Tech Unknown | Episode 6
Featuring guest Amber Case and host Tamara McCleary
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“We have to think about: ‘what is a human good at’ and ‘what is the machine good at?’ How do we amplify the best of each?”
– Amber Case, Research Fellow at Institute for the Future
The Internet of Things has the potential to revolutionize business. But realizing the full potential of IoT technology requires strategy, intelligence, and insight into its human impact. Amber Case outlines the principals that guide smart IoT strategy in this episode of the Tech Unknown podcast.
Do we own our technology, or does it own us? It’s not a new question, but it’s one that gets increasingly more relevant as tech permeates every aspect of our lives, including how we do business.
The Internet of Things promises to provide businesses with unprecedented amounts of data to drive new insights. But the value of the technology lies in how people use it, not in the tech itself. Businesses that rush to implement IoT without an organization-wide strategy, without accounting for the human element, will ultimately be less successful in the long run.
In this podcast episode, Amber Case makes the argument for a sober and grounded approach to IoT for business. It’s the opposite of the shiny-object-chasing that can characterize the adoption of new tech. For Amber, it’s about finding the things that technology is best at, adopting the minimum tech to get the job done, and letting humans do what humans are best at. It’s a refreshing change from the regular hype cycle and one that could have lasting implications for your business.
Listen to learn
- Why the human element is crucial to IoT initiative success
- How technology can best amplify human effort
- How businesses should approach IoT strategy
About our guest
Amber Case is a research fellow at the Institute for the Future. She’s an author and design leader with a decade of experience in UX and research & development. Amber works with international brands on product development, strategy, and user experience. Her books include Calm Technology: Principles and Patterns for Non-Intrusive Design and An Illustrated Dictionary of Cyborg Anthropology.
“Technology should be requiring the smallest amount of attention possible…It should help you make better choices, but it shouldn’t choose for you. It shouldn’t make you act like a machine.”
– Amber Case, Research Fellow at Institute for the Future
Did you miss our last episode?
Check out our previous episode with Gary Mintchell: Building a Supply Chain Strategy for Industry 4.0. Click here to listen.
Episode 6 Transcript
Tamara: Welcome to the Tech Unknown Podcast. I’m Tamara McCleary, CEO of Thulium. On today’s episode, we’re gonna talk about driving innovative business value with the Internet of Things (IoT). The Internet of Things promises to revolutionize the way businesses use data, but are we fully leveraging the potential?
We are going to explore how businesses are using IoT and how they can get more from the investment. IoT enables companies to optimize business processes, enhance business applications, and develop new business models. In order to be effective, IoT must be embedded into line-of-business solutions, enhance business applications, and enable companies to develop new business models based on the data from the IoT. By using data-driven intelligence and operational contexts from machines, products, supply chains, consumers, and partners, IoT can drive new business value for your organization.
I’m so excited to bring on Amber Case to discuss this with you because Amber is a research fellow at the Institute for the Future. She’s an author, design leader with a 10-year history of user experience and research and development. Amber is a leader with vision, insight, and passion, which you’re going to see here soon, capable of uniting people with multiple backgrounds and disciplines. Amber, welcome to the Tech Unknown Podcast.
You know what’s really cool? I was looking, you’ve actually, your background, you said sociology and anthropology in college. I mean, how did you shift that, all of those experiences, into technology?
Amber: Well, actually it was the reverse. I was really into technology as a kid. My parents were broadcast engineers that put TV on the air. You know, I grew up with an Atari computer, like it was a family dog. So it was all about tech for me, that’s what I wanted to do. I liked math and science and engineering. I was not very good at social studies. I was definitely not good at history. I liked philosophy, but I was just really dead set on these fields and all the way through high school I was doing really well in math and science. I would do it for fun. It was just kind of a, “this is where I belong.” And then I kinda burnt myself out. I was trying to get into Caltech or MIT, and I just kind of tried to accelerate.
I was at pretty low-funded, difficult schools, kind of near inner city, Denver, Colorado. I had to try so hard to even get out. And I remember just being a little bit confused. I remember the dot-com crash happened and the recession happened and, you know, all of these different things were happening.
