Alone Together three years on: Is social media changing us?

technology-disconnect-s from vortaloptics.com

You are not alone – Oprah Winfrey

Alone Together (1)

Three years ago, I watched social psychologist Sherry Turkle’s TED talk (2015) and then read her book: Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, (2011) which prompted me to write a blog called: Alone Together: Is social media changing us?

Rereading my blog, I see that my opinion hasn’t changed and on checking, neither has Turkle’s. She now consults on reclaiming conversation ™ to stop the flight from face-to-face conversation.

I am not so sure we don’t want to talk face to face at all, rather it’s just technology gives us the option to avoid those particular prickly peeps we’d rather not see face to face if we can.

Added to that, I don’t believe that technology is taking us to places we don’t want to go. We have no idea what we are doing online or where we need to be, and I am tired of hearing technology described as an unstoppable force outside of our control as if it were freak weather or a meteorite zooming towards earth about to destroy us all. Economics is often the driver of technological advancement and human decisions drive economics.

Glorious technology

Our behaviour online and towards technology reflects us in all our glory – the good, bad and the ugly – along with all our hopes and fears. I do not believe that we expect more from technology and less from each other. Instead, I believe that we turn to technology to plug the gaps and find solace in those moments when we feel alone, afraid, unloved, and indeed sadly, sometimes, unloveable.

Life can be crushingly hard, and many of us know that there are certain people in our lives with whom we will never have the rich, robust and trusting relationships Turkle believes have been eroded by digital technology. Some people are just not up to the job. It may be the same with our friendships online but the hope is there.

Many of us just want to get in and out of any given, often potentially stressful, situation – work, meetings, the playground, the hospital, the dinner table, events with relatives – without saying or doing anything to cause any bad feeling. So that when we do finally get to our tiny slivers of leisure time we can use them to fill ourselves up with what makes us feel better, rather than analysing what we didn’t get right.

If that means staring at a tiny screen then what’s wrong with that? One person I know spoke of their phone, and the access it gave them to an online friend, a person they hadn’t met at that point, as an Eden between meetings. And, why not? Whatever works.

That is not possible now

Turkle says that we use online others as spare parts of ourselves, which makes me believe that she hasn’t really engaged with people on Twitter in a normal way in conversation, and she hasn’t ever met people who do that offline either. Many people make new friends on Twitter and meet up #irl a long time afterwards and then only occasionally. Their relationships are mainly based online. Rather like families who live a long way away from each other. It doesn’t mean it’s less real or not important. It just means they are physically not there which might be difficult but we don’t want to not have any contact with these people because we love them. Maya Angelou said something really beautiful about this when she was on the Oprah show one time. She said:

Love liberates it doesn’t bind. Love says I love you. I love you if you’re cross town. I love you if you move to China. I love you. I would like to be near you. I’d like to have your arms around me. I’d like to have your voice in my ear. But that is not possible now. So, I love you. Go.

We want to be in contact with people whom we love and appreciate, and who love and appreciate us in return. Those people who make us remember the best bits about ourselves. We like people who like us. It is that simple and these people are not always in our daily lives. It’s not for nothing that vulnerability expert Brene Brown says that people armour up everyday to get through the day.

To cultivate the sorts of relationships Turkle feels that we should be having without our phones takes not only a lot of time and energy (and Brene Brown books) but a fearlessness which is not easy. Our greatest fear is social rejection and a robust conversation can leave us badly bruised. Online it is slightly easier because if a person drops out of your life, then you have some control over the day to day reminders unless you turn stalker, which is understandable as the grief of any online loss feels just as real. However, know this:

You are not alone

When we seek answers to our problems emotional like grief, or physical, spiritual, legal, fiscal. Technology really does say: You are not alone.

In real life, difficult relatives and tough-love friends don’t make the best agony aunts and may make us want to keep our questions to ourselves. We may forgo the embarrassment or shame by keeping our anonymity and seeking counsel elsewhere. Giving and receiving advice makes the world go round. In the book Asking for a Friend, the history of agony aunt columns is given over three centuries, and even today with all our technology, they remain as popular as ever.

