Designing Software for Humans (Guest: Amber Case)

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This is a podcast episode titled, Designing Software for Humans (Guest: Amber Case). The summary for this episode is: <p><span>Amber Case is another personification of that intersection of the human and technology. Amber Case is an American a user-experience designer, author, and public speaker. She has combined a deep understanding of anthropology and human behavior with a focus on user experience - making technology work us instead of annoying. In particular, she is the author of two great books - Calm Technology and the newest one - Designing with Sound.</span></p>

Ben Newton: Welcome to the Masters of Data podcast, the podcast that brings the human to data. And I'm your host, Ben Newton. One running theme we've had on this podcast is how bringing humanities and science together makes for wonderful results.
Ben Newton: Amber Case is a personification of that intersection of human and technology. Amber is a user experience designer, author, and public speaker. She has combined a deep understanding of anthropology and human behavior with a focus on user experience, basically making technology work with us and for us instead of annoying us. That's a good thing. In particular, she's the author of two great books, Calm Technology and the newest one, Designing with Sound. So without any further ado, let's dig in.
Ben Newton: Welcome, everybody to the Masters of Data podcast and I'm very excited about my guest today, Amber Case. She has an amazing background. She's a UX designer, she's a public speaker, and she's an author of multiple books, including Calm Technology and Designing with Sound, which is coming out in just a couple weeks, on Dec. 13th.
Ben Newton: Welcome to the show, Amber.
Amber Case: Thanks, it's great to be here.
Ben Newton: And like I said, you and I were talking a little bit before. You have a fascinating background, and like I do on every show, I just want to know your story. Can you share with us about how you end up where you are now and what led you to UX design and thinking about Calm Technology and all these things on your side. How'd you get there? What led you that direction?
Amber Case: Sure, well, I had a weird childhood, because I grew up in Denver, Colorado, kind of in the suburbs. My parents grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah and they were kind of SLC punks. So they met at a TV station. My dad was an audio engineer and mom was a master control operator, so she would take reels of video and hand splice commercials into them and then put them back on the reel, line them up and put them on the air in real time.
Amber Case: So, at the time, it was the highest paid, most stressful job at the station. It was really kind of prestigious, blue collar work, I guess.
Ben Newton: Oh, that's really cool.
Amber Case: So they met, they eventually moved away from Salt Lake City where they had all their friends, due to some issues. So they show up in Denver, Colorado. They don't know anybody and they're pretty liberal and at that time, kind of Denver was kind of conservative. So, I grew up and really didn't have any friends or peers, like it was pretty isolating.
Amber Case: The street that we moved into, everybody was on their way out, so to speak. The mall was dying. People on the block were old and dying. So I had a lot of friends that were older than me that would die, but never anybody my age.
Amber Case: And then because they put TV on the air, they didn't want to watch TV, when they came home, so we just didn't have cable and we barely watched TV. So I had this 1960 World Book Encyclopedia. So, I was born in 1986, but I was reading the 1960 World Book Encyclopedia and reading these entries like computer and computer was the size of a gymnasium, it was like here's a PDP-8 and it's really fast. It can calculate on like a thousand things per minute or something ridiculous.
Amber Case: I sat there and I was looking at that and then I was looking at the Atari that my dad bought when he learned that my mom was pregnant. And, I was like, hmm, this doesn't look like this. This is not the right definition for a computer. And my dad was like, things change over time.
Amber Case: I said, oh, my gosh, that means that, when I grow up, these things will be like as small as your hand. And he's like, oh, I don't know. And I was like, no! It's gonna be really small. Everything's gonna change. What does that mean?
Amber Case: And like my parents didn't really know how to raise me. They kind of just treated me like an adult, so they, I remember drawing a picture of some clouds, which is a bunch of scribbles. I think I was like four. And my dad was like, that's not what clouds look like. I was like, what do you mean?
Amber Case: He's like, you can't draw clouds. What do you mean? He's like, they're vapor in the air. You can hint at them with watercolor. I was like, what? He's like, let me show you how clouds work. I was like geez, okay. I was like but I'm four, can I just be four? And he's like but that's not how clouds work.
