Mobile phones: BERG 02.04.12

Written by 


Matt Jones of BERG says that in the not-too distant future man's best friend and faithful companion will be his phone

They see the world differently to us, picking up on things we miss. They adapt to us. They look to us for attention and guidance and sustenance. We imagine what they are thinking, and vice-versa. Dogs? Or smartphones?

Mobile devices (can we still call them phones?) are being packed full of sensors and processing power. They are animated by sophisticated software, to understand the world around them (in terms of advances in computer vision and context-awareness) and understand us (speech recognition and adaptive "agent" software such as Apple's Siri). They are moving awkwardly from being our tools to becoming our newest companion species.

Donna Haraway is the author of The Companion Species Manifesto (2003). It addresses the relationship between domestic dogs and humans, but contains much to inspire designers of smartphones, agents and apps. "Cyborgs and companion species each bring together the human and non human, the organic and technological, carbon and silicon, freedom and structure, history and myth, the rich and the poor, the state and the subject, diversity and depletion, modernity and postmodernity, and nature and culture in unexpected ways." Using inspirations such as Haraway, and fictions such as Philip Pullman's "Daemons" from the His Dark Materials books – we can imagine a near-future that is richer and weirder than the current share-everything-all-the time/gamified-personal-productivity obsessions of Silicon Valley. A future of digital daemons would be one of close relationships with software that learned and acted intuitively – perhaps inscrutably at first, but with a maxim of "do no harm, with maximum charm".

Intel's Genevieve Bell recently spoke of the importance of designing relationships with – and crucially, between – our technologies so that we are not in the centre of an arms-race of ever-more-complex one-to-one interactions with our phones, tablets and apps. She memorably quoted a research subject that likened her collection of digital devices to a "needy backpack of baby birds". Much better to have one faithful, puppy-smart daemon device, working at our side to round everything (and every thing) up and relate what it senses to us?

At BERG we are fond of quoting MIT roboticist Rodney Brooks, who said that 50 years of sustained work by the brightest and the best in artificial intelligence would get us things that were "smart as puppies" if we're lucky. This seems like a fine goal to us, rather than creating uncanny, flawed and frustrating analogues of human intelligence and interactions – such as Siri or, if we cast our minds back a decade, Microsoft's Clippy. This future might also free the form of our devices – from glowing rectangles that suck our attention from the world, to subtler physical avatars representing our companions – things that listen, watch, speak – to us and for us.

Our companion species are as likely to inhabit the biomimetic descendants of the Nike fuelband or the now-mundane bluetooth headsets as Ive's perfectionist slabs of glass and alloy. Also, companion species might be shared, as a family pet is now – bound to home and hearth rather than the predominant one-to-one "personal computing" paradigm of the last 40 years or so.

What forms might these "household spirits" take? Nest's smart thermostat has pursued the Ives/Rams route of tasteful elegance, whereas our own Little Printer (Icon 105)takes a rather different approach ... There will be diverse responses to these new categories of digital/physical extensions to ourselves, our homes, cars and cities. I hope it triggers explosion of form and interaction beyond the glowing touchscreen hegemony. The advent of "digital companion species" should be a cambrian moment for design.

Matt Jones is a principal at BERG



Andy Gilmore



Matt Jones

quotes story

They are moving awkwardly from being our tools to becoming our newest companion species.

Leave a comment

Click to show