Some experiences with neutral technology

16.34, Friday 7 May 2021

I remember getting an Amiga computer, years and years back, the late 80s, and playing with speech synthesis for the first time. It was remarkable to type and then hear the computer speak my words.

Remarkable not because it was any good… Late 80s speech synthesis was a dancing bear: “The marvel is not that the bear dances well, but that the bear dances at all.”


Years later I heard a radio programme about the scientist who came up with this method of speech synthesis. He spoke in a gravelly, robotic monotone with jerky stops – my goodness, he sounded exactly like my old computer.

With a bit of googling I now know this must have been Dennis Klatt at MIT, whose work led to the DECtalk text-to-speech system, and who also lent his voice to Stephen Hawking.

What to me, a kid from the south of England, sounded like a slightly broken, generic computer-y voice, will have been to him absolutely spot on. It couldn’t have sounded better!

Another one: driving games.

Playing video games, anything involving driving felt incredibly artificial. I mean – I had never driven an automatic, and UK roads (especially where I lived) are narrow and mostly single lane.

And then I visited the US for the first time as a driver… I got behind the wheel and thought: this feels exactly like a video game. Even the other cars behave exactly like in-game AIs! Suddenly I had a new respect – those weren’t just games that I played, they were simulations!

I remembered these experiences this morning when Ryan Bateman pointed out the virtual meeting backgrounds provided by video software.

White and beech, semi-abstract rooms. He asks: What are these places? Who lives there? Who works there? – these are good questions. These backgrounds show virtual spaces that are larger than any room in my house. Are they supposed to represent the companies at which I would aspire to work? Is there someone, somewhere, for whom these spaces feel normal? Neutral?

That said, I admit that they do feel relatively unnoticeable to me. My eyes slide off them. I’m right at the centre of the target culture.

A “neutral” design will put some people at ease and cause others to feel (subtly or not so subtly) decentred. Obvious to say it, I know. But worth remembering.

Sometimes I look at my phone and think: I’m looking through a portal to California. My phone will never feel quite as part of the world as it does under Californian skies lit by the Californian sun. Here in London, or anywhere else really, my phone will always very slightly shimmer with an otherworldly light.

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