Amber Case: So it was just this kind of thing where the minute I had hand-eye coordination, my dad was building synthesizers and speakers and microphones in his free time and he would be like, can you hand me that resistor? And I needed to know the resistor bands and how to solder, like as fast as I could. And I built model rockets with him.
Ben Newton: That's awesome.
Amber Case: So this is all before I went to preschool, and so I show up at preschool and I'm just like, what the heck, what is this? Like, first off, I have to spend half my day in this place that I don't really want to be and secondly, all of these kids have these references to stuff that I've never heard about, like "101 Dalmatians" and like their shirts are full of these characters. And I have nothing in common with them, at all.
Amber Case: No slang, no language, no play. I don't understand what they're doing. I've just haven't really hung out with them. So I hang out with my teachers, and that basically happens for the rest of, until pretty recently, I hung out with people way older than me.
Amber Case: And it was kind of awkward because it was just pretty isolating. So when I was in school, my grandpa was a mathematician and my uncle's a particle physicist. On my mom's side, people are kind of artists and media people. So, I did really well in math and science. We didn't have a lot of money, at all and actually we were struggling and in debt, but I did have access to some tech.
Amber Case: And so for me, not having friends meant that a computer was my friend and I just went and eventually learned that you could build websites. You could make forums. There was this thing called PHP, which I had no clue what it was, but suddenly, I was installing stuff with [inaudible 00:05:36] data bases. I was like I don't know what I'm doing, but I gotta run this thing and oh, no, there's spammers. I gotta install this plug in, oh, that doesn't work.
Amber Case: I've got to eliminate these lines of code, but I don't know what they are, but I'm just removing them. I had no clue what I was doing, but around high school, I ended up managing this really large forum for, at the time, it was a 100,000 visitors a month. Big deal. Everybody at school used it.
Amber Case: Then I was like, what should I do and I called my mom's friend, who was a math professor. I was like, I want to go to CalTech, MIT. She's like, you should learn about people. I know you have all these job offers right out of high school, but you should learn how to think. You should learn some difficult thing. What was your worst subject in school?
Amber Case: I was like, social studies. She's like, go to a liberal arts college. Learn anthropology or something.
Ben Newton: Hmm. Interesting.
Amber Case: I applied and I got into Lewis And Clark College in Portland, Oregon and they gave me a large scholarship and the first time I came up, I saved some waitressing money and showed up on a greyhound bus. Just showed up and, you know I had a variety of tech jobs early on. The waitressing thing was really fun. For me, it was like, well, I'll try to learn about people, but before it was building websites and my first job was in the Dot-Com boom. At like 13-14 making websites out of the mayor's department in Denver.
Amber Case: I was surprised that I could get paid to do tech, 'cause it was pretty fun, but then I went to Lewis And Clark College and I found out there's this anthropology/sociology thing and then at the end of freshman year, I found that there's a field called cyborg anthropology, which is all about human and computer interaction and how technology affects culture.
Amber Case: I wrote my thesis on cell phones and that was 2007, so right when the iPhone came out. My classmates were super not into it. They're like, it's not really anthropology if you don't go to another country. I was like, you guys are waking up to these things that cry and you have to pick 'em up and sooth 'em back to sleep. You have to feed them and plug them into the wall. Don't tell me that this is not real anthropology. Your lives are gonna be changed by this. I don't care what you think, but in ten years you're gonna care about it.
Ben Newton: Yeah.
Amber Case: So yeah, that's kind of how I got started. And then somebody, a couple years after I graduation of course, I graduated in 2008, with no jobs. But people were like, you really care about interfaces. You care about where buttons are and you care about humans and human/computer interaction. You should probably do user experience design.
Amber Case: And I got this nice job offer, a year out of school, that paid well. That I thought it was great at the time. It's pretty low on my standard, but it was the first time, I was like, wow! I can afford rent. I can buy a car. I can buy a computer. I can pay off all my student debt. Awesome.
Amber Case: Within a year, I just blasted through everything and then I realized that user experience design was real and that was kind of who I was supposed to be. That's kind of how I got here.
