Too Much Magic, Too Little Social Friction: Why Objects Shouldn’t Be Enchanted

By Evan SelingerJanuary 8, 2015

Enchanted Objects: Design, Human Desire, and the Internet of Things by David Rose

ENCHANTED OBJECTS: Design, Human Desire, And The Internet of Things is a manifesto of sorts. David Rose wrote the book to spark the “imagination of designers, business strategists, and technologists to craft more delightful products and more enchanted experiences.” Although Rose makes a good case for why “we should expect more from the tools, devices, and playthings that are such an enormous part of our lives,” there are several good arguments for why we’d be better off if some of his expectations went unfulfilled.

Three Limiting Technology Trajectories

A New York Times article describes Rose as “a boyish-looking 47-year-old serial entrepreneur who has invented more than a few magical things.” To list but a few of those magical accomplishments, Rose was the founder and CEO of Vitality, a company that makes GlowCap, an internet-connected bottle top for medicine vials that reminds forgetful people to take their pills and sends signals to pharmacies when refills are needed. He claims the technology is so smart and effective that its users “have an adherence rate of 94 percent, up from 71 percent with a standard vial.”

Rose also was the co-founder and CEO of Ambient Devices, a company that created the ambient orb. Enthusiastically endorsed by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their manifesto Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, this orb switches colors to make all kinds of information salient at a glance, including outside temperature and pollen counts, household energy consumption, and stock market fluctuations. Ideally, by enabling us to have clear and immediate access to such information, this comparatively basic enchanted object can help us make good choices. The company also produces the ambient umbrella, a gadget that receives online weather forecasts and converts them into helpful signs through a glowing handle that “prompts you to take it with you when you head out the door.” On the Enchanted Objects book cover, a picture is prominently displayed of a blue and green version that glows like a red Sith’s lightsaber to warn of impending rain.

In addition to his corporate work, Rose is affiliated with the MIT Media Lab, where he teaches a graduate course with the intriguing name: “Tangible Media.” Having been a professor for some time and a student before that, I can tell from the brief description of how students learn to “develop prototypes of enchanted objects or services with tangible interfaces” that it’s a fantastic class.

At its core, Enchanted Objects clarifies why Rose is dissatisfied with the current state of consumer technology and offers up what he believes needs to be done to make better things. We’re at a crossroads, he argues. Going forward, we need to surpass three all-too-limited and limiting trajectories.

The first trajectory limits us to incremental improvements on screen-based interfaces, which will lead to devices being produced like the next generation of smart phones. Rose calls this paradigm “terminal world.” For two reasons, he laments “the domination of glass slabs.” First, he isn’t impressed by the uninviting aesthetic. “The terminal world asserts a cold, blue aesthetic into our world, rather than responding to our own. Even the Apple products, celebrated for their hipness, are cold and masculine compared to the materiality of wood, stone and cork.” And, the other reason: Rose isn’t satisfied with the functionality of devices that either “are passive, without personality” and “sit idle, waiting for your orders,” or are “impolite and interruptive.”

He disdains the second trajectory for being cyborgian; it revolves around using prosthetic and wearable technologies that “internalize computational power” and can be seamlessly integrated with our bodies. In principle, Rose concedes, this can be an improvement over screen interfaces. “Unlike Terminal World,” Rose writes, “the prosthetic future for technology does take into account our humanity.” But, according to Rose, the problem is that in order to create devices with personal heads-up displays that are widely used, it will be necessary to create ones that aren’t “too large and uncomfortable to wear continuously”; that are fashionable; and capable of presenting information worth having, given how distracting such technology can be. Google Glass tried to accomplish these goals, but Rose sees the endeavor as an epic fail. Even if the technical issues could be resolved, he worries that the all-encompassing presentation of personalized information can further “divide and isolate us” by exacerbating the “filter bubble.” He cautions that to go an alternative “posthuman” route and develop “implants and ingestibles” is to pick a path “fraught with unforeseen consequences” that we’ll “regret.”

