“Hard technology makes us subservient, Soft technology puts us in charge” — (Norman, D. A., & Dunaeff, T.)
To understand soft technology and its intent we should first understand hard technology. Traditional definitions of soft and hard technology differ depending on who you ask. Some link the physical nature of the technology to the taxonomy.Logistics and machinery is hard technology, and software, processes and production techniques as soft.
Dron, J., Reiners, T., & Gregory, S. (2011) claim soft technology is as an abstract notion that “exists mainly in people’s heads”
They use the term for all ephemeral and non–executional abilities required to produce a solution. And hard technologies as the conversion of those notions into usable systems. For example building a bridge will fall under hard technology. Writing an email, or entering a wikipedia entry will be soft technology.
This is of course easy to challenge in a world where an increasing portion of our lives (the products that fill them) is digital. Based on the notion that technologies are assemblies, Dron elal claim that what makes a technology soft is the fact that the orchestration of the phenomena is “undertaken by a human”, whereas in hard technologies it has been built into the machine itself.
When filtered through the intent: a machine has the sole purpose of completing a task, efficiently and quickly.
“soft technologies are filled with latent possibilities and potentials, enabling many creative and flexible uses, whether they are human processes or embodied in machines; hard technologies are concerned with efficiency, replicability and the elimination of errors”
Focusing on the intent reveals a more holistic definition. In the world we live in now, limitation to execution are known to expire. The pace in which we invent new methods, and make existing ones affordable is staggering. Focusing on the train of thought–as opposed to stops along the way–makes thinking salable and sustainable.
Hard technologies are the accumulated wisdom from natural science and physical worlds. And soft technologies then extend knowledge from the humanities, namely all resulting thoughts, ideologies, emotions and movements. In this definition hard technology is the result of a soft one. In other words hard technology is the executed solution, and soft is the thinking that lead to it; in some cases this might compute to design (soft) and development (hard). More generally, this raises the question: what’s in a solution? or rather what is the problem? What comes first, and do we create a need based on our technological abilityies?
Another interesting dimension is the tolerability of a system for errors.
“Soft technologies enable creativity and flexibility; Hard technologies provide freedom from error, speed and efficiency”
To extend this notion – all scenarios in a hard technology system have been accounted for and designed for by a human. There is no room for error, nor is there room for creativity beyond what the system allows for. This type of constraint was of course a necessity when computer systems were first introduced to our daily lives, but this time has now passed. We needed computers to gain our trust, so we’d feel comfortable about a machine landing jets or monitor our heart activity for anomalies.
That level of micro management is no longer required. Systems have now gotten to a point where they can train themselves, cross delegate tasks and support us in ways we couldn’t even imagine being possible 5 years ago.
Machine learning systems can now generate highly complex logical structures to answer a single question.On the fly. Those structures will then disappear when a query is answered.
This is a huge technological shift. All answers today are answered by an algorithm following a predetermined set of turns, written by a human.
Are soft and herd technology mutually exclusive?
No solution is made out of just one, and arguably all things are a product of both. What is interesting is that in this point in time flare points (soft) are slowly moving away from being human controlled to being generative and programmable.
The balance between the soft and the hard systems is changing, and this tension is likely to request new type of thinking from us.
We are nearing to solving all efficiency related, computational problems. What do we do when we reach that technology saturation point?
How do we best harvest years of research and development and make sure that we channel the right kind of thinking through our new amazing machines? How can we think beyond pixels on screens, taps on phones and projections on walls?
There has been some thinking done around a longer arching technological approach.
The Slow Web advocates for responsibility in consumption and independence from instant gratification. It clearly draws inspiration from the world of mindfulness, portraying the franticness of our lives as the enemy, and allows forgiveness for errors, and a bit of tardiness.
The movement cites The Slow Food movement as an inspiration and believes that their view is the right way to progress with technology, as opposed to behind it.
Intent driven technology by definition, even if not knowingly, supports a more balanced lifestyle.