Back from the no-Email future: Gesche Joost

Gesche Joost, a (in her field) well known design researcher from the University of the Arts Berlin, just reported from the world in 2040. Luckily, the ZEIT newspaper still exists, at least online, and they recorded her statement. It’s also pleasing to see that Gesche didn’t get that much older…

Back to reality: Of course, the future is used as a mirror to reflect our times. In her talk, she diagnoses three major problems of our times:

  1. The need to carry around digital devices to stay in touch with people
  2. Information and communication overload, mostly due to email
  3. A focus on technology rather than needs (she uses the very nice—and broader— term: “Dimensionen der Gesellschaft”, dimensions of society)

From mobile devices to the cyborg (kind of)

The dependency on mobile, in particular: smart phones, surely is striking. Just think about the careful watch on your (phone’s) battery life that you keep throughout the day. Or think about the rave that the iPhone creates as a status symbol and the surveys that tell us that phones become more important than cars as representative objects. But her imagination, that devices disappear into our clothing and our bodies, sounds a little bit like the “old” vision of ubiquitous computing, mixed with some cyborg elements.

Info overload or the nature of the email

The point that struck me more was the email overload. In her diagnosis, she says it was because it was bound to emails (let’s say: text) and emails were bound to computers with keyboards “in front of them”. I would rather argue that the Blackberry, i.e. a portable, in a sense ubiquitous device, gave the email flood a tremendous rise—right because people were no longer bound to their PCs.

And I doubt that the emails that arrive in an important person’s mailbox (I count Gesche among them) can be perceived in an “ambient manner”, in a “flow”, as she describes it. One of the problems with most of these emails is that it’s unclear–before you read it–whether you need to take a decission, or just get information. If you need to decide something, you might need to sit and think about it, with or without flow. Sure, many questions might have been decided already elsewhere, the sender didn’t have that information and bothers you again. That’s a true issue with emails, they are not good at making knowledge accessible. Luis Suarez tries to live a highly interesting vision of a life without emails, he tries to answer as much publicly (or company publicly) on a sort of Facebook stream which is fully searchable.

Text based systems, such as email, even have the advantage that we can easily “speed read” through them, and based on the bits we catch can decide whether it’s worth more attention or not. It’s rather complicated to speed read through video or sound recordings (such as voice mail) because time is part of that medium.

In my mind, “communication” won’t be a catch-all phrase in the future. For some facts and e.g. legally important stuff, we will still rely on text (email, streams). Probably, the biggest part of professional communication, still. But the part of story telling will become more important, something we do on a social level already very much when we have a coffee together (having a coffee is a synchronous activity, however, i.e. both people need to spend time at the same time). Listening to a story is a very pleasant way to learn. Of course, our current voice recording systems don’t quite support that (there is visual voicemail (Apple, again!), and there are efforts to speech recognize voice mail and make it (text) searchable by Google (of course)).

Design for the diverse Dimensions of Society

And her third point: too much male engineers, too much focus on technology instead of relevant “dimensions of society”:  I’ve little to add there since Gesche is a leading figure in the world of Co-Creation that aims precisely at bringing all relevant people (“stakeholders”, which can be potential users, vendors, help desk people, …) to the table in order to look for their needs and expectations first and then set the agenda for technological endeavours.

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