And around 2003, 2004, I was preparing to go to college and I called my mom’s best friend on the phone and I said, “You know, you’re a math professor. That’s awesome. What’s your advice for me?” And she said, “Why are you trying to go into math and science? Why don’t you learn how to think? Why don’t you go to a liberal arts college and learn the stuff that you don’t know?” And I said, “What do you mean?” She said, “Well, why don’t you learn the subject that you got the worst grades in?”
And for me, that was social studies. So I said, “Oh gosh.” She said, “Look, if you wanna make better products and tech for people, why don’t you understand the people. You can’t make great products for people unless you really try to figure out who they are and how you can help them.” And I said, “Okay.”
So I got a pretty good scholarship up at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. And I went there because it had really small class size. I figured I’d get a lot of attention, and I took no math nor science classes the entire time I went to college. I basically, day five, learned that anthropology and sociology existed. Said, “Yep, this is my major.” Wrote it down, declared it, had enough scholarship funding to go for about three years. So I graduated early and then I just took as many of these classes as I could.
I went to a philosophy colloquium because they had free pizza. I showed up for the food.
Tamara: Didn’t we all in college? The food and drink.
Amber: Oh yeah. So I show up to this philosophy colloquium. And there is a very strange person named Deborah Heath and she’s going to give a talk on cyborg anthropology. And I say, “What? Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. I can do tech and anthropology? Yes, yes, yes.” And so I have to stay through the whole thing to listen to this person. And at the end, I say, “This is what I want to do.” I walk right up to her. And she said, “Well, the class is offered like every two years.” You know, you’re going to have to wait until next year.
And also it’s like a third-year class. So like you have to wait even longer. And I said, “Okay, well I’ve got to do it.” So right then and there I knew that I could blend technology, the study of technology and the study of people. And I took Deborah Heath’s class.
Deborah Heath was one of the, kind of, midwives for creating the field of cyborg anthropology, which happened in 1993 as a subsection of the anthropology of science. And I wrote my thesis with Deborah Heath and I wrote it on cellphones in 2007, right when the iPhone came out, and a lot of the kids in class kind of laughed about it when I gave the presentation. But I also wrote it in a nice font and I put my thesis into a PDF and I put it on my website because, you know, for fun, I was always building these websites, running forums, all these things.
I was one of the earliest people to use WordPress, WordPress 4.0 when it became available to the public. So, I was just publishing online a lot. And you know, even six years later people will find that thesis. They’ll call me up and have me give a talk. “I read your thesis 10 years ago, now we got to bring you to our event.” Or, “I studied your thesis in college. It was great.”
So for a while, everybody was writing their thesis on really important topics, and I was writing mine on this cellphone, which everybody was like, “Yeah, right.”
I was like, yeah, well, one day, everybody’s going to have this in their pocket. And that’s going to fundamentally alter how we relate to the world. And then we’re going to have even more things with chips and stuff in them.
I was doing a startup at the time. It was electric-powered vehicles. We ended up building an electric vehicle charging system for condos and apartments, which is now a Tesla partner. So this was like 2006, building that, started to do research.
I wrote a paper on Facebook, I wrote a paper on these cellphones. I was walking around San Francisco. Our college actually funded us to go down to San Francisco to pitch all these ideas. And I was noticing how the cellphone was changing simply because you went from the physical interface of the T9 buttons to this liquid interface where any software could happen at any time, you know, you can just click a button, and a new software would load. You could never do that on a feature phone. And I wrote this up, gave the talk, and then I basically later made a company out of my conclusions in the thesis.
And I accidentally stumbled upon this field called Calm technology, which came out of Xerox PARC in the ’80s and ’90s. And what they had done is they had simulated the future in which we would have multiple tabs, pads, and boards, which we already have. And they found that the scarcest resource in the future would not be technology. Technology would be cheap. The scarcest resource would be our attention. And how technology made or broke our attention would make or break that technology.
Mark Weiser, one of the people who created this, came up with the term ubiquitous computing, which we kind of now know as the Internet of Things.
