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Once again, Phil Agre comes out and says, far more eloquently than I could, some things I’ve been thinking lately and takes them a few steps further:

The need for a new culture.
–Phil Agre, excerpted from RRE News

The world is being swept by new materials, including computational devices that can be embedded into anything. These new materials are full of knowledge; far more knowledge goes into the average hunk of steel, glass, fabric, computer circuitry, display screen now than ten years ago. If you look around at a hundred sectors of industry, you see people exploring a world of new design options.

What’s missing from this picture is the most important kind of
knowledge: the knowledge of how to live. We have an opportunity to redesign our lives, and I want to argue for a new culture in which we use this wave of new materials to reinvent the way we live. We’re at a crossroads. We can be good little consumers and buy all the shiny commodities, or we can be active participants in shaping the culture.

This active design orientation has a precedent in the Internet world; the Internet is designed so that end users can build on top of it, and the Internet’s development has repeatedly headed in unexpected directions because of the ways that end users have taken hold of it. We need to bring that orientation home and apply it to a much wider range of technologies.

Knowing how to live has many facets: having a purpose, being useful, evolving rituals instead of ruts, advancing professionally without tearing oneself apart, keeping in touch, using TV and other drugs in moderation, physical and mental health, balance, cultivating tastes, eating the right things, standing for something, and advancing the art of having a life. But I want to consider a few aspects in particular.

Quiet. Access to computers will soon be a solved problem, but access to quiet is something else. All sorts of machinery can be made more quiet with new materials and computer-intensive methods of vibration analysis. This includes HVAC and compressors generally. And noise-cancellation devices will soon be cheap enough to scatter everywhere. It’s time to start auditing our homes, workplaces, and public spaces for noise. Some noises are good. Others are bad. We’ve gotten used to too many unnecessary bad noises.

Indoor air quality. We know that indoor air is choked with fumes
from carpets, paint, and plastics. The problem isn’t getting solved because it’s invisible, but we’ll soon be able to get small devices that automatically analyze the air. Then we’ll be in a position to force the issue.

Adverse selection. Homes today are designed to look good for the half-hour you spend on the tour, instead of what they’ll be like to live in. When everyone is online we can help people find other people who live in similar houses from the same builder, and a lot of new questions can come to the surface. What would it be like to have a service that enables people to communicate based on the stuff they own on common, or are thinking of buying? It’s an easy problem on a technical level and tough on a social level. You have to deal with privacy issues, spammers, and perverse incentives. But maybe there’s a way.

Intellectual life. In a world of terabyte databases and superabundant bandwidth it’ll be much easier to explore the art, music, and ideas of the world. We’ll be able to discover what we really find interesting and what we really care about. And it’ll be much easier to find other people who care about the same thing. Then will we we make time?

Boundaries. As cell phones mature into always-on technologies
that keep us connected to everyone else, we’ll have incredible power to keep in touch. But we’ll also have to decide where to draw the line. E-mail addiction will move from the desktop to restaurants, vacations, recreation, and the middle of the night. We’ll have to set boundaries: at which points exactly during your kids’ Saturday soccer game are you letting them down if you’re hooked to a device and not to them?

The tidal wave of new materials can be used to amplify the negative forces that are pushing the world out of balance. And that is the most likely outcome unless a new culture of living well takes root. We can drive ourselves into fragmented, hyper-competitive, over-scheduled lives, or we can learn how to use the new technologies positively to design healthy lives of involvement and balance.

This exploratory period of new technologies is important: technical standards are a parliament of early adopters. Companies produce products, but only real people in their real homes can tell what’s useful, and only real people in their real lives can understand how the pieces fit together. People with a strong design orientation lead the market and effectively make choices for everyone else. That’s why we need a movement of creative people designing good lives for themselves, and why we need it now.

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