The third trajectory Rose wants to transcend involves “animism,” or “living with social robots.” His main objection to social robots is that designers will find it difficult to get past the “uncanny valley” — the point where our encounters with close but imperfect artificial versions of human likenesses strike us as “unacceptable” and “creepy.” He also thinks that, rather than desiring a single multi-purposed robot butler, we’ll find it preferable to live in a world where we can “off-load” work onto multiple, animated, “hyperspecialized” devices calibrated to serve specific needs — “the distributed-agent model” portrayed in Downton Abbey.

The alternative to all of these trajectories, argues Rose, is to embrace the connectivity of the Internet of Things and design enchanted objects like the GlowCap, ambient orb, and ambient umbrella. At a basic level, he describes enchanted objects as follows:

Enchanted objects start as ordinary things—a pen, a wallet, a shoe, a lightbulb, a table. The ordinary thing is then augmented and enhanced through the use of emerging technologies—sensors, actuators, wireless connection, and embedded processing—so that it becomes extraordinary. The enchanted object then gains some remarkable power or ability that makes it more useful, more delightful, more informative, more sensate, more connected, more engaging, than its ordinary self. As the ordinary thing becomes extraordinary, it evokes an emotional response from you and enhances your life.

On a more detailed design level, Rose explicates what he calls the “seven abilities of enchantment” that “differentiate enchanted objects from smartphones and their apps”: glanceability, gesturability, affordability, wearability, indestructability, usability, and loveability. And on a more detailed psychological level, Rose recommends focusing on enchanted objects that augment what he calls “six human drives”: for omniscience, telepathy, safekeeping, immortality, teleportation, and expression.

The Ideology Of Techno-Magic

There are lots of reasons to be critical of Rose’s book that go beyond his questionable depiction of design paradigms and his idiosyncratic portrayal of so-called “drives.” For starters, Rose offers only ham-handed appeals to privacy and transparency that amount to little more than hasty lip-service. And he never questions when nudging goes too far and becomes paternalistic or infantilizing. Both of these issues, privacy and agency, are especially important to consider as the Internet of Things matures. After all, the guiding vision is to create interconnected devices that record, share, and interpret increasing amounts of sensitive personal data.

Rose made a terrible choice in selecting “enchanted” as his signature concept for guiding our thinking about the type of technological design that should pervade a society surrounded by the Internet of Things. Consider this key passage from the Introduction:

The idea of enchanted objects has deep roots in our childhoods, in our adulation of superheroes and fascination with fantasy and science fiction, and in the fables, myths, and fairy tales that go back centuries. As a result we have always longed for a world of enchantment.

As with everything, magical thinking has a time and a place. I recently embraced it when bringing my eight-year-old daughter to Disney World. At the Magic Kingdom, infrastructure is put in place and rules are enacted to ensure — amongst other things — that children don’t see cast members putting on costumes (“What … Minnie isn’t real?!?”); don’t spy unworn costumes (“Mom, Dad … is that Mickey’s severed head?!?”); and don’t glimpse characters associated with one part of the park wandering around into another land (“How could people from the historical frontier possible meet up with future space travelers?!?”).

The importance of outgrowing a childish outlook and seeing things from a more mature perspective came to light when I made an anxious and, admittedly, poor-taste joke that centered on the hidden resources required to make it feel like “magic is in the air.” After seeing a can brimming with excessive garbage, I turned to my wife and said, “I wonder who Goofy will shoot for this blunder.”

My quip drew attention to the fact that Disney management might be upset to know that its famous garbage disposal system — fed by refuse flowing through pneumatic tubes — wasn’t being properly used. While obviously no employee would be physically harmed for committing the error, it isn’t out of the question that disciplinary action could be taken. This possibility has broad, social significance, and an import that goes beyond how a single company approaches management-employee relations. Working under conditions where you are responsible for creating magical customer service experiences can be stressful. Just ask any low wage employee who is expected to expend emotional labor to pretend it’s enjoyable to serve coffee to obnoxious customers.

For related reasons, vast social justice problems arise when commodities are fetishized through magical thinking. When adults see technology through a magical lens, they risk adopting a consumerist mindset that values goods independently of the activity required to produce and distribute them. Indeed, magical thinking allows us to avoid confronting all sorts of unsettling questions. Whose labor goes into making the objects and experiences we purchase? Are laborers appropriately acknowledged and compensated for their work? Do managers, middlemen, or investors profit excessively from production or distribution processes? Does obtaining material needed for producing goods result in capital getting funneled to unjust causes? And, does production or distribution create negative environmental impacts that companies pass off as externalities, thereby evading responsibility?