Ben Newton: That's a fascinating story again, 'cause there was a couple things that I think that really I kind of hear out of that is a lot of the guests I've been talking to recently, and I think there's this underlying trend of even one of the earlier guests, Christian Madsbjerg wrote this book called Sensemaking which I end up finding myself referring to a lot, but, his whole thesis is that you bring sociology, the philosophy, the humanity side of the world together with the more the art of sciences, computer sciences. I think it's really fascinating how, like, you obviously got some really good advice to do that cause I know when I was a math and physics major and I mean, they would push you, I kind of had to buck the trend to take any classes that were not engineering or math-related, or science-related, and I think that's really great that you got advice early on to push you in the direction cause I don't think everybody does, I mean what do you think?
Amber Case: I agree. I think once you're in the STEM field, it's all STEM. You are 100% tech. And you can absorb into it really quickly. I mean, after I wrote my thesis I kind of, I did a startup based on my thesis called "Geolocian" and we sold that to [inaudible 00:09:23] a couple years later, but I was working 100 hour weeks, four years straight. Which, is possible. You know, you can have eight hours of sleep but you just do 100%.
Amber Case: And there's this idea that to be in tech you need to be 100% in tech, but then your research some of the people who have really changed tech, and they've had a weird background. Stewart Butterfield, who did Flickr, and Slack, he was a a philosophy major. It's the different perspective that really can add something.
Amber Case: And then you look at Xerox Parc, and it was technologists, and anthropologists, and artists, inventing Ethernet, and inventing the graphic user interface. It took different people to push the industry forward. So, I think that you kind of get this one dimensionality if you just do tech, where you can get so good at whatever's cool right now, OCaml or something and be like, I'm a functional programmer, and this great, I can make perfect code. And then you forget that there's more to world because you get deep down into this hole.
Amber Case: And then you miss out on applying it to the people that you're actually making this for. You know? Oh we'll optimize this, and it's like no, you need to make it so that we have less support requests. Let's build less features.
Amber Case: And a lot of that is because we have so many resources now that we forget that some of the best stuff was made in a very small resource world. Like '80's video games. Okay, you don't have any room, well, you have to invent sprites, and then you have to have a sprite map.
Ben Newton: Right.
Amber Case: And you have to allocate a resource from these coordinates and then play that over three frames and then make it look like its moving and wow that's great. You know there's just something to be said for Street Fighter. Like wow, we still play that.
Ben Newton: Yeah.
Amber Case: And all the games that are based off of that kind of genre-breaking animation style. So, I think it's, the problem is, and this is kind of why I'm glad I didn't go to MIT. Because when I was looking at all the people at MIT and especially since I spent a couple years there doing a fellowship these last few years, it was this, okay this is all that life is. There's no aesthetics, there's no music, there's no culture. And I think in the last Dot-Com group there was at least some bad techno music. And there was at least some socialization. Artists were hanging out and there was a blend.
Amber Case: But this generation is just all tech. And you have a lot of people who are freaking out. They're like, what is the meaning of life? Oh and, if I don't make enough money by the age of 40 it's going to be really hard to find a job because people don't want to hire older guys. You know guys are getting plastic surgery. You have all the artists and cultural people have moved out to Oakland. Or you have developers who pay a couple thousand bucks to go down to South America for Ayahuasca ritual to try to recapture back the culture that they never even got to experience in the first place. And I think it's a shame because you have a bunch of people making decisions for a large chunk of the world, yet they aren't embedded in that world to begin with, and I think that's starting to break down.
Ben Newton: Yeah.
Amber Case: And that's part of like the inclusivity idea, is that if you're gonna make stuff for a lot people, you should have a representative group of those people that are going to use it building it, so that you're not harming people. It's just kind of good design universal design. And it's not like, oh we need to represent everybody fairly, no, no, no. There are this many people, you're making decision for two billion people at Facebook. So, do you have anybody who doesn't have access to really good wifi? Do you have a low bandwidth option? What about people on really old phones? How are you supporting people from different social classes?
