Four Futures for the Mobile Age

A Review of Enchanted Objects: Design, Human Desire, and the Internet of Things

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As a culture, we struggle to keep up with the constant technological changes that surround us.

Enchanted Objects book cover

For those of us who are Baby Boomers, we grew up and were educated in the industrial age but now find ourselves in a whole new world based on the digitization of information.

It is a world of both possibilities and dangers, as David Rose’s new book, Enchanted Objects (Scribner, 2014), lays out in provocative detail. Rose believes we are at a junction point in our choices about technologies for the future.

The possibilities he looks at are:

  1. Terminal World: a future in which we are dominated by glass slabs into which we constantly peer. Mobile phones and tablets are already the most obvious examples of such “attention wells.”
  2. Prosthetics: a future where we are supplemented by new bionics that add to our muscles and our senses, making us superhumans.
  3. Animism: a future of living with social robots and cuddly objects that talk to us and pretend to care about us.
  4. Enchanted Objects: a future in which everyday objects take on delightful new qualities that enrich our lives, but which do not dominate us. The New York Times described this as “putting magic in the mundane.”

It is possible to have a future in which any or all four scenarios play out.

For Rose, it is the possibilities of building enchanted objects that most excites him, because the other scenarios can oppress human values and desires.

He talks about a recurring nightmare in which “the cold, black slab has re-architected everything – our living and working spaces, our schools, airports, even bars and restaurants. We use interactive screens 90% of our waking hours. The result is a colder, more isolated, less humane world. Perhaps it is more efficient, but we are less happy.”

Instead of being dominated by black slabs, Rose suggests that we think of them as one category of tools in a much larger toolbox of technologies where the object is to support human capabilities and preferences, rather than being controlled by those who have the most data about us.

He recognizes that the whole technological revolution is being driven by human drives for omniscience, telepathy, safekeeping, immortality, teleportation, and creative expression.

But his goal is to build an enchanted world that celebrates human life, not the technology for its own sake. (For examples of they have built how enchanted objects to satisfy each of these human drives, have a look at Rose’s printable poster, a Periodic Table of Enchanted Objects.)

The second half of the book is on the design of enchantment, and examples of enchanted systems. He lists seven positive characteristics of enchantment that he believes needs to be part of any technology going forward. These are:

  1. Glanceability – where the information transmitted from a device is immediately readable without a lot of cognitive processing.
  2. Gestureability – design of objects so we instinctively, naturally know how to interact with them.
  3. Affordability – the cost of computing has become so low that embedding functionality into objects should add little increase in its price.
  4. Wearability – increasingly we will wear technology–particularly sensors – as they become attached to our clothing and jewelry. Rose writes, “wearability is a way to liberate functionality from the tyranny of the black slab and distributed onto objects all around us and on us.”
  5. Indestructibility – enchanted objects should be both inexpensive and remarkably durable in order for them to be part of everyday life.
  6. Usability – enchanted objects need to be designed with human capabilities and desires in mind. Their use should be self-evident.
  7. Loveability – enchanted objects must connect emotionally by giving human attributes on inanimate devices.

When we think of the design of both mobile devices and mobile learning content, how many of the above characteristics do they have?

Perhaps this time to put down our black slabs for a moment and think about where we going with all this. A good place to kick-start our thinking is to read this book or listen to David Rose talk about these ideas.

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Gary Woodill is a senior analyst with Float, as well as CEO of i5 Research. Gary conducts research and market analyses, as well as assessments and forecasting for emerging technologies. Gary is the co-editor of "Mastering Mobile Learning," author of “The Mobile Learning Edge,” and the co-author of “Training and Collaboration with Virtual Worlds.” He also presents at conferences and is the author of numerous articles and research reports on emerging learning technologies. Gary holds a doctor of education degree from the University of Toronto.

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On November 4, 2014
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