Our relationship to our devices

November 13, 2023

The announcement of the Humane AI pin has introduced some questions and ideas that I want to jot down here.

Generally, I think about myself as a techno-optimist. I believe that technology can make the world fairer, more equitable and improve our lives.

There are lots of caveats to that though and it’s true that often new technologies don’t do that or do so at the expense of others. Nothing is free and there is always a costs somewhere.

When I talk about ‘good’ uses of technology, I normally reference things like being able to FaceTime your grandparents who live overseas or music streaming services or digital maps. These all feel like they sit between neutral and positive on a score card.

As a sort of operating principle, I think we should want to have as little technology as possible in our lives. We should want fewer screens, fewer apps, fewer devices. And so I’m in support of any work that is helping us get the benefits of technology while trying to reduce its impact and presence in our lives.

That is why I was so interested in the Humane AI pin. But since it’s launch I’ve been thinking about the execution of their idea.

They envision a world (and are asking us to do the same) where we will walk about with a small computer, camera, microphone and projector, on our chest, wearing it wherever we go.

I was at a few gatherings over the weekend with close friends and family. Each time I tried to imagine what it would be like if one or some of us had a this computer/camera pointed at the rest of the group.

I don’t believe we want to try and normalise this kind of thing. I think that if you have to design something with a ‘trust light’ that you might have already turned down the wrong street.

This feels like overreach. It’s missed the mark. It feels like it normalises surveillance. It asks us to be okay with being recorded. Because in 2023, everything is or could be content.

At least with phones, I still need to take out the device and hold it like a camera and you have some opportunity to ask not to be photographed. Wearing it on your body removes this and that doesn’t feel okay.

I’ve written before that no one actually wants their phone until they need it and then when we’re done we’d rather not have it. I subscribe to the jobs-to-be-done way of thinking - that we hire products to do jobs for us.

I don’t want to book an Uber, I want to be at home and I’m hiring Uber to do that job for me.

What is the least amount of technology required to do that? That is a question that is interesting to me.

All of life’s best moments are when we are spending time with the people we love, not starting at a screen or wearing one.

Humane is directionally right here. We should be trying to make less intrusive technology, but I think they’ve missed the mark here in big way. But also in a way that would and could only come from people who have presumably benefited greatly from technology.

There is something else to say here about AI and LLM’s etc. etc. etc. In the demo they ask the device for a restaurant recommendation or something and it spits out a suggestion. Based on…? That’s another post.

I keep thinking about the 4 weeks I spent without an internet connected phone back in 2017 and trying to navigate myself to a friends party with only a street address on some paper. I had to ask a few strangers for help getting there. I felt like a tourist in my own city. I genuinely experienced the place differently. Maybe that sounds silly to you, but when we do something “with technology” we inevitably do it “without people”.

And people are sick! We want more offline connection. The fact that we were sold ‘online connection’ is still frustrating to me.

I do wonder if we’re approaching some kind of hardware end point? Things will get smaller and faster and lighter, but are we really going to see a huge form factor change? Maybe this is the time to do a big reset and rethink about our relationship to our devices. It feels like the opportunity is here and I’d like to see us build some more opinionated devices that address a lot of the things we got wrong in the last couple of decades.

We’ll see.