Amber Case: It's those universals that cut across more than just talking about gender and race. And people are really myopic on that cause it makes social networks money to get everybody upset and divided and click on stuff and angry with each other. But what it really comes down to is, lets make technology that works and is serviceable and can last for a while so that we aren't having a phone that we have to replace every year. At some point we're not going to have the resources to keep mining the cobalt and all the other stuff that we need to make those phones happen year after year after year for the entire world. There's some resource limitations that are going to happen, plus it's just a human right violation to do all these things.
Amber Case: And so, when that happens we'll have to start getting really clever again and say, how do I work with the piece of technology in my hands, and how do I make that successful for a longer period of time? And, I'm hoping we might have that in future, like, you look at traditional Japanese design, you have families making lacquerware bowls with a foot powered lathe and a paint made from insects and tree sap. You can make something that lasts for a hundred years that's passed down from generation to generation.
Ben Newton: Wow.
Amber Case: Can you imagine like anything that you're wearing right now, or anything that you use in your house that you will have for more than fifty years? Or ten years? Or even five years? And, I'm just really interested in seeing what those things are? Like, what are the more universals that people have, and the things that people go back to and, the original promise of tech was to give us more time, more human time, to empower us. And now, we have tech like a gas that expands to fill up all this available space and it's not really giving us much back. How many people remember a Reddit binge that they went on, or hacker news? It's just little dopamine hits. But, what do you really remember? You remember falling in love, watching a sunset, getting married, having a kid. These are the moments that people live for that we're kind of getting denied with just the random alerts that happen.
Ben Newton: I have the pleasure of being married to a former antiques dealer, so-
Amber Case: Yes! I was hoping that you might have a house full of antiques!
Ben Newton: It's funny and I think that's actually, now that I hear you describe it, I think that, even now as I think about it, I'm realizing how transformative that has been for my own mind. Cause as a person that had a more technological engineering bend, I tended to want to play with the gadgets and my, I think my wife has always been that force for me pulling me back. I mean, she likes technology when it's useful to her, but she also finds real pleasure in physical things that we, the bed that we've had since we've been married is like a 150 years old now. There's a lots of that, I completely agree with you, particularly with some of the younger generation in different places.
Ben Newton: And, you know, one thing I wanted to ask you when you were talking about this, particularly with what you've been doing around designs, so, you know, again, partly with all the gas that I talked to you and you know what I do, day to day, it seems like there is something changing. And maybe this is just the way society goes in waves. There hasn't been this like driving force maybe even since the original Dot-Com Boom that technology solves all problems. And you just go and build stuff and it'll all work out, but there seems to be more of a pushback now. In the last couple of years with, you know you mentioned Facebook with everything that's been happening that technology is not always undeniably good. You have these people, like you said making decisions for a couple of billion people, even things that are more benign about the fact that people weren't accepting and using badly designed software that they just won't deal with them.
Ben Newton: Do you see a larger trend going on there that you were detecting? Is it really kind of a sea change? Or is it just? What do you think?
Amber Case: This is, I mean it's so standard. I mean, if you just go back to the Industrial Revolution and it's such an easy thing to do. It's like, well let's just go back to the last time we had a technological shift. Oh yeah, hey it's really great to have the Industrial Revolution we can get stuff for everybody really cheap. And oh no the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and all the people burned. Well, let's just move that to another country. At some point, we can't move the same world. We're globally connected.
Amber Case: I mean my favorite story is probably about this green color. It's this beautiful emerald green color that came out in the Victorian times, you know, mid 1850's and then kind of turn of the century. And it was just this, oh my gosh, this beautiful beautiful green that everybody wanted this green color and it turned out that this green was made with arsenic. Now the problem with this arsenic green is that Scheele's Green, right? So, you could make this green with this arsenic color but, people wanted it for dresses and wallpaper and things like that and so, we got the name fashion victim, from you know women wanting to wear green dresses and then just dying after this fancy ball.
Ben Newton: Oh jeez.
Amber Case: Yeah. And then you have men wearing these beautiful patterned green socks and then having a rash on their feet. But the problem is that, you would have thought that somebody living in a place with this beautiful green wallpaper- we finally have this green color coming back by the way, and it's not arsenic but it's artificial. And we have beards coming back too, because beards they were a transmitter of disease, so the idea of being clean shaving was that you couldn't transmit disease. I mean, there's all these fashion trends that come about often because of health issues.
