Our Complicated Relationships with Technology

This is a guest post by Steve Clayton, Editor of Next at Microsoft. Steve works with teams across Microsoft to provide an insider’s view of Microsoft and to show people what’s next in technology. This post originally appeared on Steve’s blog.

A fellow Softie remarked to me today that I take a lot of care of my tech - my laptop is carried in its own neoprene sleeve and even my power cables have a little tidy bag before being placed in my satchel. Some people take their relationship with technology MUCH further though. Did you know that there are people who buy or make costumes for their Roombas? Neither did I, but it’s true (check out some examples, and don’t say I didn’t warn you).

This came up at the PSFK Conference New York earlier this month in a wide-ranging panel on “What’s Next.” The key issue wasn’t the costumes, but the fact that research shows that people who put costumes on their Roombas become more emotionally attached to them than people who do not, and are more forgiving when they break down and need repair. And the real point was that people are naturally prone to become emotionally attached to the technology they use, and to form relationships with the things that are part of their lives.

Of course those relationships aren’t simple. CCTV installations in the UK, RFID tags to track hotel towels and sheets, or your phone tracking your movements are just a few of the ways technology has the potential to be invasive. Or maybe useful, if you’re trying to reduce theft from your hotel or track a crime victim’s last movements. It’s not just the technology that defines the nature of the relationship, it’s who uses it for what purpose, and how they do it, and how much information or control you have of what it’s doing for (or to) you.

During the PSFK panel, Katherine Moriwaki of Parsons said that it’s crucial to foster “device literacy,” the basic understanding of the operations of the devices in our lives. She characterized most people’s attitude toward technology as “it happens, it’s magic,” but noted that without a clearer sense of how it really works, people can’t make intelligent decisions about it. One of Moriwaki’s approaches to the problem is to offer workshops that enable people to learn to create their own electronics. Understanding can lead to empowerment and engagement.

Panelist Ayesha Khanna of the Hybrid Reality Institute argues that we’re entering the “Hybrid Age,” in which technology is not only proliferating but becoming more intelligent — meaning it can learn to understand and respond autonomously to our needs. As it does so, devices are also going to form social relationships — with people and with one another.

I’d add that another key piece of the puzzle is transparency. One of the best ways to get users of your technology to trust it is to be completely upfront about how it works and what it’s about. They’ll be much more willing to invest time and effort in that technology relationship — even if they don’t buy costumes.

The opinions and views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily state or reflect those of Microsoft.

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