The Internet of Things: A Discussion About Connectivity with Jordan Braun

" I think technology is growing so fast. we have trouble figuring out what it’s role should be in our lives. And that’s one of the things that excites me about it and makes me feel if I live a life that’s not very tech heavy, it’s my duty as a designer to help figure that out because the engineering side of it  - and we’re talking mostly about computer technology - is going to keep pushing forward no matter what. And it’s kind of up to people like me to decide or help understand and discover what role those technologies should be playing in our lives and what they should be doing and what we should be doing and how we should be interacting with these new technologies. And how they should be interacting with us as they get more intelligent."

If you haven't checked out Jordan's daily pages, do so here. Then return.

Jordan Braun is one of those people who you ask a question to and you will either get an absolutely straight-quick absurd response, or the most well-thought out and articulated answer. But even when he answers absurdly, his gears are always turning. I called him up while he was at his cabin (or just his normal residence) in Boulder Creek, Ca, and hour and a half drive outside of San Francisco, to pick his brain about our current technological state. 

I just downloaded this "free" app that records phone calls. pretty awesome, but it took a few tries to get it going:

[e]: Ok, we’re all set to go. Oh man, technology.

JB: Yeah.

[e]: Watch. At the end of this it’s not going to record anything. Ok.

JB: It’s uploading it straight to the NSA. Straight to the NSA databases.

[e]: Yeah, they were like dangling it in front of us - "Oh, free app on recording your phone calls…" Dun dun dun.

JB: Exactly.

(I pried about a new lady friend who came to visit and he divulged but would like to keep it confidential. Sorry, folks)

JB: NORA! (whistles) I’m out in the yard with the dogs, so.

[e]: Oh, that’s nice. Ok, so I’m going to pretend like I don’t really know a lot about you. So…what exactly do you do? What’s your “title”?

JB: I’m a designer. I work mostly in digital. I do a lot of web and mobile design for tech products. My main focus is on prototyping and user research. So, less emphasis on visual design and more emphasis on  processes and figuring out how things work and who they should work for.

[e]: And so you work with technology, but you live in a cabin in the woods. 

JB: This is true.

[e]: Some people would say that makes you disconnected.

JB: Uh, yes. purposefully so.

[e]: Why is that?

JB: Um, well first of all I just enjoy living in a cabin and I enjoy working in technology…hold on.. EDWARD! Come here! Come here, boy. (whistles) Good boy. Ok. I enjoy the two things. I'm a really big fan of problem solving and complex and abstract problems, which tech affords me. I can work on that stuff. That being said, I’m not that interested in having a lot of technologies in my personal life. I enjoy some of them and some of the efficiencies they bring. But I’m a fan of doing things with my hands and…there should be a word for this…de-efficient…what should the word be? Making things less efficient on purpose?

[e]: Wait - what do you think that word would be? I mean, you can make it up.

JB: Maybe de-optimize. Which might be a word already — because I think while time is a scarce resource, most of us actually have plenty of it. Which is why people spend a lot of time watching Netflix and things. Probably the first time in history where a majority of people in the western world have enough time to do things like “binge watch” things. We had to invent a new word for it because that’s never been the case before. So while we’re making things more efficient, I don’t know if we’re doing anything with our new-found time. Whereas it might be worth it to de-optimize things to practice more mindfulness. My example is that I hand grind my coffee. I could get an electric grinder real easily but I enjoy working for it a little bit in the morning. Getting to smell the beans, the two hand operation - I can’t really multi task while I'm doing it. To just focus on that one thing, which is increasingly rare.

[e]: Have you always felt that way? Like, growing up, or…when you were a kid. What did you like getting your hands on?

JB: Well, I don’t know if I would have always called it mindfulness. But I think there’s some element to that that’s always been important to me. And I’ve been back and forth, I’ve researched how to optimize the hell out of everything, how to make your life super optimized and stuff and have gone down that path and I don’t think it’s good. for me, anyways.

[e]: Why is that?

JB: Um, just, like I said there’s something to be said for taking the time to do something the right way. And being mindful of what you’re doing and working for and earning things. The concept of earning little things is going away. So that’s good. Ha.

I don’t know, as a kid I was really in to riddles and puzzles and problem solving. So I guess I’ve always had a strong attachment to delayed gratification and working for something in order to get the prize.

[e]: I always wanted everything right away. I have to slow myself down. That’s why I’m interested in how you look at things and how you live your life. Because it is a mindfulness and mindfulness is hard and is made even harder by the fact that everything now is so accessible. 

JB: Yeah. and I think that’s amplified for me since I work in tech and I see whole companies build their whole corporation around the tiniest inconvenience people might have. And I just have to wonder…I actually read a quote from Johnny Ive the other day - the head designer at Apple, Chief Design Officer, he just got his promotion. He said something about - you have to ask yourself, “Does the product deserve to exist”? Which I think is something in tech we could do a better job at. You hear about these new tech companies popping up and I have to ask myself - is that a problem actually worth solving? Especially since you have all these talented designers and engineers working on these problems and then we still got major issues in the world that could probably use their attention. But they're just trying to figure out how to sell you coupons online or how to get you to click ads, how to get delivery service optimized for you...etc.

[e]: You said you’re working on, I think it’s the picture of you sitting outside, you’re working on “Raspberry Pi’s”. What are those?

JB: A raspberry pi is a little, like minimal computer. that’s around $30. Which lets us do all sorts of cool things with them because they’re practically disposable at that price. What I was doing is  - this is gonna get technical, is that all right? - 

[e]: Yeah.