Amber Case: So, beautiful green, green dresses and these things, it took like fifty years for people to say, oh that was made with arsenic let's not do it. It's going to take us fifty years to say, hmm, maybe we shouldn't just make stuff and through it away or like maybe we shouldn't be dependent on this technology. I think the idea of Grace Hopper happened to build cobalt was that in the military aspects of tech, you couldn't have stuff that failed. And again, cobalt runs the world. All of the super important stuff still runs on cobalt. Because it was built for business and government machines. You want your airline to run with cobalt in the backend because you can't have a failure. Because if you do that's hundreds of lives and people not taking your airline anymore, and people being afraid to fly. They're already afraid to fly. So you have to be really careful in those situations.
Amber Case: But now as we have tech that gets closer to us, automated pet feeders, and super hokey things, I think the problem is that people are just, oh it's fine, we learn from the web that you can just have a fail whale and say, ha, ha, ha, Twitter is down. But we can't do that in real life. And I think that's that transition where we had a fun time on the web where anybody could build anything, but I think we need, not regulation but maybe like licensing for the web? Not for the web but for reality where it's kind of like you have to be a certified electrician to be able to work on mission critical stuff.
Amber Case: And the people making this kind of regulation should not be, oh it's this programming language that you have to use. That makes it really brittle. There should be a general theory of how to build stuff, which I guess I'm trying to do with Calm Technology, which is just something, it was come up with at Xerox Parc in the '80's and '90's. It's these tech universals.
Amber Case: Like, technology should use the least amount of attention and only when necessary. Who doesn't want tech that does that? Unless you, you know, tech should be serviceable by the people that use it. I mean come on, don't you want to be able to service the thing that you're using? Like when you're at a grocery store and the checkout person says, oh I'm sorry, we have to put this terminal down for maintenance. Like, no. They should be able to fix it themselves and have a pride in that. It doesn't need to be easy to fix, it could be hard to fix and in fact, if it's hard to fix that's fine you have people with longevity and employment that know how to fix it and they can have pride in it. We forgot that piece.
Amber Case: Like there's all these things that we forgot that I think we can bring back from the past and say, hm, we've gotten so far into the future that everything is so far away, we're so abstract and away, our programming is so abstract and away, that where's the joy in these things anymore? What are we doing? We're just putting people on pause. We're shifting the labor to individuals by having them book their own flights instead of going through a local travel agent, or checking out their own items in the grocery store, there's no pride in memorizing PLU's anymore. There's no long-term employment it's just contract work we don't know anyone who's driving us in a car, we don't know anybody at the hotel, we randomly go to an Airbnb but we're not really connecting with people. We're looking up yelp to see what a good place is instead of discovering it or asking people around us.
Amber Case: I think that's what's causing some of the depression especially in the tech communities. Are we tied to anything? Is there any geography anymore? You go around the world it's all the same? So, I think there needs to be, something where, it's not that we go back in time and remove tech, it's that we have tech work as well with us as our original tools. If you look at how a contractor works or a carpenter, their tools are so suited to them, to the individual, and so evolved over millions of years, really, like hammers, and reupholsters that there's a pride and those tools change who that person is and there's something to be said about apprenticeship and mastering those tools. And we don't have a lot of them anymore but I would say like that's where you get a lot of meaning.
Amber Case: And we are remove from being able to have that meaning if we just assume that we can automate everything and that that's going to be better for us and just learning how to work alongside tech.
Ben Newton: Tell me a little bit more about the work that you, in particular are doing. You have this Calm Technology work that you've been doing, the book you wrote, and you've got this new book coming out, so, where are you focusing on? Do you spend time with consulting or just going and talking about this to different communities to help educate them? I mean what does that look like?
Amber Case: It's probably I have a quarter, quarter, quarter time.
Amber Case: So, a quarter is just thinking about stuff and doing my own independent research. Which, I like to do it very long term, so I'm usually studying stuff that no one cares about. At all. And then, when I feel that people are kind of ready, I can take out and kind of beta test to talk on people. And the first time I gave the talk on Calm Technology in 2014 it was not a highly rated talk at the conference. People really didn't like it. They said, why should we worry about alerts? Like, you know, we like them. And I was like, well, in a couple of years you might be really distracted on your phone and find yourself more in tech time and less human time. And they were like we want your talk on cyborg anthropology. And I said, I'm sorry I'm testing a new talk and this is what I'm doing. So part of it's kind of figuring out when the time is, I'm usually about three years off, so I start to care about something three years before people start to care about it again. And of course we go in these cycles where people care about the same stuff every ten years and then it explodes.
Amber Case: So with AI, my grandpa worked on AI and then there was an AI bust. My dad worked on voice concatenation, voice activated technology at a telecom in the '80's and '90's and then there was a bust for that. So when I see, oh it's voice activated stuff and AI it's like oh my gosh, what's really going on? What's the universal? So that's part of my research. Which means that you know I don't try to get grants. Because grants are always so short term. They're like well, want you to do research on this very specific like minor thing that we think is important. It's like ugh. And then I'd spend all my time writing grants.
Amber Case: So instead, I give some talks and I get paid for the talks and the consulting work. So that's another quarter of the time, is the talks are quarter and the consulting work where people say, we're trying to make a smart fridge and then I talk them out of it. I try to tell them, how about a sink that tells you two weeks before it's gonna leak. That would be nice. Isn't that better than a fridge that tells you your bananas have gone bad because the pill on the banana tells you when it's gone bad?
Amber Case: And then another quarter of the time is writing. Just taking a lot of notes and there are just these long- I was reading this article, I guess it was New York Times Magazine. There's this poet. And she writes a book of poetry every decade. And after she finishes one she says I don't know if I'll ever right again. And she's like 70 now. Of course another decade roles around and she's written another book. Like I want to be like that. There's something to be said for this really slow long term stuff. You're writing about unchanging things that are core for a thousand years. How do we make tech like that? Because we are alongside it every single day. Surveying and sidewalks and bricks and houses.
Amber Case: We are interfacing with this- and plumbing. We are interfacing with this every day and it's kind of how we work and then how do we disrupt those things too? It's like are toilets even reasonable can we have better ones? The stuff that people ignore, like the hair dryer. When a company like Dyson comes in and says we're gonna make a quiet one. That's a game changer. And there's all these mundane things around that people are ignoring because they think they're going to make the next best social network. We don't even need social networks. We have email, we have text. We're going back to these small networks anyway.
Amber Case: So I guess you know that's the kind of time that I spend. And I don't really do any outreach. I just get emails like a couple times a week like, hey come speak or hey we need your advice or like hey could you do some consulting or hey we want to learn about VR/AR. And I'll be like okay I have ten years of research that I haven't done anything with. Cause, you know, here you go, here's an overview of the last twenty years.
Amber Case: People in tech are so unfocused on the history and how repetitive it is that they forget that most of the research has already been done and if you just go back and read some of the journal articles you can save yourself you know, three million or ten million dollars and like a couple years of trying to build something. Because you can say ah, I need to release this product at this part of the market. And that's kind of how I timed my startup I was like, okay, location based stuff is dead from this generation, but it's going to come up when the iPhone gets a GPS chip in it. And so, I think we were one of the first GPS enabled apps on the iPhone when the GPS chip came out.
Ben Newton: Oh really?
Amber Case: Yeah, because we were so late for the old GPS era, that we hopped on the new GPS era and we kind of new what was going to happen and how long it would take for the market to consolidate. And so we could just time it. Like at this point you just know in every single tech cycle like here's how long AI is gonna last and here's the good AI stuff and the bad AI stuff. All you have to do is look up ten years ago what AI companies worked and what AI companies didn't and just recreate the AI company that worked, you know, ten years ago. And it's the exact same thing.
Amber Case: You know, with the Magic Leap like it's super obvious that that will die a painful awful slow death because there was a company I think twenty years ago, that did the same thing, with the same demos. With the cube and the hand, they got I think 200 million dollars in funding. And never could create anything. And there's these universals of why you can never make a company like that, and why people don't need augmented reality in a headset, they need projected interfaces. So, yeah, it's been interesting but a lot of times people don't want to hear about that sort of thing so I just keep it quiet and I figure in a few years I can talk about it.
