April 25, 2010

Tether Responsibly: An Ongoing Observation about “Being Digital”

My friend and designer-colleague Adam Kallish gave a lecture at the DePaul Museum of Art in Chicago. As noted in the announcement, he discussed “technology trends and how design can be at the table to shape the development of user interaction models.” His information technology tour went from the “rabbit-eared” television sets and rotary-dialed telephones of his younger years, up to the newest evolution, the iPad.

His tour hit upon the buzz phrases of our current information landscape like “device-to-device communication,” “dynamic data,” “integration,” “data gateways,” “data banks” and “user-generated content.” These realities will keep on buzzing.

Adam’s kids are also living the buzz. He sprinkled his talk with references to his daughters who are growing with “smart devices” and adept of their affordances. No learning curve, just immediate ease into present-day technology like hand into glove.

Fast Company magazine, April 2010—Not Adam’s daughters on the cover

The term Adam used to describe not only his daughters’ use of digital technology but society’s was “tethered”—as in, tethered to technology. The dictionary definition is “to fasten or restrain by or as if by a tether,” for example, “she felt tethered to her desk until the work was done.”

The dictionary’s example is one that most people can relate to. It also speaks to technology’s pluses and minuses. Living the buzz phrase of “being digital”, a lift of Nicholas Negroponte’s 1995 book, can turn the benefits of digital tools and systems into obstacles. The benefit of productivity, “enabled” by technology, can turn into counter-productivity. The benefit of connectivity can turn into isolation. The benefit of independence can turn into dependence. And so on.

Echoes of what Adam presented were observed the next day at work. One of my co-workers brought along his kids, who were noticeably “plugged in”:

They were reaping the benefits of digital technology, which is an actual plus when the engagement is reciprocal. Keeping the digital “tether” loose in the stare of off-line, off-screen living is the so-called symmetry that people try to manage, when “being digital” is made boundless on human terms. Ultimately, digital tools help those who help themselves.