But, if we can’t wait for our favourite agony aunt or uncle, a quick google/bing or peek round Quora can give us the reassurance we need. No, we are not shoddy, terrible people. Our thoughts and feelings are completely normal. The article What’s wrong with Quora? says that we may prefer a dialectic communication (a chat) say on Twitter, but we don’t use it in the same way as the didactic Q and A on Quora. We may never join Quora or Mumsnet but plenty of us (lurkers) use these and similar forums to find answers and feel better about the difficult circumstances we often find ourselves in.

It is reassuring to know that someone somewhere has already asked the question, either under a real or false name, and some other lovely human has written something underneath which just may help.

I don’t really believe that anyone of us is afraid of having a regular conversation because we have a phone. Turkle mentions research done on teenagers a lot, but they are specific user group and shouldn’t be taken as representative of the general population nor the future. How many teenagers want to talk to anyone? The teenage years are torture. As adults, however, because of the way society is set up, we often have to spend time with people we wouldn’t choose to, at work or in families. In the past we may have tried harder, felt shittier, been robust or at least tried to tell ourselves that, nowadays, it is more acceptable, a relief even, to be alone together, and to save our thoughts and feelings for those we love and who love us in return, wherever and whenever they may be.

Augmenting humans with social media

Figure borrowed from http://www.cs.washington.edu
My first job back in the early 90’s was as a systems analyst. I was really excited about automating boring bits of peoples’ tasks so that they could get creative by accessing the extra brainpower of a computer in some wonderful human-computer collaboration.

Inspired by Doug Lenat’s AM (Automated Mathematician), where the computer was discovering mathematical proofs, I wanted to find a way to create some sort of integrated system with the computer discovering things and the human adding information to represent their feel for a given situation.

Of course, in the Accounts Department where I was ‘helping’ accountants, the reality was very different. Computers weren’t the powerful, easy to use machines they are today. So, by introducing technology to various user groups, I was actually telling people to do their jobs differently. I wasn’t making the world a better place, I was hampering everyone with computers. And elsewhere in the company I worked, computers were replacing people altogether. No wonder, computers were not popular. How times have changed.

For me, human-computer interaction was and still remains Gestaltian: The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, by this I mean, that the collaboration of a human and a computer should be more than a human typing numbers into a computer and then waiting for the solution.

When I looked up Gestalt Theory, I learnt that Kurt Koffka’s original phrase was The whole is other than the sum of the parts, which works just as well. And did, when I was captivated by AI research, in particular constraint theory.

I loved the idea that if you had a space of solutions, you could explore it computationally by changing variables which represented specific design objectives such as the limit of the cost of the project, and then create other and varying solutions.

But, how often do we need something other and varying? The majority of users I have worked with love their jobs and have specific end goals for which they use computers.

When I was working alongside engineers my job was to interpret the massive data sets generated by fibre optic sensors on the bridges they monitored. I created GUIs which employed the terminology and symbolic language engineers are trained to use. The GUIs sat onto top of well-known models to interpret data. And to reflect this specific nature of engineer-computer interaction, I actually called it a sub-set of human-computer interaction. The engineers were doing something newish – monitoring bridges- but they were using the way they were trained because of the laws and health and safety when looking after the infrastructure society depends upon.

The engineers would only use something they could trust.

And that got me thinking about the whole creativity computational collaboration. Do we really need super extra powerful computers to have a creative collaboration? Or do we just need something trustworthy?

When I began this blog post – a long time ago – I had a first sentence which said: How to improve the intellectual effectiveness of the individual human being.

Now, I can barely remember what I was going to say. But googling the phrase produces millions of articles and Doug Engelbart, who was a pioneer in computing. He invented the mouse and was very much into harnessing computational power to help humans and augment their capacities. This side steps the issue of trust, because ultimately the augmented human would decide whether the collaboration of computer and human produced the right solution. And humans normally trust themselves.

Steve Mann has been augmenting his capacity for over 20 years with wearables which overlay his world view with lots of information taken from the Internet. Stelarc augmented his reality by having an ear surgically attached to his arm so that he could hear random people’s conversations again via the Internet.

Their solutions don’t involve vast computational power and they are not really solving anything. They are looking differently at augmenting humans. But both use two things:

  1. Connectivity
  2. Other people

And this is what social media does, but in a quick and easy way. Via social media, it is so easy to access a) random conversation like Sterlac, or b) information about a new town you are in like Steve Mann.

But it is not just information we want, which was what clever computers and AI realised. We want intelligence and the expertise of someone else, who is constantly updating and refreshing their world view.

Social media gives us that in a way a clever computer cannot – yet!.

This morning alone, I tapped into three experts to help me do yoga, meditate and feel more at peace:

Those experiences augmented and enriched my life and left me more peaceful and happy. I could not have done without the help of those experts or social media unless I took time off and went off to find these experts.

So, it seems that social media is one amazing way of augmenting humans. And when I think of me back in the accounts department evangelising about how computers could transform our lives, I had no idea how right I was, just not at all in the way I imagined.

We live in amazing times.

Ambivalent web design

websketch

Lately, it seems that I have come full-circle and am designing websites for small organisations which is, in part, how I began thinking about HCI, nearly 20 years ago. So, with all that experience, I am astonished to find that I have been making the same mistakes I used to make way back when. This leads to what I call ambivalent web design.

Ambivalent web design is when you are excited about creating a cool website to showcase your clients’ products and services as well as your skills as a designer. However, because you are unfocused, you keep changing your mind and then because it’s not looking as good as it could, you promise to deliver more to get it up to resemble the beautiful thing you now have in your mind. This can lead to you feeling annoyed at yourself and then resentful because the whole project is taking longer than it should for less money than the effort you are putting in.

In order to avoid ambivalent web design it is important to remember the following:

Don’t let casual interactions influence your work

You may have picked up the contract incidentally. Perhaps, it began with a conversation on the school playground, or you got a vague email from someone, but that doesn’t mean that you should behave in a casual, vague manner. Be professional. Organise yourself a plan of action and set clear milestones.

If you are not ready, say so. Explain to your potential client that right now is not a good time, and begin at a later date. Give the client a list of everything you might need, and get them to pick out sites they like so that you both have a clear idea of what you are aiming for during the design process.

Be realistic about your clients’ input

In general, clients who want you to design a website are not interested in website design. They don’t care about WordPress, nor have they desire to tinker with colour schemes, graphics, html and css. That is your job. If they wanted to spend time tinkering then they would go to WordPress.org download the software and do it themselves.

Consequently, it is important to be realistic about what they will do to maintain the solution that you give them, once you have been through the design process together.
Some questions that you need to discuss with the client:

  • Who will maintain the site?
  • Will they be able to do the necessary updates?
  • Will they be able to add to the website?

Alternatively,

  • Will the website be static until the next time it gets an overhaul?

Know your limits

With a content management system or blogging tool, such as WordPress, all things are possible. And that is great. However, things take time, especially if you need to go away and learn new stuff in order to fulfill your clients’ desires.

It is ok to say that you don’t know how to do something, and that it will just take more time and money to find the right solution. Bear in mind though, this is a tricky route, and potentially one way to resentment and ambivalence. So, you have a choice:

      Don’t attempt to do the extras.

Or

      Deliver a first solution (Stage One). Do some research and then calculate how much time and money it will take to do the extras. Then go ahead (Stage Two).

Have a price structure

You may have promised mates-rates, but you still need to calculate exactly how long it will take you to deliver what you have promised. One way of doing this is to have a price/time structure which you can show to clients so that together you have a focused way of discussing the work to be done.