Ben Newton: That makes sense. And so, with your thought process now, what are those things that you're, I don't know your beta testing and your alpha testing right now and your thought process? What do you think that the topics might be emerging over the next few years that maybe not everyone's paying attention to?
Amber Case: The exact opposite of what everybody is paying attention to. So, attention, alerts, different senses. Sonification. Good sonification. You always have to pair somebody up with a composer. Art. Ethics. All the things that we trashed because we thought oh we don't need that anymore, tech will just solve everything, we will have to put all that back in. So, art, music, design, culture, language, weird spaces, the ability to actually be an individual. Local stuff. Local food, local art, the cult of the amateur. Apprenticeships. Craftsmanships. The long term. Poetry.
Ben Newton: Right.
Amber Case: Human time not machine time. You know, we'll wake up from this kind of industrial revolution induced thing and say ah what did we throw away, okay now we have crushing anxiety, debt, depression, mental health that doesn't exactly get at the thing. A lot of people just take arbitrary medications and a lot of tech workers, you know all these tech workers that they make enough money and then they just buy a farm somewhere in California. What do you do as a retired tech person when you retire at 45? Or you don't make it into management? Or your successful and you get a farm? You open a club, a DNA lounge. You maybe open a record store. You spend time in some other countries. Like there's not really a lot in the future for people. Or you change industries entirely. So, I think we're going to have to deal with all the human elements that we left behind and we're going to say, when you have automation, the most important thing is customer service.
Ben Newton: Surprise, surprise.
Amber Case: Yeah, right? So, I think we've just gone so myopic into one thing like humans usually do, that we'll have to come out the other end and say, okay, how do we blend back in and have some reality. And we're going to have a thing where the population kind of stabilizes, maybe even goes negative after a while. And so then we'll have to deal with that, where everybody is atomized. People aren't living with their grandparents and parents and kids. You used to have it like a big house where there's grandparents taking care of the kids, and then you have like the adults go out and make money or maybe one of them goes out and makes money. Now everybody is trying to make money and the kids are trying to go to Ivy League schools and they're all stressed out. They don't get to have a childhood. The adults are so busy that they can't even spend time with their kids, so their kids end up on the phones, nobodies real fault. Then you have grandparents who can't retire because they have to support their adult children and their aging parents and then they're freaking out.
Amber Case: It's like how much life are people living and we have to allow people to live some life or what's the point? At some point we can't make as much money off of them if they're sick and tired and hungry and upset. They'll quit, they won't respect the organizations and employ them. And so once that turning point hits, we're going to have to go super human human human. And I think we're seeing that at companies like Ikea. Where they've realized, I think they use three or four percent of the world's forests at this point? And they've realized that they have to plant forests so that they can-
Ben Newton: Replenish?
Amber Case: Yeah! And so we'll have to find companies that do that and then, they also realize if you give people flexible times you might have an employee for a longer time.
Ben Newton: Yeah.
Amber Case: It's so expensive to employ and retrain somebody over time.
Ben Newton: Yeah.
Amber Case: So I think it's just you know our ideas of efficiency aren't that great. Efficiency involves sometimes being very slow and sometimes sinking into things and sometimes just having more human time so that we can do things better from the beginning.
Amber Case: And I think this all goes back to I was at the school that still had shop class and still had architecture drafting class. A couple years later they canceled all of them. But I got to do shop. I got to make CO2 race cars and chessboards and use all these power tools. And I was trusted with them. And we learned. It was really special. We had World War II veterans as teachers. And like, people who had been in wars, I guess. And we had these amazing teachers who were old and cranky but so precise. And there's something to be said for an era in which you must be precise and you must get it right the first time and so you're planning.
Amber Case: Yeah I was lucky because I had this drafting teacher that said, I really want you to do this right on the first try. And I said, I don't really think that's possible. And he said, look you just need to plan it out and understand what you're doing before you do it and do few draft images. And then you'll be able to do it right when you finally do it cause you'll fully understand it. And so, over the course of the semester I was able to just draw it out and it was really good. I was able to do a perfect render.
