National Geographic Emerging Explorer and cyborg anthropologist Amber Case studies how the interaction between humans and computers is changing the way we think, act, and understand our world.
Right now, you're staring at a screen, clicking,
scrolling, reading. Amber Case wonders how much you, and the world, are
changing in the process. She is a cyborg anthropologist, exploring how
humans and technology interact. In an age when virtually everyone uses
mobile phones and computers to communicate, work, learn, and play, the
entire world is her field site.
What will the next life-shaping
breakthrough in technology be? How do parents respond to children who
spend hours online? Which new products will fail or succeed? Is
technology changing our values and cultures? "These are the kinds of
questions my work tries to help answer," says Case. Her insights are
shaping new products, the way tech insiders think, and ideas that will
make technology a more empowering, rather than frustrating, part of
As an anthropologist, Case observes an increasingly
symbiotic relationship between people and technology. "Cell phones have
become like miniature children. If they cry, we pick them up; we plug
them into the wall and feed them; when they're lost, we panic. Some
people even say their state of mind is linked to how fast their Internet
connection is—if it's slow, they feel groggy."
While some fear
more machines will make us less human, Case believes "today's
technologies amplify our humanness. When television first came out,
everything was so perfect, scripted, and carefully produced it was like a
superhuman version of humanity that could make you feel inferior.
Today, the Internet is filled with reality. Any average-looking guy can
turn on a webcam, dance to a song, and put it online. Long ago, people
would have laughed at that, but now the whole world dances along. We're
sharing with each other, human-to-human, in a very real way. We're no
longer limited by the geography of where we live and who we know.
Supportive, interactive communities spring up online based on common
interests. So I think instead of pushing people apart or turning them
into machines, really good technology helps us all be more human and
connect with each other as we never could before."
potential, Case worries that most products are being created with
technology that exists now, rather than by exploring entirely new ideas.
"I'm writing a book that tries to inspire more innovative thinking by
providing historical context. Looking back at breakthroughs from the
past can help us understand future opportunities."
traces the history of essential, yet not widely known, pioneers,
prototypes, and ideas that shaped the Computer Age we live in today. As
early as the 1940s, renowned scholars from a wide range of disciplines
gathered at conferences (the Macy Meetings) to exchange ideas about how
computing systems might evolve and transform daily life.
research reveals how much of today's technology reflects innovations
conceived decades ago. "When you look at the Dynabook created by Alan
Kay in 1968, it's the same size, shape, and weight as an iPad. It was
small, had wonderful battery life, and was loaded with multimedia. Any
application could run on its entire screen, with a keyboard below." In
the 1970s Steve Mann pioneered the idea of wearable computers, always
on, accessible, and as intertwined with the user as a pair of glasses.
Like modern-day Leonardo da Vincis, many of these thinkers proposed
ideas that were initially rejected, but are now mainstream.
does Case envision the future? "In many ways, concepts that can drive
the future have already been around for 30 or 40 years. Now they need to
be applied in ways that are accessible and well-designed enough for
public consumption. For example, what if you could wear cool-looking
glasses that provide all the information you need to navigate life
instead of depending on a hand-held device? Or imagine technology that
lets you report a pothole the instant you drive over it. Five years from
now I think we'll be talking about how everything is connected and
mobile. Ultimately, providing data on your own movements over time will
be an empowering way to improve day-to-day life, showing you the optimal
time to leave for work, the best time to eat, or how to make shopping
faster and easier. Real-life geotriggers at your house will
automatically turn on lights when you get home and shut them off when
you leave. Computers should do repetitive processes; they should be the
ones vacuuming floors. Humans should spend time doing what only they can
do—thinking and synthesizing."
Case hopes that Geoloqi, the
location-sharing application company she co-founded, will better
integrate technology with real life by solving problems of how to store
vast amounts of data, give it context, and make it meaningful. The
system operates in real time to deliver relevant location-based
messaging. A wide range of users are on board—everyone from people
curious about the history of a building they happen to be passing to
Peace Corps and U.S. Navy leaders who tap the technology to help protect
workers and troops in the field.
She notes that the success of
any new technology hinges on humanity's comfort level. "Humans don't
evolve as quickly as machines. Today, the life cycle of new products is
only one to two years, while human life spans are growing longer and
longer. That's why things like the keyboard, the mouse, and operating
systems persist. There may be better ideas out there, but these familiar
things have a shared cultural identity that everyone understands and
knows how to use. When Douglas Engelbart invented the computer mouse in
1963, he saw it as a temporary solution. He said you ought to be able to
directly touch the data on your computer, but it took almost half a
century before we could actually do that. For most people, the future
takes a long time to accept."
Case draws particular inspiration
from computing pioneer Mark Weiser, who said, "The best technology
should be invisible, get out of your way, and let you live your life."
She embraces his view, noting that, "We shouldn't have to fiddle with
interfaces. We should be humans; machines should be machines; each
amplifying the best of both. Wouldn't that make for a nice reality?"