You can structure your pricing according to time e.g, £X per day, or by output, e.g., six pages= 6 x £Z. And so on: personalised graphics will be £X, and some stock photos discounted down to £Y. A bit of social media will cost this, a little seo will cost that. In this way, the client can see exactly what they are spending their money on.

Have fun

Creating websites is a great way to spend your days, but, if you find yourself gritting your teeth during every project and feeling ambivalent, then perhaps it’s time to dust off your guitar and get back to busking.

Emerging technologies: New ways for shared experiences

Victorian travel

Recently, Rebecca Solnit in The Guardian described the year 1995, as that old, slow world you could describe the way George Eliot described life before the railroad.

Solnit goes on to describe her stately 1995 routine: She read the newspaper in the morning, listened to the news in the evening and received other news via letter once a day. Her computer was unconnected and so, behaved like a word processor on a desk.

Nowadays, her computer is more like a cocktail party full of chatter increasingly fragmented streams of news and data, leaving Solnit to feel like an anachronism in this completely different world.

As a computer scientist in 1995, my experience was quite different. I already had my first webpage: ‘Hello World!’ and felt connected. I was a graphics programmer and HCI researcher, and I loved sharing information on newsgroups or by email. I lived in Switzerland and was thrilled when the UK newspapers went online. I no longer had to wait for day old news from good old Blighty. Technology helped my research and enriched my life daily.

Ten years on, I trained to be a journalist. During the course, we were told to read all the newspapers everyday and then pitch articles which were very similar to the ones already in the paper. Anniversaries of public events and the deaths, marriages of famous people, were always good fodder to fill up the papers. And a spot of ambulance chasing could get you that human interest story.

It did strike me as all a bit old-fashioned. So, I shouldn’t be so surprised that Solnit feels left behind. This new technology is threatening her way of life when really it could be helping her. And it is interesting that Solnit compares the rate of change today with the Victorian railroads and the fast changing world back then. It is a satisfying comparison.

Alison Byerly, in her book, Are we there yet? Virtual travel and Victorian realism recently reviewed in the TLS, compares chat rooms to railway carriages, SimCity to hot air balloons, and blog links to K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat. She also gives a lovely example of Victorian armchair travel when she describes Albert Smith’s Ascent of Mont Blanc (1851-6), which was an interactive scene of a full scale chalet exterior, a pool of water containing live fish, and ten Saint Bernards who would trot about the auditorium delivering packets to chocolate to children. Smith targeted people who would never actually go to Mont Blanc. It was too far and too expensive to travel in their lifetimes. But they could go along to his exhibition and experience the thrill of the ascent.

Today, with a click of a button, we can watch footage of people climbing Mont Blanc and eating chocolate on YouTube. Byerly mentions virtual reality (VR) as another parallel for Smith’s exhibition: but really how many people do you know have a head-mounted display and data-gloves? And really is VR what we need? After, it is a shared experience we are seeking, something we can talk about and take part in together in order to understand. Elsewhere in her book, Byerly gives examples of Victorian full-scale recreations of train crashes and other disasters.

Recently, the New York Times ran a long feature called Snow Fall online about an avalanche at Tunnel Creak, Stevens pass, Washington. There are slide shows of the deceased and their families, pictures of the history of Tunnel Pass, and a computer-generated simulation of the avalanche. It is a great piece of journalism enriched beautifully by technology. It is the modern day equivalent of the Victorian exhibitions.

According to Wikipedia, journalism began in 1400s. Italian and German businessmen wrote down the latest news and circulated it to their connections in the city. The practice grew, especially during wartime so that the people back home would know what was going on. Journalists were providing a service – informing and updating peoples’ lives.

And, now we have access to the latest news all the time. From the simple #hashtag on twitter to longer news articles which are presented in a magazine format by Flipboard. But it is not always new information that we need. Sometimes, we need in depth analysis and explanation, a shared experience, a shared understanding.

