The Forgotten Role of Technology: One Step Away from Magic


I’ve noticed an increasingly more prevalent theme this year. The core theme is the concept of technology that is so ubiquitous and elegant that it appears to work like magic. For most of us that is rarely our experience. Often technology, whether we’re using an electronic tool that performs some physical work, or a piece of software that executes a virtual action, rarely seems like magic.

Some of this is simply due to the fact that most of us have developed a specific level of expectation over time through gradual changes that occur across the span of decades. There are certainly many things that might be perceived as magical to someone from an earlier time, whether it was someone from five hundred years ago or only a decade ago.  Perhaps magic, in this context, might be defined as something that is done for you that you didn’t even think about when you made it happen. Like turning on a light switch or opening a door, except the level of interaction is subtler.

Earlier this year I was fortunate to have the opportunity to join a college at a conference where Josh Clark, a user interface design expert, presented along with several other experts. While there we also had the opportunity to speak with him directly at one of the lunches, where he joined our table. Much of our discussion was on this very subject as was his presentation. His topic, of technology functioning like magic, was engaging and, in my opinion, a change heading toward us rather quickly.

I love technology. I enjoy learning about new innovations and gadgets and I have spent several late nights and weekends just tinkering with devices and software, sometimes without a defined goal. Some of those projects were dead ends. Others were successes. I learned from each one.

Yet, over the years, I continue to notice one problem with much of the technology that we have at our disposal.

It often isn’t better than what it is intended to replace.

Here’s an example to illustrate my point. I’ve been dabbling in home automation for several years. Over time I’ve switched to better software and equipment and while it has certainly improved in several ways, and I have enjoyed it as a hobby, most of what I can accomplish from my phone is not a practical replacement for doing things “the old fashioned way”.

In one room I have a home automation module that controls a floor lamp. The module supports dimming. We often use the lamp because it can be dimmed while the main light fixture cannot. It’s also convenient, and lazy, to be able to turn that lamp off without getting out of bed.

The setup works well.


There is a remote wall switch in a convenient location by the door so the lamp can be easily turned on or off via the home automation controller. This part works fine.

Except when I adjust the brightness. In this case, with the modules I’m using in this room, I can only adjust the brightness from my phone or from my desktop computer.

The problem is simple. Controlling a lamp should not require more work than just flipping a switch or adjusting a dimmer switch.

There are certainly several ways to resolve this issue, which I will probably address at some point. But these kinds of gaps are not uncommon. And this is also not specific to home automation.

My wife has the same home automation app on her phone that I do but she has little interest in using the app. Its simply not very practical and she’s not incorrect.

Recently, I finally added home automation controlled HVAC thermostats. This has been a goal of mine for some time and I’m happy to have finally achieved this. Yet, overall it hasn’t really improved my life in any significant way. Sure, I can change the temperature and switch between heating and cooling, without getting up or from somewhere else in the world, but all that has done is made me slightly lazier.

I actually lost some functionality with the thermostats that I selected. Previously, my thermostats had scheduling built-in but these thermostats do not. The home automation software must send instructions to the thermostats to make them behave as though they have their own schedules.

There is only one situation in which this remote control capability is very useful but it is also a very rare situation. If we are away from home, and the thermostats are set to cool but the temperature will drop to freezing overnight, it’s very convenient to be able to turn the heat on and not worry about the house getting too cold while away.

I do have several security features, which I won’t go into details, that are tied into my home automation system. These provide some piece of mind but they don’t necessarily make our home safer than it was before.

Despite all of the devices that I can control from my phone, and the notification projects I’ve since completed, there is only one aspect of this that is comparable to magic…

When one of us first enters the home in the evening the system will automatically turn on several lights within the house. This happens automatically, and reliably, and without interaction. As a result, we don’t even realize that it happens every day that we get home. This may seem like a small thing but in the winter, when the days are shorter, it’s nice to have several lamps turn on automatically before even passing through the door. It’s almost like magic but I still have the infrastructure to maintain and it’s also not very smart.

My goal in writing this little note was to simply point out that technology isn’t always very useful. Sure, we can do many things with technology but not all of them are as good or better than other methods used to accomplish the same tasks. I’ve seen many things dressed up with bells and whistles that simply fall flat. It’s easy to be impressed by the technology of the technology and not realize that it simply isn’t very interesting.

Sometimes I wonder if a complex software application with fancy graphics, Internet access, and various other modern features is any better than an old program written in RPG or COBOL. I can’t even begin to count the number of software programs I have uninstalled immediately after installing them simply because they seemed to have been written without focus.

I think it’s becoming more important that we question whether or not some device or software actually serves a purpose. That’s not to say that I believe that only perfect things should be invented and used.

However, I would prefer to see better quality, especially from the larger companies, which have vast resources available. I’m confused by this idea that eventually every thing must serve more than one purpose. It seems to hold true that a thing built for a single purpose is frequently the better tool when compared to a device that serves multiple purposes with numerous compromises introduced.

Many years ago I had a DVR when they were new. I don’t remember the exact version of the device but it couldn’t do half of the things that more modern DVRs can do. Despite its lack of features it was better at recording shows than more recent versions were.  At the time I considered it to be one of the more elegant electronic devices in my home.

The concept of technology appearing to work like magic is intriguing to me because we’re on the verge of such devices becoming very common. The pieces are already on the board. On several occasions I’ve been frustrated by pieces of technology because they seemed to have been crippled by the developers in an attempt to keep consumers within that single, proprietary environment.

I recently purchased (and received) an Amazon Echo. It’s a fun device and also somewhat useful. I won’t say that it’s currently a major piece of technology in our home. The jury is still out on that matter.

But it could be. If my current home automation software could be controlled directly from our Amazon Echo it would finally approach the level of home automation that exists mostly in sci-fi. That is all it would take to be one step away from the technology becoming indistinguishable from magic.

I could actually make it work in some fashion, even now, but it wouldn’t be a natural interaction. I don’t want to make it work via Amazon’s to-do list or some odd IFTTT interaction. It will only work well if I can simply tell it, using normal phrases, to turn off a light or to change the temperature of the air conditioner. Anything more complicated becomes no easier than simply using my phone to execute the same action.

I think that we are on the verge of these interactions becoming normal, with no thought about the technology behind it. And, as with many such technology-driven shifts, most people won’t think much of it because they’ll be interacting with things that are familiar; shades of earlier devices.

My wife knows her way around a computer but she’s far less inclined to spend hours messing with some gadget or software. She’s my barometer for how successful any home automation project is. If she picks it up right away, without being familiar with the components that make it happen, and continues to use and even rely on some functionality, then I consider it a success.

If she says that the method to control a switch isn’t practical… well, it probably isn’t.

Some things will just be hobbies. Others will be successes.

One thought on “The Forgotten Role of Technology: One Step Away from Magic

  1. Totally agree with this post. I look a lot harder not only at what I’m going to gain but what I’m going to lose when doing either hardware or software upgrades. It’s sad but true that newer is often not better, and it pays to be an educated consumer and not get sucked in by marketing hype designed for only one thing…to get you to spend your money.

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