Why Do Technological Solutions Often Miss the Mark So Badly?

It's extremely difficult for new technologies to also envision the ways we will relate to each other in the future.

Kitchens also have a long history of containing more mechanical doodads than any other room, and so, for decades, inventors and futurists have wondered about the kitchen of tomorrow. Looking back on their visions, however, it's clear just how overwhelmingly beholden product designers — supposedly forward-looking people — were to the arbitrary cultural expectations of their day. Those kinds of norms, which have acted as design blinders for the better part of a century, continue to diminish our ability to dream up the best possible solutions for the people who need them. It's an issue that starts in the kitchen, but ends up affecting many aspects of life in all different people — including older adults.


In her wonderful piece "Why the 'Kitchen of the Future' Always Fails Us," posted in Septmeber on the food blog Eater, science writer Rose Eveleth takes a deep dive into the retro-future of kitchen design. Historical visions of the kitchen's future, she argues, rich in forward-facing technologies like robot butlers and all-glass displays, have always had an unfortunate tendency to look back to the same decade for their cultural inspiration: the Leave It To Beaver 1950s. In the typical retro-future kitchen, she writes:

…our lovely future wife is making dinner. She always seems to be making dinner. Because no matter how far in the future we imagine, in the kitchen, it is always the 1950s; it is always dinnertime; and it is always the wife's job to make it. Today's homes of the future are full of incredible ideas and gizmos, but while designers seem happy to extrapolate far beyond what we can do today when it comes to battery life or touch screens, they can't seem to wrap their minds around any changes happening culturally.

That 1950s idea of home life is long since on its way out. And yet even today, futurists' ideas of tomorrow's kitchen rely on it. Eveleth describes recent, forward-looking promotional materials from Ikea, Microsoft, and Corning Glass that all still smack of an old-fashioned vision of the future.

A big part of Eveleth's critique (beyond all the persistent sexism) is the fact that tech designers too often act like the proverbial hammer-owner who treats the whole world like a nail. Just because barcode readers and RFID tags exist, do we really need products that incorporate them in order to tell us what's in our fridge? Do we really need a smart fork that tells you to eat more slowly, to chew more thoroughly? A stove controlled by phone? A toaster that sends email?

The stakes may be higher than they seem, because comparable "solutions" in the past haven't always benefited the end user — a trend perhaps best described in Ruth Cowan's seminal book, More Work For Mother. In it, Cowan describes "innovations" throughout history that have shifted the burden of housework from men to women. Is it possible that the retrograde ideas about the home that informed the aforementioned futurist marketing materials will also tell technologists which problems to solve? If so, will they shackle tomorrow's kitchen users (i.e., almost everyone) to out-of-date ideas about how to live?

It's a question similar to one I encounter in my own research concerning technologies aimed at older adults. As Eveleth points out, men dominate the workforces of most tech companies, and therefore technological solutions are too often filtered through a male viewpoint. In the same vein, tech companies are overwhelmingly young, and therefore solutions for older adults must first pass through the filter of what a young person's idea of what "old" is. (It's for this exact reason, when you expand the issue beyond tech development to product, store, and even city design, that the MIT AgeLab built AGNES, a bodysuit designed to allow younger designers and execs to experience what old age feels like.) The first challenge is to get young designers to care about the older market, period, but the next is to get them to understand that "older person" does not mean "walking medical problem." Rather, older people are human beings, many of whom, yes, have medical issues. And that's an important distinction. When you built tech not for real people, but rather for a mistaken idea of what you think people should be, you get technologies that real people don't actually want. Consider those spotless, glassy future kitchens. Are they really built that way based on the desires of the chefs who would use them? Eveleth writes:

Imagine your dream kitchen, something with every invention and bell and whistle you might want. What does it include? I'd guess it doesn't include a wall of hard-to-clean glass surfaces, or a self-stirring pot, or an easy way for your mother-in-law six states away to watch you cook. For me, it would include a self-cleaning function. Here's how many times I saw anything about keeping the kitchen clean in all the future-home videos I've watched: Not once.

Now switch out the spotless glass kitchen, representing some non-cook's idea of what a kitchen should look like, for boring, beige-and-gray devices, representing what some non-old-person's idea of tech-for-older-people should look like. Unless it's absolutely necessary to buy those products, they will stay on store shelves. Trust me.

But at the same time, I feel hopeful, and one source of that hope is the high likelihood that there will be better options on those store shelves, next to all the beige stuff. Simply put, tomorrow's older consumers will be more empowered than any prior generation to make decisions that will support how they want to live. Aging baby boomers wield a huge chunk of the nation's — and world's — economic pie, and when I say "wield," I mean "like a meat cleaver." Solutions that don't cut it will be cut. At the same time, most household purchasing decisions in boomer families, and in families of all ages, are made by women. Those factors are not by any means going to solve the problem of the young, male domination of the tech industry — but still, in some cases, companies are starting to pay attention to the actual needs and wants of the consumer-as-individual. To stick with the kitchen, General Mills has several test kitchens for families of different ethnicities — the idea being that, say, a Latin kitchen is going to look different from, and will require different tools and materials than, my Greek/Italian one, where oregano ranks equal to salt and pepper in importance. I hope that delving in deeply to figure out how individuals actually use products will succeed in tomorrow's marketplace. It certainly feels more likely to prevail than any design ethos built on a monolithic, outdated vision of the world.

--

MIT AgeLab's Lucas Yoquinto contributed to this article. 

Photo from Shutterstock

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What was it like to live in a Japanese concentration camp?

During World War II, the U.S. incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps throughout the West.

Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
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On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized and directed military commanders "to prescribe military areas … from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion." Under the authority of this executive order, roughly 112,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent — nearly two-thirds of which were American citizens — were detained in concentration camps.

How did the camps get their start?

With the benefit of a nearly 80-year perspective, it's clear that the internment of Japanese Americans was racially motivated. In response to Japan's growing military power in the buildup to World War II, President Roosevelt commissioned two reports to determine whether it would be necessary to intern Japanese Americans should conflict break out between Japan and the U.S. Neither's conclusions supported the plan, with one even going so far as to "certify a remarkable, even extraordinary degree of loyalty among this generally suspect ethnic group." But of course, the Pearl Harbor attacks proved to be far more persuasive than these reports.

Pearl Harbor turned simmering resentment against the Japanese to a full boil, putting pressure on the Roosevelt administration to intern Japanese Americans. Lieutenant General John DeWitt, who would become the administrator of the internment program, testified to Congress

"I don't want any of them here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty... It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty... But we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map."

DeWitt's position was backed up by a number of pre-existing anti-immigrant groups based out of the West Coast, such as the Joint Immigration Committee and the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West. For many, the war simply served as an excuse to get rid of Japanese Americans. In an interview with the Saturday Evening Post, Austin Anson, the managing secretary of the Salinas Vegetable Grower-Shipper Administration, said:

"We're charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We do. It's a question of whether the White man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. ... If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we'd never miss them in two weeks because the White farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we do not want them back when the war ends, either."

Ironically for Anson, the mass deportation of Japanese Americans under Executive Order 9066 meant there was a significant shortage of agricultural labor. Many Caucasians left to fight the war, so the U.S. signed an agreement with Mexico to permit the immigration of several million Mexicans agricultural workers under the so-called bracero program.

Life in the camps

Japanese American concentration camp

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Circa 1943: Aerial view of a Japanese American relocation center in Amache, Colorado, during World War II. Each family was provided with a space 20 by 25 ft. The barracks were set in blocks and each block was provided with a community bath house and mess hall.

For the most part, Japanese Americans remained stoic in the face of their incarceration. The phrase shikata ga nai was frequently invoked — the phrase roughly translates to "it cannot be helped," which, for many, represents the perceived attitude of the Japanese people to withstand suffering that's out of their control.

Initially, most Japanese Americans were sent to temporary assembly centers, typically located at fairgrounds or racetracks. These were hastily constructed barracks, where prisoners were often packed into tight quarters and made to use toilets that were little more than pits in the ground. From here, they were relocated to more permanent camps — replete with barbed wire and armed guards — in remote, isolated places across the seven states of California, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, and Arkansas.

Many of these camps, also known as War Relocation Centers, were little better than the temporary assembly centers. One report described the buildings as "tar paper-covered barracks of simple frame construction without plumbing or cooking facilities of any kind." Again, overcrowding was common.

As a result, disease became a major concern, including dysentery, malaria, and tuberculosis. This was problematic due to the chronic shortage of medical professionals and supplies, an issue that was not helped by the War Relocation Authority's decision to cap Japanese American medical professional's pay at $20 a month (about $315 in 2019 dollars), while Caucasian workers had no such restriction. As a comparison, Caucasian nurses earned $150 ($2,361) a month in one camp.

The U.S. government also administered loyalty questionnaires to incarcerated Japanese Americans with the ultimate goal of seeing whether they could be used as soldiers and to segregate "loyal" citizens from "disloyal" ones. The questionnaires often asked whether they would be willing to join the military and if they would completely renounce their loyalty to Japan. Due to fears of being drafted, general confusion, and justified anger at the U.S. government, thousands of Japanese Americans "failed" the loyalty questionnaire and were sent to the concentration camp at Tule Lake. When Roosevelt later signed a bill that would permit Japanese Americans to renounce their citizenship, 98 percent of the 5,589 who did were located at Tule Lake. Some apologists cite this an example of genuine disloyalty towards the U.S., but this argument clearly ignores the gross violation of Japanese Americans' rights. Later, it became clear that many of these renunciations had been made under duress, and nearly all of those who had renounced their citizenship sought to gain it back.

Since many children lived in the camps, they came equipped with schools. Of course, these schools weren't ideal — student-teacher ratios reached as high as 48:1, and supplies were limited. The irony of learning about American history and ideals was not lost on the students, one of whom wrote in an essay --

"They, the first generation [of Japanese immigrants], without the least knowledge of the English language nor the new surroundings, came to this land with the American pioneering spirit of resettling. ...Though undergoing many hardships, they did reach their goal only to be resettled by the order of evacuation under the emergency for our protection and public security."

Potentially the best part of life in the camps — and the best way for determined prisoners to demonstrate their fundamental American-ness — was playing baseball. One camp even featured nearly 100 baseball teams. Former prisoner Herb Kurima recalled the importance of baseball in their lives in an interview with Christian Science Monitor. "I wanted our fathers, who worked so hard, to have a chance to see a ball game," he said. "Over half the camp used to come out to watch. It was the only enjoyment in the camps."

The aftermath

When the camps finally closed in 1945, the lives of the incarcerated Japanese Americans had been totally upended. Some were repatriated to Japan, while others settled in whichever part of the country they had been arbitrarily placed in. Those who wished to return to the West Coast were given $25 and a train ticket, but few had anything to return to. Many had sold their property to predatory buyers prior to being incarcerated, while theft had wiped out whatever else they had left behind. Many, many years later, the 1988 Civil Liberties Act mandated that each surviving victim be paid $20,000, though that seems like a small fine to pay for irrevocably changing the courses of more than 100,000 lives.