Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Quietness and Effortlessness: A Manifesto for Harmonious Technology


This year I want to think about the idea of Harmonious Technology, stemming primarily from a taoist principle of alignment and naturalness. All technologies, like humans, are not created equal. Tools cut across a wide landscape of use, and complexity - some are easy to use, some take experience and "artifice".

What I'm interested with the idea of "Harmony" here is technology which, perhaps for want of a better phrase (but perhaps not), is not even noticed. Technology that gets out of the way. Technology that we use like we hear - without thought, without judgement, without a look of confusion.

Good travellers leave no tracks.
Good words leave no trace.
Good counting needs no markers.
-- Tao te ching, 27

I feel like there should be some principles to sketch this idea out further, if it's to become something worthwhile, something tangible. As an initial brainstorm, not even something in a bulleted list yet, I think the following need to be factored in: Harmonious Tech should be instantly understandable, should integrate with the environment rather than detach a "user", should not break, and should deflect attention away from itself. This is just a messy start, though. It needs to be refined, simplified, mapped out. It needs to make sense. It needs to be whole.

At one level, I see Harmonious Tech as an HCI thing - that is, how technology integrates with individuals. But I think the concept could equally be applied to technology at a societal level. We spend so much time talking about, for example, the way in which we communicate and "the next big thing", to the point where we no longer talk about whatever it was we invented the technology to help us do. In the same way that we've come to depend on money to make money, we've also come to depend on technology to provide a reason for technology. Maybe this is a singularity forming, a reflexive, recursive ball of discursive nothingness wrapped around on itself.

Or maybe it's a society with its head up its arse. Instead of working out to live, we spend our energy showing how much about the future modern world we know. Harmony is turned into Catch-up. The cogs spin ever faster and get ever smaller.

Harmonious Technology seeks to go in the other direction for a change. Instead of seeing the cogs as technology, it sees technology as the grease to keep the cogs, that we already have, run as smoothly as possible, so that ultimately what we get out is not more grease, but whatever-it-is that the cogs have been set up to do.

Live. Love. Laugh. Lots.


phil jones said...


This is what, in my Alexandrian mode, I'd call "Quality Without A Name".

I think Humanized's Enso is probably the best example I've experienced.

The Wiki-way is another, too, of course.

Scribe said...

Thanks Phil.

Ambient tech is one of the more important aspects I'd love to emphasise as well - the fundamental idea that we need to get away from screens, from PCs, from "inputs and outputs" even, and towards instinctive control, technological-outcomes-as-a-side-effect-of-what-we-do-anyway.

I think it'd be a good exercise to identify some strands here, and think up some great examples/proofs to illustrate them. Lunchtime thinking, I suspect :D