In the realm of sensing, there is a mix of optimism and pessimism over the inevitable convergence of our old analog sensibilities with our fast-emerging digital selves towards a singularity. Ethical implications aside, this tension stems from a basic tenet of social psychology, that nonverbal signals largely govern how people think and feel about us.
These signals have as much meaning as the words we say – perhaps more than many of us care to accept. Posture, eye movement, tone of voice, and countless other cues can give away our mental state, whether we are nervous or sincere, or even if we’re lying.
The funny thing is that nonverbal cues also work inwardly, governing how we think and feel about ourselves. If you hold a strong pose, you feel powerful. If you hold a secure posture, you feel safe. We really can fake it until we make it, and then, the magic happens, when the brain forgets it was faking, and actually induces the targeted feeling. Such nonverbal autosuggestions are a well-known therapeutic tool, which behavioral scientists have harnessed to help mitigate and support the treatment of certain mental conditions such as depression and anxiety.
At the risk of oversimplifying the matter, what this means is that what works inside out, also works outside in. The human brain cannot distinguish the difference between emotions that have been triggered by natural conditions, and emotions that result from intentional scenarios. Both stimuli create the very same experiential marks in our mind. What is real is digital is real. As futurist and science-fiction author William Gibson has observed, “one of the things our grandchildren will find quaintest about us is that we distinguish the digital from the real.”
As a designer at frog, this poses an interesting dilemma to me, because the absence of nonverbals in our digital interactions—and to a certain extent all the systems we design—has a tremendous impact on the way we relate to each other. While smiling or frowning emoticons can fill a part of this need, in reality, the interfacing frameworks of most digital channels don’t allow for idiosyncrasies and face-to-face nonverbals—those cues that set overall tone of communication or deliver more subtle meaning between the lines.
Consider the implications that this has on people. Without the nonverbal information that allows us to decode subtle inferences, or the nuances of analog experiences that create context, all information is in danger of appearing equally true and genuine. Today, Rich Kids of Instagram—an ironic photostream depicting the indulgent lifestyles of rich youngsters—shares the same channels, immediacy, and apparent objective certainty as social media streams from The Arab Spring, the historic overthrow of incumbent regimes across the Middle East. As the media over which these messages are delivered blur together, context becomes more important than ever as people attempt to parse out impact and prioritize importance. We must work to sort signal from noise.
While many sensing technologies fail to provide all necessary contextual information, or take our nonverbal needs into consideration, mental models and ideological biases also frame our basic assumptions and set the stage for many of the products we use every day. It is not something that is apparent at first glance. For example, society acknowledges personal competition and individual domination very differently in the United States than in Asia. Hence, it is not surprising that lifestyle tracking gizmos like Nike+ or Jawbone Up, which quantify and publish individual activities openly in a competitive manner, are less successful in Asia than in their US home market, where they were ideated, designed, and produced.
Nowadays, fans of these products and other sensing technologies hope to find revealing truths in numbers and to optimize their living to become happier, healthier, more productive. We tend to think that there’s no subjectivity in numbers, and see big data and sensing as just a large set of absolute truths. But this expectation fails to nuance a differentiated understanding of what those readings mean in relation to our personal behavior and cultural reality, and how those readings were designed to fit a particular pattern or physical space. Just as nonverbal cues are invaluable for communication, so is context for sensing, big data, and significant experiences. The value resides not just in interpreting the numbers, but also in properly framing the questions our sensing devices aspire to answer.
As sensing capabilities and distributed computing continue to accelerate and become widely adopted, there are two notable trends that designers, engineers, product owners, and overall users should consider, because they will shape the way we relate to each other in distinct ways. Here’s how:
The introduction and recognition of emotional intelligence through calmer, less attention-hungry systems, and in-body sensors, together with more intimate idiosyncrasies at the interface layer, will allow users to join and seamlessly blend conversations. I’m referring not only to affordance, but also to a new wave of interfaces that know when we’re looking, comprehend when we request their attention, and proactively come forward; interfaces that don’t require pressing buttons, tapping on screens, or calling out predefined voice commands.
This will result in incredibly fast and natural input/output systems, allowing ever-younger audiences and illiterate users to join these interactions because we no-longer need to learn “how to use” things. In parallel to this, the definition of what divides us from technology will get very blurry and complex. We will for the first time perceive “the ghost in the machine”.
It will be fascinating to see when the conversation turns from high-level philosophical abstractions into more down-to-earth, specific applications. Imagine these inevitable conundrums: outlining the legal status of caretakers for the elderly who operate via robots; or determining where legal liability rests when self-driving, software-controlled cars get into accidents because the city didn’t implement the latest version of the software that controls traffic lights.
Currently, we construct our lives, support our identities, and resolve arguments by selective, mutual forgetting. Yet in time, sensing technologies will enable us to track and recall every single interaction we’ve ever had.
What will happen when there is a perfect record—accessible at all times, from anywhere in the world—of last night’s argument? This will require a new quality of cooperative, context-aware devices, the creation of a new etiquette of connectivity, and a formal consensus on content storage and broadcasting.
Examples are sprouting everywhere. Worries over embarrassing photos on Facebook will suddenly pale in comparison to concerns over ensuring that your DNA samples are used only for intended medical checkup. The political realm is deeply implicated too, as tools for pervasive monitoring and individual surveillance become easily accessible to state bureaucracies. As recent revelations have shown, even nation-states long committed to individual liberty are willing to track their own citizens, often on dubious legal grounds, in the face of perceived threats, whether real or not.
The age of the (im)perfect singularity is nigh. As our digital interactions become more humanized, new issues will arise. Sooner than we think, in the coming scenario of ever-recorded, ever-measured, ever-connected reality, we’ll come to realize the evident need for transiently safe moments and places.
Against this backdrop, we will have to evolve both formal and informal protocols to help establish the terms of these safe spaces. Our expectations of privacy, once unspoken, must be made manifest, across all the realms of our lives, from personal and work relationships, to leisure and political activities.
The uncertain state of sensing around technologies reminds me of the climactic scene in The Wizard of Oz, in which Toto tugs back the curtain to reveal the Wizard hiding behind. For the first time, the audience sees the Wizard’s true, modest form. The illusion is broken, but the wishes of our heroes are fulfilled all the same. This is not so different from the current moment of sensing technologies. Even as sensing proves to be less than we expect—just like the Wizard—we intuitively know how it works and sense great promise yet to come.
Looking ahead to these challenges, it’s worth noting that we often fail to predict the future correctly because we keep asking the wrong questions. The question should be less about technology per se than our growing interdependence with it. In the future, we are the sensing technology and the sensing technology is us.