One great irony of our time is that technology gurus expect gadgets to converge into single interfaces with more and more embedded functionality … and yet miss that achieving singularity could diminish the usability they’re supposed to be advocating. Or in more simple terms: You don’t want your campfire in your bed.
You see, humans have three basic fields of communication — a concept by Robert Sommer called “personal space.” Sommer wrote of this way back in 1969, along the lines that our evolutionary ancestors were trained to listen to stories from the campfire, hold tools in their hands, and share whispers of lovers in their ears. Stories, work, sex — the basics you needed to survive in clans in the wild. Sommer termed these fields “social,” “personal” and “intimate” spaces. If a large man tells another man a tale from 10 feet away, that’s cool; if he gets too close, it feels like a threat; if someone you are sexually attracted to gets very close, you may be in for a new relationship or deep trouble. Our bodies are conditioned to react to the physical distance tied to the incoming communication around us.
So fast forward to summer 2010. TiVo announced this week it would load Facebook and Twitter streams onto television sets. At first blush, this seems like a superb extension of social media — more personal, real-time news on the big screen. You can almost hear the tech geeks yell yee-haw! Alas, is this what people really want? Twitter is really analogous to whispers in your intimate space; Facebook is almost as close, yet slightly more distant, more suited for the work-style typing and photo uploading from a laptop screen. Television is the distant social field, an incoming bath of blue light that warms us like stories from hunters around the ancestral campfires.
Humans don’t want all of these things together. Don’t believe us? Then ask, why in a world where consumers rush to buy new electronic gadgets of only slightly more marginal utility has no company succeeded in the past 20 years in building a convergence device — where you can watch movies and TV, read the Internet and type at work projects, and text or call your closest friends intimately? Why does the Apple TV box suck in sales? Why did you forget that Apple makes a TV device? Because society rejects convergence if it jumbles up our communication fields.
There are very few open market niches, but when they yawn gaspingly open — think, the Internet refrigerator, people, no one is buying the damn thing — it’s usually a signal that the sum of two combined utility factors is less than the whole of its parts. Sometimes too close is not the right solution. If you don’t believe us, at your next office party with your spouse in attendance, ask if he or she minds if you let another attractive colleague sit on your lap.