So I was reading this, freaking out about these kinds of technology universals that they were writing. And I eventually made a website called calmtech.com, found all of their research before it disappeared from the Web. Archived it on the website, expanded on their principles, ended up writing a book. And I’ve been on a book tour with this book for four years
So it’s been really interesting because we think about how technology is moving so fast that we can never keep up, but yet we have these human universals that were kind of given to us by the Greeks and by all these different cultures that have been around for thousands of years.
What about thinking about technology universals? How to build technology that’s long term, that we actually get the insights we want out of, that actually works with us instead of against us and works alongside us. And I think we’ve taken this sharp wrong turn recently: While, starting in like the ’30s and ’40s, actually where we thought that after the industrial revolution, we thought of this idea of like an artificial intelligence that exists outside of ourselves and it’s better than us.
And you know, even Garry Kasparov, the chess champion, has this idea that even a mediocre chess player with a good system can outperform an expert chess player or even an expert system, that it’s the human plus machine that works better because it’s about amplifying what the best of humans and machines can do.
Tamara: Amber, there’s so many cool things here, and I do want to get on a couple of things. I mean, you have just laid out this framework for these incredible discussions because I want to come back to this augmenting versus replacing human beings. A couple of things I wanted to wind back to. You mentioned the, I mean, I can’t get this out of my mind, it sounds so fascinating, cyborg anthropology. Can you give us a short definition of what that is?
Amber: Sure. Well, the idea of a cyborg, we think it’s Terminator or RoboCop, we think it’s from film, but actually the term was developed in 1960 in a paper on space travel. The idea is that a cyborg is somebody who attaches some external component to themselves to adapt to new environments.
So cyborg anthropologist says, you know, if a traditional anthropologist goes to another country and says, “wow, how interesting these people are, check out their kinship and tools. Check out their family relations. Let me write it down in my notebook and present it to other anthropologists,” a cyborg anthropologist says, “Whoa, let’s look at ourselves. We have these things in our pockets that cry and we pick them up and soothe them back to sleep. They get hungry and we have to feed them by plugging them into the wall. We wake up next to them, fall asleep next to them, and look at them in the morning before we look at our significant other.
Tamara: They become interwoven into the very fabric of our human existence. And so what I’ve been saying, which I love what you’re talking about with cyborg anthropology, what I’ve been saying for a long time is that we are already cyborgs because we cannot survive without our cellphones.
Amber: Yeah. And to even reroute that a little bit further, we’ve already been cyborgs, that we’re already cyborgs. You don’t need to have an implant to be a cyborg. And you know the difference between a cellphone and an appliance, you know, the original killer app for electricity, when we electrified the country and the world, is that you set… you know, you work alongside a dishwasher or a laundry machine, you set it, you forget it and it calls to you when it’s done.
It’s definitely a call-in technology. A light switch. You can tap on the wall in the dark and turn it on and it’s there when you need it. You don’t notice it when it’s not. It doesn’t fail in the same way that Bluetooth and WiFi fails. And so these are these calm technologies that are just there alongside us. Then we have the idea of the cellphone, which requires active care.
It’s not like a toaster oven. It’s not like… you know, even a TV set, you can still use a remote from across the room, but the remote never changes. Now you have these remote-controlled lights and the remote is like, sorry, you have to download a software update for your remote. Sorry, your remote has been hacked. Sorry, your remote no longer works because the company that raised $2 million in venture capital and was run by a bunch of short-sighted people has gone under or been acquired.
Can you imagine the electricity in your house suddenly being acquired by another company and being shut down? I mean, there was this idea that we got it right, electricity appliances, we got it pretty solid. Now we have these really weird devices that we don’t even have the same phone year after year. And if you do, you know, you can get made fun of for having an old phone.
It turns against you every time you download a new software update. It’s bigger and bulkier and I don’t really think that’s the way it should be. You know, you have a business and they bring in all of these consultants and they bring in the newest, shiniest technology and then two years later, it is no longer the newest, shiniest technology.
Are we actually moving forward? Because it sure looks like we’re moving forward, but I think we’re actually just standing still. It’s like the rush of technology. Then when I talk to companies, like one of my favorite companies is PTC. They’re in Needham, Massachusetts. They have an industrial Internet of Things because they do IoT for supply chains in factories. And their system is amazing because it’s really low level. It has sensors, but it doesn’t have too many sensors. It has the sensors to get you to understand what component in your factory will fail two, three, four weeks before it fails. It does this thing called digital-physical convergence where it’s digitizing some aspects and it’s looking and modeling some of these analog things. And then that feedback loop, which we’ve forgotten from the history of cybernetics, says, “Oh, okay, this analog thing will fail.”
Let’s push that back in the feedback loop of digital. And then let’s run a simulation. And then like, that’s pushed that back and get a new analog component. And the whole thing is not hackable because it’s a one-way signal only. The Internet of Things device is not actually connected to an Internet. It’s connected to maybe an inner net instead of an Internet, a local network that is just for the factory. And so I think a lot of the ways that we’ve gone astray is we’ve gone all connected instead of locally connected. I don’t want to have to go through the web to turn on and off the lights in my house. That’s a local operation. It should be managed locally. Whereas there are some things that I would like to be managed remotely and that makes sense sometimes. But when we’ve gone from a desktop environment where you would never dream of connecting to anything, to all of your personal data in the cloud at all times, and every company has to be not only good at their core business expertise but a security expert as well.
And it’s so funny because with electricity, there are standards, you have to have a licensed electrician to touch these things because they know it’s dangerous. Whereas with tech, nobody has to have any certifications at all to touch it. There’s no requirements.
We already have these things that have been around for 30 years. They’re really cheap. I grew up in a bunch of different smart homes. I built two smart homes. I know what works inside a home and what doesn’t work inside a home because I’ve lived it 24 hours a day since I was like 10 or eight. You know, I had the voice-controlled lamp, I had the automated sprinkler system, I had the lights you could turn on and off with a clap. Like, I mean really, like, some of this stuff works, some of this stuff doesn’t work. But because people never look into the history, they keep making the same thing again and again, like magic whip, and they’re keeping the same amount of funding for something that is not actually possible.
Tamara: And, you know, and it was interesting to this tie in, Amber, is the fact that Gary Mintchell and I, we just did a podcast on that.
We were talking about the Industrial Internet of Things. And you know, you had mentioned that ubiquitous computing is the Internet of Things. And I’m wondering if you could just kind of give us, since [what] we are really talking about here on this show [is] driving innovation for business through the Internet of Things. You know, what is your understanding of what IoT means to you with respect to this business application?
Amber: Yeah. I could give a cynical view or I could give a realistic view. Great. Most IoT is shortsighted, prone to failure, not resilient, and a buzzword, just like AI. And businesses love to panic out of fear and say, “We need to have an IoT strategy and augmented reality strategy, a blockchain strategy.” And if you have any long term, more than three years, and you think about 10 years or 20 years, and you say, “What are our most valuable things?” And it’s people, and it’s wisdom.
How do you use the least amount of tech to get the job done? And it can be really expensive technology. It can be really advanced. That’s fine. In fact, it can be ugly technology because it’s the people that use it, they’re the most important people running an organization. And, you know, I love talking to people on the plane. I’ve talked to pretty much everyone from people who’ve made the original pacemaker, people who’ve made the original face recognition algorithm.
I mean the people that end up sitting next to you are always pretty awesome. But I love talking to people kind of in the back end of businesses, especially in the airline industry, which has been around for such a long time. I sat next to this woman and I was like, “What do you do?” She says, “Oh, I work in the back office on an airline.” And I was like, “Cool, tell me about it.” She’s like, “Okay, great.” And she said, “Look, there are these systems, and one is kind of a command line system that, you know, the airline attendants can run and they, it takes like a couple years and then you memorize all the commands, and suddenly you can change people’s flights around really easily.” And you feel like you have superpowers and you’re proud that you understand the system and you’re a superhuman, you know, you want to stay working with this company because you have put a lot of effort into understanding this back-end system.
