When we use a piece of technology – whether a web browser, a portable music player, or a cable box – really anything that deals with content delivery and manipulation – we provide an invaluable amount of raw data about our behaviors, interests and habits. Almost all these devices today simply operate as workers – never doing more than what’s asked of them: play that song, display that article, record that movie. Once the task is completed, these devices (for the most part) completely forget what was asked of them and simply wait for the next task request.
A relatively unimpressive exception to this rule is the common display of “Recent…whatever.” Office applications remember the last few files you loaded for easier retrieval. Many mobile phones have a “Recent Activity” list of some sort (missed calls, outgoing calls, etc.). But beyond these basic conventions, there isn’t much else. And that’s too bad. I think there’s enormous value in paying attention to and remembering information on a couple of levels:
Morphing Interfaces. Imagine an interface that paid close attention to how you worked, the assets you cared about, or even more impressively the patterns and habits of your usage. Over time, the interface would change in some subtle ways to better accomodate the way you work. The Microsoft Office applications have been doing this for awhile. Certain menu items hide away if they’re rarely used. The down side of this approach is that people are accustomed to things staying in the same place. There’s an appeal to the predictability of a rigid, yet carefully thought-out interface. I don’t think I want my car’s controls changing slightly anytime soon. That said, I still think there’s more to explore here.
Learn. Connect. Share. The Internet and the progression towards cheaper and easier connectivity among and between computers and devices opens up all sorts of possibilities. Rather than your audio player being this isolated island of knowledge about your habits, it can go ahead and broadcast out to others (either by Wifi in real-time or when you sync up your player). Imagine Nielsen ratings based upon portable audio player usage. Or the ability to stumble on someone else’s playlist in the same coffee shop because their musical interests somewhat overlap yours. This kind of thinking is already happening. An awesome evolution of RSS is the ability for software to track what we pay attention to and fold that into a larger repository. Hell, it’s impressive enough if my feed reader could do this for me alone (an upcoming version of FeedDemon is slated to have this feature).
It’s exciting stuff, but one step at a time I suppose. Let’s first get software to start paying attention – close attention – to what we consume and how we work. Once software starts paying attention, all sorts of cool things are possbile.