At best, journalists are recorders of our time. They bring us life changing historical events, perceived injustices, and remind us of things we should never forget. They write it down and revisit so that we don’t forget. Good journalists articulate our thoughts and connect to our minds. Now they can do this better than ever with insightful visualisation whilst connecting information to give us insight and enlightenment.

Magazine mogul, Chris Anderson, started the TED talks because he felt that television wasn’t challenging enough and he believed intellectual mobility was the future. In an article in the Guardian, Anderson talks about crowd-accelerated learning, and bringing intellectual stimulus and experience to YouTube audiences by the world’s leading thinkers.

The positive adoption of technology by broadcast media and TV networks (like OWN) and some journalists is exciting. Many broadcast and media courses now teach emerging technologies and so the potential is there to create enriching and enlightening features that educate us all.

Emerging journalism: a new way of sharing experiences.

Emerging Technologies: OWN the technology

Oprah Winfrey Network Pic

Back in 2008, Oprah Winfrey hosted a series of webinars with Eckart Tolle to discuss his book A New Earth.

There were 10 online sessions. Each recording was streamed live on the Internet and viewers could skype in with their questions which were answered in real time or they could leave questions on the online forum on her website. The webinars were put up on oprah.com so that people coming late to class could catch up in various formats: video, audio, and transcript. Users can still access these various formats , along with a workbook, book club discussion, and other meditation recordings at oprah.com’s bookclub.

Oprah ended The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2011, and inspired by her New Earth webinars and using lessons, revelations and aha moments from the show’s history, began Lifeclass in the same year. Oprah had been inspiring viewers to be their best selves from her TV show, and technology had caught up with her.

Season One Lifeclass aired weekdays on her wonderfully named TV network: OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network) with nightly webcasts on oprah.com to complement each on-air lesson. She was joined by spiritual teachers and self-help experts. Viewers would skype in. Previous guests of The Oprah Winfrey Show sometimes appeared to share their life learning. And Oprah would read comments and questions off her facebook wall or oprah.com online. It was a completely new way of broadcasting and interacting, especially since the emphasis was on the self-actualisation of viewers.

Lifeclass went on tour for Season Two so that most of the webinars were filmed in venues with enormous studio audiences. Season Three took place in Chicago and Texas. And Season Four Lifeclass debuted The Social Lab website online community. It is an example of directed learning with questions and journals for viewers who can then connect to the broadcast as usual live via skype, facebook, and twitter with the discoveries they have made about themselves already shaped ready for them to communicate. And if something they have written resonates with a topic on Lifeclass, then a producer may get in touch with them to be on a class, or to use the words they have written.

OWN’s other uplifting show, and the heart of OWN, is called Super Soul Sunday. Viewers can tweet Oprah when it airs and it is filmed for TV and is available on the Internet on-demand for a period of time. This is a direct TV extension of her radio talk show on Oprah & Friends, Radio Sirius XM called Soul Series, where she talks to spiritual writers and teachers to discuss the big questions in life: Why are we here? What is it all about? The archives are amazing and available to download to listen as a podcast.

Sometimes one of the teachers, as in the case of Dr Maya Angelou, is profiled at the same time in her O Magazine which you can read online, on your ipad subscription, or in print. And throughout the program whether on OWN TV, or on the Internet, or on-demand on the web, Oprah invites viewers to tweet or facebook her and to watch the movie shorts provided by Soul Pancake which started life as a website for users to create and think on life’s big questions.

If you follow Lifeclass, or belong to Oprah’s online community, OWN will send you email to invite you to the next class, or Meditation Challenge, or read a blog about what’s in it for you, or preview content which will be broadcast on OWN. Follow her on twitter, and you get lots of interesting links there. And best of all, when a program airs, Oprah will be tweeting along, giving her opinion, and responding to the opinions of others.

OWN is demonstrating how to collect and use the various strands social media at its best. It is a masterclass in participation, openness, conversation, community, and connectedness whilst giving people something good of which to be a part.

Online doesn’t get better than this.