Imagine the motorcycle of tomorrow. It is so simple to operate that you no longer need a driver’s license. Safety advances make it nearly impossible to kill yourself on the formerly dangerous vehicles. The bike understands your intentions and responds without you needing to fidget with controls or any type of physical interface. It requires no maintenance, is energy self-sufficient, and costs nothing to use. How do you think you would you feel in this world?
Soon I am going to be zooming across the midwest. It won’t be on an imaginary motorcycle, but in a minivan. Traditionally while my family sleeps my companion is the audio version of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Robert Pirsig’s life manual, his love letter to his motorcycle changed my life. He knew the purpose of every nut and bolt on his bike. Every interaction between him and his machine was an opportunity to gain knowledge, to deepen his relationship with an object that had become an extension of his mind.
As impossible as my description of the motorcycle of the future seems, it is only an exaggeration of trends that are already here.
Autonomous vehicles promise safety by threatening to remove the controls from error-prone humans.
Our already minimal interfaces our disappearing as we become comfortable with controlling machines with only our voices.
The rise of Uber makes the high cost of vehicle ownership seem old-fashioned.
You carry around a piece of glass that transforms instantly into any tool you could possibly need, be it a map, camera, wallet or tricorder.
Beneath the surface of this technology is not the romantic nuts and bolts of Pirsig’s novel. Today’s tech is built on chips, pixels, and trillions of lines of code.
Yesterday a single person’s skull could contain all the knowledge necessary to keep a motorcycle in good maintenance. Today every object we touch is an impenetrable black box. Understanding even a fraction of the complexity inside everyday objects requires a lifetime of study.
As technology advanced, knowledge got spread out across disciplines, divvied up between specialists who know only their tiny slice of expertise. We ended up with experts who can’t work outside their silos. Designers can’t be expected to write code. Engineers aren’t expected to have aesthetic taste. Managers aren’t expected to actually build things. “That’s not my job.”
Design knowledge is fractured across many pockets of specialization. The UX designer sticks to what he knows best, incapable and afraid to tread next door into the domain of UI expert. Print designers avoid web design. You can forge a career designing logos without ever glancing outside your micro discipline. And ask a designer to give input on the words he is applying his frosting too? Forget about it, the actual meaning of the final product is the responsibility of yet another specialist.
So what happens when something goes wrong? What happens if teams of specialists create a gear shifter so flawed that it kills someone? There is nobody to blame because the responsibility, like the knowledge itself, has been spread thinly across hundreds of innocent specialists. Each expert sleeps at night, confident that they did their best, blind to their contribution to catastrophe.
Back to my original question about the amazing motorcycle of the future. How do you think you will you feel in a world of incredible tech?
My guess is that when this day arrives you won’t be that impressed. I predict this based on personal experience. I don’t marvel at the amazing device in my pocket. I just poke at it with my soft flesh, frustrated by the milliseconds it takes to do the impossible. There is joy to be found in understanding how things work, but that joy gets more elusive with each design iteration.
Thanks for reading. If my vision of the future scares you, you should probably avoid my book, Art of the Living Dead. Just warning you. Stay creative.
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