Beyond the system

By Paul Dempsey |  No Comments  |  Posted: September 10, 2010
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This issue analyzes two of the most dynamic markets in electronics: embedded systems and microelectromechanical systems (MEMS). And both articles tell a familiar tale.

This issue analyzes two of the most dynamic markets in electronics: embedded systems and microelectromechanical systems (MEMS). And both articles tell a familiar tale. We no longer engineer functions but far more complete offerings—products in all but name and a surface patina of industrial design. This important shift is raising all manner of technological and economic challenges.

So, you will not welcome hearing that one increasingly influential school of thought has it that this system-based thinking does not go far enough. Even though we are developing user interfaces that actually are user friendly—from a functional point of view, at any rate—we may still be falling short.

Thoreau observed of the industrial revolution, “Lo, men have become the tools of their tools.” He voiced a fear that automation and industrialization could rob humans of their humanity. Such concerns are abroad again, though not, it should be stressed, in any Luddite sense.

In his book Hamlet’s Blackberry, author William Powers has captured the mood of our times. His thesis is that all our digital connectedness, represented by the ‘screens’ with which we surround ourselves, can crowd out our inner lives. It leaves us little time to think, and consequently to be either reflective or intuitive. Instead, we have adopted the simplistic view that the more connected we are the better, and the less we are the worse, assuming wrongly that one part of this equation absolutely proves the other.

It is not often that you will find this journal interviewing someone who has also been quizzed by Katie Couric, but what makes Powers’ view interesting is that he addresses the issue as someone who can see the benefit of the technologies we have developed and continue to unleash. What he challenges is the use model.

His book shows that some of the big technology players—among them Microsoft and Intel—are also becoming increasingly concerned. Are employees who don’t have time to think because of digital ‘obligations’ really productive? Are they just filling the day with fluff and stuff? Are they struggling to master an information flow that could burn them out?

Historically, the social side of device usage is something that engineers have left to ergonomists and philosophers. Powers, though, makes the point that an ability to step back from our devices is a function in itself that those devices probably need to incorporate. Think of it, perhaps, as a pause button for the mind.

You may not agree with the view. In the electronics realm, integration is king, and that position finds its voice in the burgeoning functionality that today’s consumer products contain. But have you not at least once felt yourself nagged or chased by the devices you carry? Or have you felt ‘naked’ because you forgot to take a cell phone when on just a brief, 20-minute errand?

The good news from Powers’ book is that it has all happened before, and he provides plenty of examples. We fixed the information overload back then and, if the demand to address it is as great as the attention his book is getting suggests, we will fix it today. And do you know something else—there’s probably a nice, big market out there for those who help put those fixes in place.

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