And then they said that all of these new, you know, all kinds of desk people are getting on this more abstracted system where there’s a graphic user interface. You know, when you go to the airport and sometimes you peek over and you see what the front desk person is doing when they’re changing your ticket, there’s often a really ugly kind of DOS-looking screen that’s just kind of, you know, that is a superpower machine, right? Like you’re in service and you see somebody going tap, tap, tap, tap, tap thing, the muscle memory that you get from these ugly, business-ready interfaces is great. It just takes a while and then you, you know, the thing that doesn’t change. Now, there is no interface, it’s so easy to learn, but it’s not powerful anymore.
Tamara: What do you think businesses are overlooking as they jump into IoT initiatives and what really should be on their checklist?
Amber: People are really important. I think that the biggest killer of organizations is the person in middle management that makes everybody’s life miserable. I think that often you have people at the top who are really innovative. Like, remember how a company starts. It’s often pretty radical. Like a good big one. It’s often pretty bizarre, you know? And those people that start it are pretty innovative and they’re silly and they’re looking towards the future and they can change stuff. And then you have the people who actually do the work that often have a better idea, but then you lodge all this middle management in the way. And the middle management repeats the cycle. They say, oh no, it’s not possible to do it this different way. And so you prevent the organization from growing and changing.
It’s all there. It’s all distributed. And so, you know, how do we make, let’s say, mobile banking accessible to… You know, what if the person living in the rural area doesn’t want to go on mobile because they don’t have a mobile phone. What if they do want to go to the bank to deposit a check? You know, maybe you could have a mobile van that drives around these rural neighborhoods and allows people to deposit their checks.
And you know, that person that becomes the equivalent of like the milkman, and they get to know everybody in the neighborhood. I mean, there are these options that we can have where it doesn’t have to be completely automated, and there are some things that should be completely automated that are good. But we have to think about what is a human good at and what is the machine good at? How do we amplify the best of each? And there’s lists of these things, you know. I’m gonna work on a new book about this, going into a lot more detail with the historic research that’s necessary for this.
But I think the most important thing to remember is that we evolved dogs and horses and sheep and all these things alongside us as tools. We never expect a hammer to have consciousness. We don’t expect a dog to act like a human, although we treat dogs like humans, that makes them depressed and obese. But if we’d say, “Hey, look, a beagle is good at finding truffles or a pig is good at finding truffles,” like we never expect the dog to act like a human, why are expecting automated systems to act like people?
Tamara: But I think what you’re saying is so interesting because even though technology has advanced and changed, what you’re saying is so true. And that is we’re still people. We’re still humans. We have not changed. And I did this amazing roadshow last year with Brian Greene, the quantum physicist from Columbia University. He and I went and did all the series of talks on digital transformation. He came from the angle of academia and I came from the side of enterprise because we work in enterprise and consulting and business solutions. And what was really interesting, our entire talk across the nation was on digital transformation and why it’s not progressing or why it’s not effective in certain organizations.
And really what it is, is it comes down to people. And when you nailed middle management, I tried to stifle laughing so it didn’t come across. I mean, that’s where it is. So, anyone listening that works in an organization, the executive team comes up with, you know, we need to do this. This is what we gotta do and this is the corporate initiative. But where things get stalled out is with the people. And where does it get stalled out? It gets stalled out down the line into middle management. And unless you have people buy in, unless you have a people transformation, you will never have a digital transformation.
And I think that this is really interesting because we are all looking at harnessing technology to drive business value. What technology do you not think will be around in five years?
Amber: Most of the IoT stuff that’s being built right now.
Tamara: Oh, I am steeped with it. I’ve got to tell you my entire house is connected.
Amber: How much of the stuff that… Have you bought any wearables or IoT devices?
Tamara: I am, I’m wired up.
Amber: So how many of those things that you have in your house, how many of them have you ever encountered something that this is like, sorry, this doesn’t exist in your world, you can’t use it?