The importance of remaining vigilantly sensitive to these questions hasn’t waned in a time that’s marked by appeals to conscientious capitalism and technological disruption. To the contrary, they point to urgent issues of political economy.

Take, for example, the difficulty of improving the supply chain so that electronics can be manufactured without “conflict minerals” like tin, tungsten, tantalum, and gold. Beyond problems associated with certifying companies’ compliance with regulations, there’s the “human cost” involved with creating policy that changes what jobs are available. As Bianca Consunji writes in a moving account of her trip to Africa: “The Dodd-Frank law was created with the intent to prevent even more wars by stemming the source of their funding, but the policy shift came with unplanned collateral damage: The livelihoods of thousands of Congolese miners.”

Or, consider Shawn Wen’s “The Ladies Vanish,” a piece that discusses the poor compensation typically available to the “contract workforce” that fuels a range of popular services in the app economy, including the ride service Uber. Wen cuts to the core of the problem:

It is precisely the feeling of magic—the instant gratification of desire being met the very moment it’s felt—on which the apps market themselves. The entire discourse surrounding the app economy centers on the thrilling ease achieved by high tech efficiency: it’s this magic that the apps sell, the thing that differentiates them from traditional modes of purchase. Because otherwise the consumer is just getting a cab ride, just buying groceries, just hiring a housecleaner.

It’s like magic, but it’s not magic. The magic is founded on grossly underpaid, casualized labor. Press a button and a human being is dispatched to do menial work. Press a button and an independent contractor, without the same rights and protections as an employee, springs into action […] The actual magic trick is making the worker disappear.

By spotlighting these accounts, I’m not faulting Rose for presenting a narrative about technology that doesn’t include explicit discussion of political economy. It’s his prerogative to narrow down the scope of his inquiry to design issues and leave the political theorizing to others. That said, metaphors can become politicized. Since “enchantment” falls into this category, Rose’s uncritical appropriation of it is politically fraught. The more we’re inclined to see technology as wizardry, the less disposed we are to demystifying the illusions that obscure why some people get to enjoy hocus pocus at other people’s expense.

Magical Consumerism

Advertisers also use magic to deceive consumers into believing that products pave the path to the good life. Rose is so excited about what motivational fitness products like Nike + can do that he characterizes them as belonging to a magical lineage that includes the mythical “Hermes’s sandals” and cinematic “Dorothy’s slippers.” I felt like I was reading a script for a commercial when I got to the part where he praises them for “promising to transport us to a place of our dreams.”

Let’s be honest. That’s a promise that can’t ever be delivered. In fact, it’s a lie that moves along the perpetually running hedonic treadmill. Rose’s seamless discursive shift from technology theory to marketplace vocabulary thus serves as a good reminder that when it comes to commercialized goods, it’s dangerous to refer to them using language that breaks down too many of the barriers separating constraint-filled reality from practically unobtainable, constraint-removing fiction.

In this spirit, rapper Macklemore (collaborating with Ryan Lewis) was right to lament being duped as a kid into believing that the expensive Nike Air Max was more than “just another pair of shoes” and actually contained the power to radically transform how he played basketball. For if we follow Rose’s lead and become enthusiastic about Nike taking “inspiration from the imagination that infuses our mythologies” and “fairytales,” we avoid acknowledging one of the blatant forces that perpetuates the “darker side of consumption”: idealized representations of artifacts.

Consumerist ideals also drive Rose’s thinking about how technology can improve our relationships. They even undermine his argument that the enchanted objects outlook is a design philosophy that isn’t obsessed with efficiency.

To get clear on why this is the case, let’s consider two of the examples Rose gives in a chapter extoling the benefits of designing enchanting objects that satisfy our putative drive for “telepathy.” The first of Rose’s examples is hypothetical, and his description reads like a thought experiment.

Suppose, for example, that you had an enchanted wall in your kitchen that could display, through lines of colored light, the trends and patterns in your loved one’s moods? If you could understand that your spouse or child or parent had a regular pattern of emotions and begin to see how they connected to the environment, times of day, events, even your own moods, how would that change the relationships in your household? Would it make you a more attentive partner? A more effective caregiver? A more aware and understanding partner?

