Constrained Technology

The enemy of art is the absence of limitations. — Orson Welles

I’d like to share some of my favorite constrained technologies. Technologies that I believe are better because of, and not despite, their limitations.

e-Ink#

E-ink insists on a certain interaction model. Grey-scale rather than full color pushes one toward text and informative illustrations. Slow refresh enforces pages of static content rather than endless scrolling of attention-grabbing content. These nudges transfer control back to the reader and make e-ink my favorite display technology.

I try to shift more of my “mindless consumption” to e-ink as well. I buy short story collection ebooks and save articles to Pocket to read them on my e-ink tablet. I use OmReader to deliver daily Reddit content from the subreddits I like to my Kindle. It’s still casual consumption, but at least this method includes some easy stopping cues, presents content in discrete chunks, and avoids triggers to continue on to something new.

Wearables#

Marketing of wearables typically focuses on their benefits as health and fitness devices. Wearables are great for fitness, sure, but I believe their biggest value is in their fulfillment of the original futuristic promise of smartphones: a digital swiss army knife that’s always within reach.

A modern smartwatch (like Apple Watch) with LTE can replace a smartphone for all practical purposes. It can call, text, IM, navigate, order a ride-share, and listen to music and audiobooks. And it can do all of this with a screen too small to engage or distract you (as long as you are judicious in your notification permissions).

I still often reach for my smartphone, but I try to shift some of my day-to-day smartphone tasks to my smart watch. I think of this model as smartphone-as-a-server. I keep it in a bag and consider it to be more of the backing server that supports my wearable, only occasionally taking it out to type a longer message (or when my smartwatch unfortunately but inevitably fails to perform some task it’s supposed to be capable of doing).

Paper#

The advantage of paper is in its inherent stopping cues. Paper can’t auto-play a video or hold you with infinite scroll. Every page flip gives you a chance to wonder if you’re still enjoying the content. The content pauses between articles and eventually stops at the end of the publication. I still read mostly on e-ink, but paper is the original realization of these useful constraints.

Calm technology#

The broader concept illustrated here is calm technology 1. I’m hopeful that mainstream consumer technology will embrace calmness, but in the meantime constrained technology is here and isn’t capable of being anything but calm.



Thanks to Jackie Loven for editing.



  1. See also: calmtech.com ↩︎

© 2021 Dylan Garrett