Tamara: You know, it’s weird if you say that. And also, we use it a lot, I travel all the time. So obviously with my Nest system, you know, taking care of my elderly father-in-law who has Parkinson’s because he’s always cold even though it’s 100 degrees outside, he’s turning the house up to like 120. And so I can control my Nest even when I’m in India to go, you know, 120 really isn’t appropriate for a house to be at. But you know, what recently failed was my… I have a keypad lock system on my house because I have a lot of people coming in and out to check on my father-in-law. And, that system had some sort of change or upgrade and no one could get into my house. Now that’s a dangerous situation in which the fire department had to respond and come and basically knock down our door. Not a great thing to happen, but it’s a safety issue when, I mean, a lot of us are in that sandwich generation where we still have kids. I’ve got four kids, we still have kids at home, but we’re also caring for aging parents. And, when technology fails like that, it’s a huge fail. We’re talking about safety.
Amber: Yeah, that’s right. So traditionally in engineering, you have a backup and, you know, that’s why when I choose my technology, I always make sure that even if I have a WiFi-connected light, I can still use the light switch. Which is why I don’t have WiFi connected lights. I just have light switches. You know, I have this bulb that’s pretty great, that allows you, you just turn it, you know, each time you turn it, it gives you a different light color. It’s an LED bulb. That’s great. I never have to worry about an app. So you know, it’s just like in five years your phone will change, your operating system will change. How much software-controlled IoT stuff will you be able to use or, you know, will you be able to use these simple remote controls and things like that? There’s all sorts of stuff. Just think longer term, and you probably do a good job of buying your tech, but a lot of people are just randomly buying things and it’s kind of a mess.
Tamara: I know those like me that are, you know, we work out of the house full time and do a lot of travel. The nice thing about technology, it allows us to feel still connected to home and control some things. And you know, you had mentioned earlier on when we were starting to talk about the Calm technology that you had developed. And I’m wondering if you could just briefly explain what that is because I really wanted to know how Calm technology principles apply to IoT for business. And is this something a business leader should be concerned with?
Amber: Yeah, absolutely. I mean the idea is that technology should be requiring the smallest amount of attention because you don’t have a lot of time as a business leader, and then it can communicate and it doesn’t need to speak. So you don’t need all these voice-activated things yelling at you all the time. And you don’t need to use the visual sense because that’s already occluded by your phone. How do you use a light or a tone or something like that to carry the same message without disrupting somebody? You know, that’s super important. It should help you make better choices, but it shouldn’t choose for you. And it shouldn’t make you act like a machine. And similarly, your machine shouldn’t be acting like a human. These are all on, you know, calmtech.com, and I think they really work across all sorts of different levels. And that’s the idea of, like, a technology universal, is that it works across generations, ages, corporate, to personal. And that it just kind of makes sense. You know, it should calm you down when you think about tech in your organization, not hype you up and feel like, “Oh no, I’m missing something.”
Tamara: I wanted to just ask you, what do you think is the best case scenario for IoT in business. You know, if everything goes right, where are we, and if you’re okay with it, projected in 10 years?
Amber: Sure. The best case scenario is that we realize that not everything goes well or right and to be totally okay with that. And then to say, well, don’t entirely rely on tech in your organization and don’t think about one future. Think about what companies have done well for the longest period of time. Understand what they use, and research just a little bit of the history so that you’re not trying to implement things that try to make technology act like a human. You know, a dog with a police outfit is cute, but a human female that’s speaking in a robotic voice helping people in your company check in on a hotel is not.
Tamara: You’re so insightful. I absolutely love your journey. Wow. I mean you have traversed so many different paths. I applaud you for going to school to learn about that which you did not initially love. And then, you know, being in technology, and being a clinician and, you know, seeing I’m working with engineers all the time, the fact that you decided to learn the human aspect and decide what people need most is just so admirable, and this has been such an exciting conversation. Amber, thank you so much for sharing your insights and yourself with us today.
Amber: Thank you so much, have a good one. Bye.
Thanks for listening to the Tech Unknown podcast. Find us at Digitalistmag.com for a full transcript of this episode and more. And don’t forget to subscribe on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.