Amber Case: And then we kind of had a tech company defense company that Lockheed Martin started to fund our school. They funded a wing to be [inaudible 00:32:44] at school so the next year, I ended up going into the air-conditioned classroom with all these top-notch computers and 3-D printers and I got to be part of the STEM program. And we used Autodesk Inventor and AutoCAD. And I was able to do in like three clicks what it took me like a half hour to render on a piece of paper with you know a square.
Amber Case: There was this one point where I just sat in front of my computer super depressed. And I was trying to figure out why, and I realized that because we were all so quick at this in class, we weren't thinking it fully through, we were introducing so many more errors. And it was taking us longer to do a render than if we had just thought up front about it and then drawn it ourselves.
Ben Newton: Yeah, seriously.
Amber Case: We have this sense of this loss of this craft and it's connection to our work and a connection to you know a potential client and this ritual around it and it was sad. And then we were all offered jobs at Lockheed Martin afterwards. Which, you know, I went to college instead I didn't do. Because I was kind of sad about that digital aspect. I said, you know, if I had done this like this in the '70's or '60's or in the era where you had to be really precise and maybe there was some pride in fighting a war or something like that not to say that war is good, it's terrible. But, there was a period of time in which we had limited resources and we had to be really good about what we did.
Ben Newton: I think I've told this story to somebody else right. I mean I'm always fascinated by the ingenuity, the way you're talking about limited resources and I've always admired my grandfather was a high speed photographer, and I told this to another guest and he past away recently but a couple years ago he would always tell me the stories and he made his first like high speed photography set up by taking vacuum cleaner motor and hooking it up to the shutter on his camera.
Amber Case: Yes!
Ben Newton: And it worked, and it worked great. And he used to always tell me these stories about working with scientists who were smart but couldn't connect the dots. Cause I completely hear you, when I went to grad school, my favorite class in grad school hands down was the machine shop class. Because they let me go and I was working with like these three quarter inch drills and I mean there was one time where I made a mistake and it almost killed me because the drill broke and logged in the wall behind me.
Ben Newton: But that physical connection was amazing and I actually miss that. I at least find, and I think a lot of people in our general industry find this, you know I garden, I use [inaudible 00:34:57] and all these things are because they're physical. Because you need that, you need that physicality, you need to do things with your hands. It's calming. It actually helps you think through the process.
Ben Newton: We absolutely can lose that and I think you're definitely onto something there.
Ben Newton: I think the stuff you're working on, I mean, I can definitely see after this conversation we're going to have to have you back again sometime in order to see what else you've been working on and thinking about because I think the work you're doing is absolutely essential. It's really important to kind of break through that fog surrounding I think surrounding the technology industry in particular about what we think is good for the rest of world. I think what you're bringing to the table is really good for breaking through those impasses.
Ben Newton: So, I appreciate you taking time to come on the show.
Amber Case: Yeah, thanks so much. Yeah. I hope we have a world in which we're given a little bit more responsibility so that we can be more attached to the stuff that we do.
Ben Newton: Absolutely, absolutely. And everybody listening, make sure to check out her book, she's got a book called Calm Technology, which is out now. And probably by the time you're listening to this her new book, Designing with Sound, will be out as well on December 15th, so check those out, she's got a lot of great stuff online.
Ben Newton: And, thank you everybody for listening and check us out the next time one your favorite iTunes or your favorite podcast app and thank you for listening.
Speaker 3: Masters of Data is brought to you by Sumo Logic. Sumo Logic is a cloud native machine data analytics platform delivering real time continuous intelligence as a service to build, run and secure modern applications. Sumo Logic empowers the people who power modern business. For more information, go to For more on Masters of Data, go to and subscribe. And spread the word by rating us on iTunes or your favorite podcast app.
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Amber Case is another personification of that intersection of the human and technology. Amber Case is an American a user-experience designer, author, and public speaker. She has combined a deep understanding of anthropology and human behavior with a focus on user experience - making technology work us instead of annoying. In particular, she is the author of two great books - Calm Technology and the newest one - Designing with Sound.