they design interaction with these devices, and how they must shift the emphasis from more efficiency to "creating technology that surrounds us and therefore is part of our activities for long periods of time" in a way that doesn't create undue stress on users.
Slow technology is still a bit of a niche practice among the makers and distributors of technology, but it's one that continues to intrigue designers and thinkers. A London exhibition in 2011 called "Slow Tech," organized in part by Wallpaper magazine, explored prototypes of devices that "encourages people to take time off from their little shiny screens," according to participant Hugo Eccles.
In collaboration with another designer, Eccles created theoretical prototypes such as the Social Bomb, designed to cut off all forms of electronic communication during group events like movies or weddings, as well as the Social Timer, which blocks access to social networks for a set time limit for users -- enough to enjoy a dinner, for example, and rediscover the joys of company.
Slow tech designs and ideas have yet to hit the mainstream, but their ideas of rebalancing our relationships to technology are finding kinship in growing discussions about tech "fasts," addictions and "detoxes." However, slow tech faces two formidable enemies to wider-scale adoption at an industry and consumer level: the frenetic pace of the marketplace set by device makers and carriers, and our own over-reliance on constant connectivity.
Product Cycles: Never-Ending, Constantly Speeding
Slow tech is certainly an idea anathema to the mainstream mobile industry, which relies on a flood of devices to keep consumers buying. Devices of all sorts hit the market at a fast and furious pace, introducing phones, tablets, laptops, and other gadgets with a new set of bells and whistles for each retail season.
Companies are, of course, in a quest to maximize their revenues, and the deluge of options also indicates healthy levels of competition in a market. But limitless options may not be entirely ideal for consumers. Product cycles themselves seem to be shortening, fueled not entirely by consumer need but a marketing imperative that prizes hype and momentum built by a smaller, vocal number of so-called "trysumers" and early adopters. Trysumers, true to their name, love to hop onto something first and give it a whirl, and though they're rarely loyal to any one brand, their collective ability to generate buzz means that companies may cater to them in the race for consumer attention.
Sped-up product cycles are good for most companies, but for most users, the result is an overwhelming amount of products to wade through. Consumers themselves are slowing their own pace of buying. In the midst of a slowed economy and troubled financial picture, many are simply holding onto electronic gadgets longer. With phone makers speeding up their releases and consumers slowing down their adoption, the result is a disconnect in which products pile up and consumers are faced with an even more overwhelming amount of choices in the market.
The result of all this choice is often a kind of paralysis, which psychologist Barry Schwartz called the "paradox of choice" -- the more choices one faces to pick from, the less satisfied they are with the decision. The result is a market that can quickly overwhelm users with a host of decisions, and never truly satisfy consumers since there is always another new thing coming around the bend.
The Enemy Within
Of course, no one can better overwhelm consumers better than we can ourselves, and many complaints about the fast pace and relentless flood of technology in our lives are about how much electronic gadgets and communication saturates our lives. Abuses and overuse abound, whether it be with e-mail, texting, or social networking on the go.
According to the Pew Internet Life project, 88 percent of American adults have a cell phone, 58 percent have a desktop computer, 61 percent have a laptop, 18 percent own an e-book reader, and 18 percent have a tablet computer. With such high levels of device ownership, it's no wonder that Internet activities have become such an integral part of daily routines: 59 percent of people in the U.S. search or access e-mail everyday, and 48 percent check into a social network like Twitter or Facebook. And often, they do these several times a day.
The result is what many call a "culture of distraction." Workers check their e-mail and social networks constantly, siphoning away focus from valuable tasks and creating needless so-called "insecurity work" that gives the feeling and impression of productivity but accomplishes little. We bring our devices everywhere -- to the dining table, the bedroom, the living room sofa when we watch TV, even the toilet. We can't even leave them behind when we go on vacation, instead holding onto a bit of the office while sipping margaritas on the beach.
The constant usage of technology in our lives begins with intentions of closer connections and better productivity, but very often lead to more stress and anxiety that chip away at overall quality of life. For example, sleep is highly affected by constant electronic stimulation, and constant check-ins with Facebook and Twitter can lead to feelings of inadequacy, with social media eliciting constant comparisons to the sometimes idealized lifestyles and relationships others portray on social networks.
Even though electronic forms of communication theoretically make it easier to communicate, overuse can also complicate relationships. "Technology should be on the list of the top reasons why people divorce, along with money, sex and parenting," said therapist Sharon Gilchrest O'Neill in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. "There has to be some time in the week when you are all together and you shut off the technology."
The saturation of technology is our lives hasn't gone unnoticed, and many activists, pundits and culture warriors are fighting to rebalance the relationship between our gadgets and our lives. Studies have shown that downtime away from technology actually reduces stress and boosts productivity, with "digital diets" offering a respite from the constant ping of information. On a personal level, some users give up Facebook for Lent and unplug to reconnect with their families.
Beyond individuals and groups of friends, initiatives and projects like Clean Out Your Inbox Week, No Email Day and the National Day of Unplugging attempt to create a larger cultural conversation around the advantages of mindful technology usage and breaks from connectivity. These ideas may be making an impact: some workplaces are instituting breaks from e-mail during off-hours, for example, in attempts to avoid worker burnout.
The Slow Corrective
It's not likely that slow technology will permeate our technology industries as a whole. The profit imperative is too strong, and companies are in the business of making money, which requires a never-ending string of products to sell to consumers. However, it is worth noting that one of tech's most successful companies, Apple, has seen massive success with a tightly curated product line designed to be highly user-friendly and elegantly simple -- two values emphasized by slow technology and its intellectual forebears.
Instead, users will have to be the ones to realign their values with their gadget and technology usage. In the end, there's no way to turn back from the surge of connectivity in the digital age. Nor should we -- making powerful technology more mobile, accessible and inexpensive has wonderful implications for much of the planet, whether it be bringing access to powerful innovations to under-served populations, stimulating the economy with new models of business, or spreading revolution and democracy. To be a Luddite in today's world is to cut yourself off from powerful opportunities and empowering tools that spark new ideas and creativity.
Instead, what is needed is clarity and mindfulness around what devices we truly need, what we use them for and how we interact with them. Whether it's just at an office, part of the rec room or out of the bedroom, our devices have a right and proper place in our lives, but it's up to us to determine where and how. Slow technology may originally be a design philosophy, but in the end it's a practice that rests in the hands of the users themselves. ♦
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