JB: So I was setting up those raspberry pi’s to be bluetooth listeners. So they listen for low energy bluetooth signal and report that information back to a backend system, which is the company I work for. So you would set up several of those raspberry pi’s in rooms, these ones we’re working on for a hospital, and maybe each room would get one. And then you can attach bluetooth beacons to things like stretchers or patients or defibrillators, whatever’s important in a hospital to know where it is. And those things could report through the raspberry pi, to detect their presence in a certain room. - NORA! Come here [calling his dog] So yeah, that’s what I was working on in that picture. Raspberry pi’s can do almost anything. That’s what we’re doing with them right now.

[e]: Last night I was just listening to this radiolab podcast, it was about communication with dolphins. And it featured this woman who was trying to teach a dolphin english, or communicate somehow and develop a relationship. This woman stayed, basically shared a room with this dolphin for nine months and was the dolphin’s roommate. Kind of charming.

JB: They should make a sitcom about that.

[e]: I know. “Me and Peter”, with a comical exasperated look on the woman's face and Peter being all mischevious. There was this weird sexual thing that happened with them though so I think that’s why all that research was discredited, so…you’ll have to look it up later. Also in the same research facility, John Lily was feeding LSD to some of the dolphins to help them “open up”, so…It was an interesting project. So anyways, you talking about the raspberry pi’s , I'm thinking about us communicating with animals and that whole pursuit and that whole, let’s try to understand it and let’s try to train it to do what we want and understand this whole concept of this relationship between human and animal. So what about humans and technology? Do you ever feel like it’s like that, in a way?

JB: I think technology is growing so fast. we have trouble figuring out what it’s role should be in our lives. And that’s one of the things that excites me about it and makes me feel if I live a life that’s not very tech heavy, it’s my duty as a designer to help figure that out because the engineering side of it  - and we’re talking mostly about computer technology - is going to keep pushing forward no matter what. And it’s kind of up to people like me to decide or help understand and discover what role those technologies should be playing in our lives and what they should be doing and what we should be doing and how we should be interacting with these new technologies. And how they should be interacting with us as they get more intelligent. I work in a field that’s starting to be called “The Internet of Things” which is kind of a newer, fancier word for what used to be called “M to M” or, “Machine to Machine”. So, bypassing humans interacting with stuff and letting sensors and devices do their own thing based on, basically automation. Which excites me because when I read old Sci-Fi and guys like Buckminster Fuller, what they promise out of technology, or the less dystopian ones, is that as things get more efficient, we get to spend less time interacting with the technology itself and with manual labor and things like that. And in theory we get to spend more time doing things like hiking or meditating or making art or spending time with our families. I think that potential’s still there but we need to be guided towards it. I think the field that I’m in - “The Internet of Things” (IOT)- gives a good opportunity for that because it lets the machines work for us, rather than…for example, a service like Facebook - you’re not the customer, you’re the product. The customer is people who are buying ads, they’re in ad platform. You and your information is the product. So they’re trying to manipulate you into using it more and more because the more eyeballs on the page, the more they can sell the ad for. Versus something like an IOT service, or at least I would hope something I design - the end goal is to make it more efficient and more effective and safer because we only want computers doing things that are precise and honest so they can make up for things that humans fail at a lot. And that should, in theory, help people live their lives in a  more fulfilling way. Whether the current system and the powers that be will allow for things to play out that way I’m not sure, but I want to feel like I’m doing my part to make that happen. 

[e]: Well, I’m glad that you are. And I think it’s a pretty unique position to be in.

JB: And I think we need people that aren’t super gun-ho about the ever-growing technology fascination working in the tech field. People asking questions about how this is going to effect people, how things like automation - is that going to take away valuable skills from people? We’ve heard  - what is that podcast? 99% Invisible. I just heard a podcast and they were talking about automation and how autopilot failed on an airplane a few years ago and it crashed because the pilot didn’t know how to fly without it. And everybody died. So… And that’s kind of some of the questions we need to be asking  - maybe is it ok for this to not be automated right now and go ahead and let people stay good at it? And it’s cool because I’m kind of a part of two scenes - a part of that tech scene, but I’m also involved and in tune with the kind of old-style hand-made movement. Like craftsman movement that’s starting to happen again. So I get to see it from both perspectives. I don’t know. One day I might be working on a robot that “hand-stitches” boots but when I go home I’m probably going to buy a pair of boots that was actually hand-stitched by a boot-maker. So that’s interesting.

[e]: Well, yeah, like I said it’s fascinating because to some people it may seem paradoxical. 

JB: I try to balance it. I mean, I don’t want to put the hand-made boot-maker out of a job. But I would like to shut down the sweat shops in Thailand. And I think there’s room for both of those things to happen.

[e]: Definitely.  Well, I think I’m gonna wrap it up but I’m trying to ask everybody - what is your definition of a “good life”?

JB: Um….that’s a good one to put me on the spot for…Um…Heather marries me. Um…my definition of a good life…It’s different for every person…

[e]: You know what? I was going to change the question. Because I’ve been trying to reformat this question I’ve been asking and I feel like I always get this response, uncertainty. It’s too big and broad. So. What does a good day look like? Like, what at the end of the days makes you feel satisfied? What does it involve?

JB: Ok, that’s easier. I think I have different modes. One type of good day is I get a lot done. Solve a lot of hard problems, and that’s usually a work day. I had one of those days yesterday. And in those cases I don’t mind, like normal creature comfort stuff. Like yesterday I worked from 8 am to midnight pretty much nonstop but it was alright because I was super focused and we got a lot of shit done. But I kind of go on a polar opposite of that and good day is full of reflection and mindfulness. I spend time either alone or someone I’m close with and do things like go on a long hike or just read all day or even just spend time around the house with the dogs and it’s kind of like a reset day. I think those days are really good too.

[e]: Good. well thank you. And thanks for letting me use technology to record you.