These appear to be rhetorical questions to which Rose wants us to answer “yes.” After all, he insists that great responsiveness comes with great information:

If we could know more about what’s going on with those we love, we could alter our behavior in response. We might be quicker to celebrate the highs and good times of our lives together, more ready to offer support and understanding during low moments and difficult times. If we could see patterns of thought and mood in others, we might be better able to plan when and how we interact with them.

Rose’s conviction that the key to bringing families closer together is to automate more of their communication infuses the next example, too. This time, he asks us to admire one of his inventions. Inspired by the play Peter and the Wolf (where each of the main characters is associated with distinctive music and instruments) and the Harry Potter series (which references a magical clock that keeps track of the fictional Weasley family members), Rose built the prototype for the Google Latitude Doorbell. He describes it as follows:

As each family member approaches the home, the chime sounds for that person when he or she is ten miles away, one mile away, or a tenth of a mile away […] nearly home. It’s not telepathy, but it does deliver information that gives clues to the mental and emotional states of each person. Frustration for the unlucky one in the traffic jam. Exhaustion with possible elation or crestfallenness, for the athlete. Mental distraction from the person in the intense meeting.

The problem with both examples is that they are guided by the assumption that good relationships can be fashioned using technology to minimize misunderstandings and to maximize predictive awareness. While this is true up to a point, the devices Rose discusses eliminate so much important human interaction that they hardly seem like desirable means for achieving worthy ends.

The best way to judge the Google Latitude Doorbell is to ask whether it improves our standard means of communicating. Let’s imagine, then, that we’re comparing it to the more effortful alternative: each family member gets ready to head home and calls or texts a relative who is already there and making dinner for everyone. Each caller or texter has to put in the time to convey a message with a status-update. The recipient of this information needs to put in effort to acknowledge the updates. Is all of this exertion really so valuable that something important would be lost were it to be eliminated?

I think the answer is yes. Thanks to social media, we already have access to a constant stream of status updates composed for multiple audiences. While all of this information can increase intimacy through ambient awareness, the fact remains that providing direct attention through personalized communication is an important way we show people we care about them. It’s how we demonstrate they matter more than others who get less consideration.

Little gestures like saying, “On my way home. Can’t wait to see you!” do more than convey logistical information. They spread positive emotions and reinforce esteem by communicating that you care enough about the other person to ensure he or she is up to speed with your travel plans. Fundamentally, an automated sound can’t convey such regard because it isn’t an intentionally-produced communication that’s guided by the head or heart. At bottom, it’s nothing more than a pre-programmed outcome deterministically triggered by features like GPS coordinates. Efficient? Yes. Sincere? No. And, let’s not forget, as a one-way signal, Google Latitude Doorbell isn’t conducive to the reciprocity that comes from dialogue.

Rose’s hypothetical mood wall is even worse. It minimizes the amount of observation and checking-in that otherwise would be required to get a sense of how someone is feeling and what makes the person tick. While such scrutiny or attentiveness can be exhausting and fraught with unpleasantness, it’s how we go about showing others they are worth the metaphorical trouble — that they aren’t valued only in circumstances where they are easy to get along with: where they don’t impose friction on our lives.

Ultimately, the mood wall takes an instrumental logic appropriate in some business contexts and superimposes it onto our personal lives. The cost of collapsing these domains is that data-mining begins to crowd out moral attention. By moral attention, I mean it isn’t enough to just become aware, through outsourced activity, of what the people we care about need and desire. In order for that information to transcend becoming facts for us to dispassionately consume, we need to be emotionally invested in what we learn. Being committed to direct and sustained interaction, through the back and forth of taxing conversations, fosters human growth and human connection.

Far from “effort” being a bug that limits interpersonal relationships, it’s an essential feature. That Rose is so keen to remove it leaves me skeptical that he’s fully thought what’s needed to create a “humanistic approach” to technological design. Perhaps, though, this isn’t surprising. When you theorize about technology without prioritizing ethics, you’re bound to leave people disillusioned.


Evan Selinger is an associate professor of philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology.

LARB Contributor

Evan Selinger (@evanselinger) is a professor of philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology.


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