Intimacy and Discordance

I’ve been thinking about how routines form the glue of domestic life in our house: cooking, cleaning, washing, sleeping …etc. What struck me was how important routines are for creating time and space to talk, to listen, to share and above all to interact with each other.

I thought about that hackneyed phrase “quality time”: what does it actually mean? Does it mean taking the kids on a two-week holiday to Florida or eating out in expensive restaurants? No, to me means it means “being” rather than “doing”: being together with another, giving one’s full attention to that person and to the moment, whether playing cards, watching the stars or just talking quietly on the sofa.

I also thought how technology can help and hinder this interaction: the washing machine frees our hands from the washboard, but the telephone demands our ears.

I then thought of how special mealtimes are for us in terms of family interaction, especially dinner time during the working week: I leave for work before the kids get up and no-one is at home for lunch. Dinner then becomes a sacred moment for our physical, social and emotional restoration. The orchestra of domestic services and appliances perform a nightly symphony of spectacular banality to free us from the shackles of time: the wonder that is running water*, the effortless grace of the gas cooker, the modesty of the electric light.

The table is set, the food is served — we sit. The gentle murmur of knife on plate, the tinkle of salt, the sharing of thoughts, feelings, stories and dreams. The jokes, the silly faces, the laughter, the smiles, the ketchup.

And then a telephone rings, the doorbell chimes, a text message announces its arrival with a flourish of ringtone. The moment disturbed, the magic suspended, the world outside dominates once more that within.

Does it have to be like this?

We raise our children to be polite and respectful, to wait one’s turn and not interrupt, to not talk with one’s mouth full, to give up the seat to the old lady on the bus. Why not the same for our technology?

“Now, Mr Telephone, you’re more than welcome to introduce guests outside of mealtimes, but between the hours of 6.30 and 7.30pm Monday to Friday please refrain from disturbing us and instead politely offer to take a message and inform the caller that they will have our undivided attention in due course. Between the same hours Saturday and Sunday you may make two quiets ‘ahems’ with a pause of 20 seconds between each”.

We might think of this as “intimacy and discordance” or “attendance and distraction” (“attendance” in the sense of giving one’s full attention).

If we truly believe that personal relationships are the foundations of happiness, what happens when those foundations are undermined? To where does a world of instant and infinite distraction lead us? What does this imply for the well-being of those who already struggle with attention, such as children and adults with ADHD?

In short: value interaction between people above all else. Favour HHI over HCI. Be an interaction designer, not an interruption designer.

How it might work:

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