“Smaller, faster, cheaper” has been the mantra of information technology for decades, but it doesn’t always hold. I can’t imagine a case where people would complain about a cheaper price, but would you want a keyboard that is much smaller than your fingers? Or would you be happy with a laptop that had a display the size of a postage stamp? It might seem counterintuitive, but slower is sometimes better, too.
Obviously, we don’t want our systems to work less efficiently. We don’t want them to get in the way of our getting our work done. But slow technology can have advantages. (And not just because we need output to match our ability to absorb it. This goes beyond flashing 20 page reports before us in 2 seconds.) In their paper “Slow Technology—Designing for Reflection,” Lars Hallnäs and Johan Redström suggested that a larger view of time and technology was worthwhile. We can move toward managing time–as occurs when any composer approaches music—rather than simply moving towards faster technology. In their paper, they present evocative examples from the real world: How the sounds of changing classes this goal or the creak of a rocking chair contribute to information and mood. I immediately thought of how Leonardo da Vinci was often inspired by nature and how he let the natural world reveal itself over time. In fact, the way events we reflect and develop new ideas does take time.
And why shouldn’t this be part of the design of technology? Granting us those moments that allow us to absorb? This perspective came across in a big way as I watched IBM’s Watson computer take on the champions of the quiz show Jeopardy! The computer wrestled with natural language questions, and generated multiple options and assigned each one with a confidence number. Looking at one result for one question, even when the full list of options was shown, was revealing. But the cumulative effect of getting a window into Watson’s thinking process over the course of many questions helped me appreciate just what the computer was up to. In effect, I got to “know” him. Given that a future role for Watson-type computers is decision support, getting an intuitive grasp of the thinking, especially the potential mistakes, is invaluable. I could imagine that such learning, over time, would improve the use of many technologies. But I discovered something else. Just as the creak of a rocking chair provides an emotional impact, making me feel more at home as it becomes familiar, the emotional connection with Watson grew over time as I experienced “him.” With all the speed under the covers (and Watson does its work at blazing speeds), that sense of familiarity developed at a human pace. Slow technology – maybe it’s a good idea. Maybe it can help us be more comfortable with the smart world we live in.