The Future of Being Human is Analog
A new installation at Arizona State University is using old tech to get people thinking about new tech and the future of being human
Walk down Cady Mall on Arizona State University’s Tempe campus and, if you’re observant, you may catch a new addition to the surrounding scenery.
Tucked away in the window of the ASU Future of Being Human initiative is a new electronic display board. But rather than the blandly ubiquitous digital displays that seem to festoon campuses these days, this one has a decidedly analog feel to it.
The display is part of a new initiative aimed at encouraging passers by to think about what it might mean to be human in a technologically advanced future. And it’s one that eschews high tech in favor of a technology that’s reminiscent of old-style airport and train departure/arrival boards — a split-flap display, or flip board.
In contrast to cutting edge ultra high resolution digital displays, the flip board — produced by the company Vestaboard — can only display up to 132 characters at a time. It doesn’t come with different fonts (or even cases). It can’t show images. It doesn’t play videos. And I’m just a little in love with it!
To call it an analog technology is a bit of a misnomer as, like many well-designed technologies these days, it’s an artful blend of analog and digital. But at the heart of the display are 132 distinctly analog “bits” that consist a stack of flaps printed with letters, numbers, and characters (plus a few block colors). When a new message is digitally sent to the board, these bits flip through the flaps until the desired character is shown — all while creating the mesmeric sound that many will recall from mechanical arrival/departure boards of the past.
The result is a display that uses very little power, continues to display its message when the power is turned off, is exceptionally readable and, because of its mechanics is utterly compelling.
The Future of Being Human Vestaboard is set up to randomly cycle through over 800 quotes, questions and thoughts associated with the future of being human, with a new message appearing every ten minutes. And every new message is ushered in with the mesmeric clacking of a split-flap display doing its thing (you may be beginning to realize at this point that I am a little obsessed with the sound of the board).
The messages are, of course, at the core of the installation. These are designed to provoke and intrigue viewers as they hopefully spark new thoughts and ideas.
The magic though lies in the simplicity and the sheer mechanical delight of the board. This is a technology that is intimately human in its scale and operation. And as a result, it’s a powerful catalyst to helping explore what it means to be human.
This juxtaposition of technology and ideas was fully intentional. In today’s technologically noisy world it’s easy to become so swept up in the capabilities we’re building that we lose sight of the essence of what it means to be human.
Of course, technologies from AI, to genetic engineering, to brain machine interfaces, to a plethora of other emerging possibilities, are profoundly impacting our lives and our lives. And it’s inevitable that they will change in some way what it means to be human in the future — we established the ASU Future of Being Human initiative precisely to explore this.
Yet the essence of what makes us who we are is still more than the technologies we surround ourselves with. And because of this, I wanted to find a way of leveraging a technology that highlighted rather than subsumed our humanity as it challenged people to grapple with what being human means.
This is where the Vestaboard comes in. This is very much a “slow technology” — it’s made to be savored, to encourage reflection, and it has a simplicity of design and execution that are deeply human-centric.
This is a technology that makes you think, rather than doing the cognitive heavy lifting for you.
Of course, this may just be my age and inclinations speaking — the older I get the less interested I find myself in tech that’s flashy for the sake of being flashy, and little more. In contrast, the Vestaboard brings me joy in it’s simplicity and elegance — not to mention the wonderful clacking as it mechanically shifts from message to message.
But I suspect there’s something to human-scale technologies like this that transcends my own biases.
I’m intrigued to see if others feel the same as they discover the Vestaboard and begin to check out the changing messages. Maybe as students and others passing the board begin to realize that an intriguing new message appears every ten minutes, they’ll factor in stopping by it to their daily routine. And maybe the sheer analog novelty of the board will cause them pause for thought in ways that digital displays never will, because we’re all so used to mentally blanking them out.
Or maybe not. It’s entirely possible that there’s simply not enough curiosity left in the world for people to wonder what the clackity machine does, or what it might display next.
I hope that isn’t the case. But even if it is, at least I have the analog joy of being surprised by what comes up every time the Vestaboard clacks out it’s next message on the future of being human!
Sadly, the Future of Being Human Vestaboard can only be fully appreciated by visitors to ASU’s Tempe campus — sorry!
For anyone visiting the campus, the board can be seen at the junction between South Cady Mall and University Avenue — the precise location can be pinpointed here on Google Maps.
For those of you who can’t get to see it physically, you can enjoy the virtual feed here.
And here’s a very small sample of of what you might see if you visit the site or the board — not taken from the board directly, but from the app that controls it: