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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 daily life.
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."
Despite that 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."
Her compendium 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.
Her 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.
How 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?"