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Can the Future of Technology be Found in Your Sink?

Friend and advisor Chris Silva and I were chatting with a small group about the role technology may eventually play in our lives. If the future plays out as Chris and his Altimeter colleagues imagine, the lines that divide the form and function of the inter-connected devices that surround us will blur, if not disappear entirely.

The conversation quickly became too heady for my head, and in a moment of “meeting survivalism,” I asked for a metaphor – a taken-for-granted example from our everyday lives that mirrors the way we may soon think about our expanding universe of Web-enabled devices.

My initial metaphor was a table – a simple, functional surface. When it’s time to eat, we don’t think: I need a dinner table. Instead we instinctively march to the surface designed for dining. When we feel like viewing photos, we don’t think: I need a tablet. We just grab our iPad.  And as more “surfaces” become digital, the less we will feel compelled to compartmentalize them for consumption of media. We will consume media in the same way as we consume food – on the nearest appropriate surface. But this metaphor was limited, because it looked only at the rise in digital displays and didn’t take into account our changing relationship with technology.

Chris tossed out a better alternative: a chair. To paraphrase Chris, we associate different chairs with different activities – some for creation (office chairs), others for consumption (sofas, recliners) – just as we associate devices with different functions. But I think this metaphor pulls up a bit short too. After all, we can only sit in one chair at a time and tomorrow’s man/machine relationship promises to take multi-tasking a giant step forward, where an array unattended devices will collaborate together on our behalf, like a virtual Rube Goldberg machine in which the alarm clock activates the coffee maker which ignites the car starter which opens the garage door. That’s a lot of chairs to sit in at once.

I’d argue media futurist Gerd Leonhard’s landmark 2005 “Music Like Water!” article provides the starting point for a working metaphor for the future of lifestyle technology. Think of it this way: Devices are faucets; information is water. Both devices and faucets are means to an end, not an end in themselves.

In the case of the faucet, what we truly want is water (in the digital analog, water = data, content, access to one another) and the role of technology is no different than the role of the faucet – that is, to release what we want easily and in functionally relevant manner.  Outdoor faucets are utilitarian. The lawn doesn’t care about water temperature, so the “device” is stripped down to its functional essential – a spigot. A kitchen faucet however needs to have cosmetic appeal, more sophisticated “applications,” and even interoperability with other devices (dishwasher, coffee maker, etc.). Yet both exist for the same fundamental reason: to help us get what we want … and then get out of the way.

What’s your take? Are you on team chair or team faucet? Or do you have a better metaphor of your own? We’re all ears.

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