How a 100-Year-Old Story Can Help Us Build Better

June 4, 2010 | add comment

“You mustn’t say anything against the Machine,” says the main character of E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops. Forster’s world is one that worships technology. Communication is virtual and constant. Like instant messaging. Friends in other countries materialize before you to chat. Like Skype. Information is omnipresent, but reverb outweighs originality. Like Twitter. Oh, and the story was first published in 1909.

Eerily prophetic, this 100-year-old tale foretells how we communicate today. In doing so, it forces us to think about how we approach technology.

The next time you’re creating an iPhone app or a social media presence, etc., consider three key principles of Forster’s story that describe our age:

1. Information is more accessible than ever.

In Forster’s world, information of any sort is attainable via knobs, levers and wires. People jump from one topic to the next because there’s so much to choose from, and it’s all at their fingertips. Minds never rest, bodies rarely move away from the control board. (Might we credit the author with predicting the obesity epidemic too?)

Content is amazingly accessible in our age too. This is a gorgeous thing. From a CMO’s standpoint, it’s also terrifying. The increase in the availability of information makes it much harder to stand out amid the noise.

There are more than 125,000 apps in the iTunes Store. Every few minutes, another is submitted. What will make yours succeed? What new information are you providing, and why is your method of delivery or interaction better than existing models?

2. In-person communication is being replaced and enhanced by virtual methods.
Back to Forster. The Machine controls everything: transportation, telecommunications, lighting, music, food, death…everything. It even has a button for forgotten words. (Handy.)

Forster’s downfall was that he saw technology as a force that pushed people away from one another. He assumed it mandated how people used it. But we can choose to create things that enhance communications and bring people closer together.

We’re already doing so with virtual communications and mobile technology. Location-based services are in their infancy. That’s fertile ground not just for entertaining game play, but for helping people build relationships while navigating spaces around them.

3. We find silence disturbing.

Towards the end of the story, the Machine breaks down, and humanity goes with it. They’re lost on their own in a sea of silence. They’ve gotten so caught up in the accessibility of information that the conduit has become a crutch to their minds.

We’re nowhere near that apocalypse, but it’s an amplification of what we experience when the internet breaks. We momentarily forget how we behaved without it.

Our minds want to be filled. We’ve grown accustomed to relying on the tools in our hands to do so. Half of all time spent on mobile phones is devoted to social networking.

The next time you’re out to eat, look at the number of people on phones—texting while chatting, checking into Foursquare, taking photos of their meals. We’re overflowing with options and tools to replace silence.

Instead of simply replacing silence or adopting the “let’s build it so we have it” solution, ask yourself why you’re creating a mobile app or a Twitter presence to begin with. Because they’re popular? That alone is a poor reason. Design experiences and apps that maintain a long-term outlook, that add value on an ongoing basis.

Value is sustainable. And as the chart in this BBH post shows, it works on a range of levels, from inspiration and entertainment to utility and access. Approached successfully, it’ll invite repeat use or engagement.

In Forster’s world, silence is disturbing because people don’t know what to do without technology. We’re far more creative than that. Our problem is we don’t know what not to do with it. Taking a step back from technology and figuring out what people want and how they behave is a necessary first step in developing products and services that will delight and withstand.

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