norayoung.ca | At the Corner of Technology and Culture

The Body and Responsive Tech

Bianchi_Bike Going in, I admit that this is entirely speculative, possibly inane, and I am not a UX person, ‘kay?

The other day, riding my bike through the Don Valley park system, it occurred to me that the bike is an amazing technology, not just for enabling different types of activity (leisure cycling, commuting in traffic, racing, training) but also for supporting different types of attention. When I’m riding in traffic, the bike allows for hyper-vigilant focus: quick stops, bell-ringing, etc. When I’m riding through the valley, my activity is different, but my attention is also different. I can ‘zone out’ in that meditative way that you do when you’re cycling for an hour or two. I pedal in a regular fashion, rarely stopping. Turns are gentle and don’t require much pausing. The bike is so wedded to the physical activity of the user, that there’s a very natural flow as my activity and attention change. This is no surprise, of course, because the bike is essentially an extension of my body. Some bikes are purpose-built to support one type of activity, and are at best poorly suited for other types of cycling. You wouldn’t want to race on a Penny-farthing bicycle for instance. But a good general purpose bike slips comfortably from one purpose to another.

It strikes me that this is, by analogy, what we need to get closer to with our digital devices: that effortless slide between functions and also between modes of attention. The bicycle is, of course, a mature technology. Earlier examples, like the Penny-farthing, didn’t allow for this. It’s also a technology of the body, rather than a technology of poking fingertips, like our digitech. What future interfaces might approach that fluid attentional support?

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