July 31, 2023

Maybe the future is calm technology

So much of our world screams at us. We’re barraged by hundreds of emails, notifications, and messages every day. Slack and its cousins have taken over the workplace and turned every company into a non-stop chatroom. Over the course of the 13 hours the average American spends consuming media a day, we’re likely to be subjected to thousands of ads, alerts, notices, reactions, and other attention vampires.

Set against that background, I’ve become enamored by a movement called “Calm Technology,” a vision for a world where technology is more ambient and less of an attention hog. With calm technology, we’re in charge.

The term was first coined in 1995 by researchers Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown at Xerox PARC as a response to a digital world growing more complex by the day. According to, developed by author and researcher Amber Case, there are eight principles for Calm Technology:

  1. Technology should require the smallest possible amount of attention
  2. Technology should inform and create calm
  3. Technology should make use of the periphery
  4. Technology should amplify the best of technology and the best of humanity
  5. Technology can communicate, but doesn’t need to speak
  6. Technology should work even when it fails
  7. The right amount of technology is the minimum needed to solve the problem
  8. Technology should respect social norms

It feels refreshing just reading that list. What a stark contrast to the current status quo of endlessly optimizing for marginal increases in engagement and gamifying every product within an inch of its life. Calm Technology is a framework in which software and hardware fit into our lives instead of overtaking them.

Case writes of some examples of this model: tea kettles, Roomba vacuums, and airplane lavatory signs. About the tea kettle, she notes, “If a technology works well, we can ignore it most of the time. A teapot tells us when it is ready, and is off or quiet the rest of the time. A tea kettle can be set and forgotten, until it sings. It does not draw constant attention to itself until necessary.” Roombas use gentle tones and chirps and then get out of your way. Airplane lavatory signs display a simple piece of information in an equally simple, universal symbol.

The airplane lavatory sign is a classic example of calm technology: it gives you what you need and doesn't ask for anything else. It does its job and gets out of the way.

This framework reminds me of a project I once spent an intense day trying to hack away. I was in the student government in college, and we had control over a wall right outside a busy elevator bank. After catching a demo of some WordPress-based digital signage, I became obsessed with trying to build one to mount on that wall so that we could advertise all of our events and programs – and I spent two days skipping classes to build a proof of concept. (While it never made it to the wall, we did revisit this idea several years later during my time running Digital Natives.)

I loved the idea that technology could just be present as an ambient part of the environment instead of something that had to be fully arresting of our attention. Now digital signage is much more common, including a vast rollout of LinkNYC terminals on NYC streets – and I still have a soft spot for it. It’s nice to walk by and learn that it’s National Avocado Day or that there’s a street fair happening next weekend. It’s nice in a way that receiving a push notification for those same pieces of information isn’t.

This all reminds me of one of my favorite quotes, from marketing professor Theodore Levitt, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!” We don’t want a smart kitchen full of beeping alarms and status alerts (the opposite of calm technology); we want tools that allow us to be better, more efficient cooks. We don’t even want the tools, really, we want the outcomes.

The best tools work for us and then get out of the way. We have finite time and attention, and I don’t want to spend any of it thinking about my hammer, refrigerator, or lightbulb. That’s the promise of this framework: calm technology does its job and leaves space for the things we actually care about.

About the Author

Ben Guttmann ran a marketing agency for a long time, now he teaches digital marketing at Baruch College, just wrote his first book (Simply Put), and works with cool folks on other projects in-between all of that. He writes about how we experience a world shaped by technology and humanity – and how we can build a better one.

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