Is this progress? Humans, computers and stories

As a computer scientist, I have to say my job has changed very little in the last  last twenty-odd years. The tech has, admittedly, but I am still doing what I did back then, sitting in front of a computer, thinking about how computers can make peoples’ lives easier, what makes people tick, and how can we put the two together to make something cool?  Sometimes I even program something up to demonstrate what I am talking about.

It seems to me though that everyone else’s jobs (non-computer scientists) have changed and not necessarily for the better. People do their jobs and then they do a load of extras like social media, blogging, content creation, logging stuff in systems- the list is endless – on top of their workload.

It makes me wonder: Is this progress?

Humans and stories

As a teenager, on hearing about great literature and the classics, I figured that it must be something hifalutin’. In school we did a lot of those kitchen sink, gritty dramas (A Kind of Loving, Billy Liar, Kes, etc.,). So, when I found the section in the library: Classics, Literature, or whatever, it was a pleasant surprise to see that they were just stories about people, and sometimes gods, often behaving badly, and I was hooked. Little did I know that reading would be the best training I could receive to become a computer scientist.

Human and computer united together

In my first job as systems analyst and IT support, I found that I enjoyed listening to people’s stories in and amongst their descriptions about their interactions with computers. My job was to talk to people. What could be better? I then had to capture all the information about how computers were complex and getting in the way and try to make them more useful. Sometimes I had to whip out my screwdriver and fix it there and then. Yay!! Badass tech support.

The thing that struck me the most was that people anthropomorphised their computers, talking about them needing time to warm up, being temperamental, and being affected by circumstances, as if they were in some way human and not just a bunch of electronic circuits. And, that the computer was always the way of progress, even if they hated it and didn’t think so.

I think this is partly because it was one person with one computer working solely, so the computer was like a companion, the office worker you love or hate, who helps or hinders. There was little in the way of email or anything else unless you were on the mainframe and then it was used sparingly, especially in a huge companies. Memos were still circulated around. The computer was there to do a task – crunch numbers, produce reports, run the Caustic Soda Plant (I did not even touch the door handles when I went in there) –  the results of which got transferred from one computer to another by me, and sometimes by that advanced user who knew how to handle a floppy disk.

Most often information was transferred orally by presentation in a meeting or on paper with that most important of tools, the executive summary whilst the rest of it was a very dry long winded explanation, hardly a story at all.

Human and computer and human and computer united

Then the Internet arrived and humans (well mainly academics) began sharing information more easily, without needing to print things out and post them.  This was definitely progress. I began researching how people with different backgrounds like architects and engineers could work together with collaborative tools even though they use different terminology and different software. How could we make their lives easier when working together?

I spent a lot of time talking to architects and standing on bridges with engineers in order to see what they did. Other times I talked to draftsmen to see if a bit of artificial intelligence could model what they did. It could up to a point, but modelling all that information in a computer is limiting in comparison to what a human can know instinctively, which is when I realised that people need help automating the boring bits, not the instinctive bits.

I was fascinated by physiological computing, that is, interacting using our bodies rather than typing – so using our voices or our fingerprints. However, when it was me, my Northern accent, and my French colleagues, all speaking our fabulous variations of the English language into some interesting software written by some Bulgarians I believe, on a slow running computer, well, the results were interesting, to say the least.

Everyone online

The UK government’s push to get everything electronic seemed like a great idea, so everyone could access all the information they needed. It impacted Post Offices, but seemed to free up the time spent waiting in a queue and to provide more opportunities to do all those things like pay a TV licence, get a road tax disc, and passport, etc. This felt like progress.

I spent a lot time working on websites for the government with lovely scripts to guide people through forms like self-assessment so that life was easier. We all know how daunting a government form can be, so what could be better than being told by a website which bit to fill in? Mmm progress.

Lots of businesses came online and everyone thought that Amazon was great way back when. I know I did living in Switzerland and being able to order any book I wanted was such a relief as opposed to waiting or reading it in French. (Harry Potter in French although very good is just not the same.) Progress.

Then businesses joined in and wanted to be seen, causing the creation of banners, ads, popups, buying links to promote themselves, and lots of research into website design so they were all polished and sexy, even though the point of the Internet is that it is a work in progress constantly changing and will never be finished.

I started spending my time in labs, rather than in-situ, watching people use websites and asking them how they felt. I was still capturing stories but in a different way, in a more clinical, less of a natural habitat, way which of course alters what people say and which I found a bit boring. It didn’t feel like progress. It felt businessy – means to an end like – and not much fun.

Human -computer -human

Then phones became more powerful and social media was born, and people started using computers just to chat, which felt lovely and like progress. I had always been in that privileged position of being able to chat to people the world over, online, whatever the time, with the access I had to technology, now it was just easier and available to everyone – definitely progress.   Until of course, companies wanted to be in on that too. So, now we have a constant stream of ads on Facebook and Twitter and people behaving like they are down the market jostling for attention, shouting out their wares 24/7, with people rushing up asking:  Need me to shout for you?

And, then there are people just shouting about whatever is bothering them. It’s fantastic and fascinating, but is it progress?

The fear of being left behind

The downside is that people all feel obliged to jump on the bandwagon and be on multiple channels without much to say which is why they have to do extras like creating content as part of their ever expanding jobs. The downside is that your stream can contain the same information repeated a zillion times. The upside is that people can say whatever they like which is why your stream can contain the same information repeated a zillion times.

Me, I am still here wondering about the experience everyone is having when this is all happening on top of doing a job.  It feels exhausting and it feels like we are being dictated to by technology instead of the other way around. I am not sure what the answer is. I am not sure if I am even asking the right question. I do know how we got here. But is this where we need to be? Do we need to fix it? Does it needs fixing?  And, where we should go next? I think we may need a course correct, because when I ask a lot of people, I find that they agree. If you don’t, answer me this, how do you feel when I ask: Is this progress?

The Connection Economy: Memail, mixtapes and fortune cookies

Me, me, me, me. My favourite person — me. I don’t want to get email from anybody; I want to get memail– Seth Godin

Yesterday, I got my very first memail. Finally! It was magic.

It was from Spotify entitled: Your 2016 in music: personalised stats and playlist, and it jumped right out of my inbox at me amongst all the other stuff I keep getting in this commercial festive frenzy period we have now entered: Save on this, 50% off that, Free delivery, Last chance for Christmas blah blah blah.

I might be slightly biased because I like to talk about data and I like playlists; but I think I am like everyone else, in that, when you think about me, just me, and say or do something for me and me alone: You’ve got me.

My email said this:

You have listened for 1,827 minutes to 107 artists, and 162 unique tracks.

And then, *drumroll* ta daa, it gave me a link to my very own playlist – my very own mixtape – which I am listening to right now. It’s fantastic. It contains 78 of my current favourite tunes and I love it. And, if you want to hear them for yourself (because let’s face it, why wouldn’t you?), then I can share it with you via Spotify or Whatsapp or any other social media platform of your choice. How cool is that?

This is a perfect demonstration of the connection economy in action.

The connection economy

It was marketer Seth Godin who coined the phrase Connection Economy to talk about how marketers could do their jobs differently in the landscape of digital culture.

Now, I am not always a huge fan of Seth Godin, his blogs can be like fortune cookies because, brilliant marketer that he is, he likes to communicate in soundbites. I will never be his target market because I like to ponder anything you say for a very LONG time and come back at least three weeks later to let you know what I think and feel, and whether it is working for me. Yesterday thanks to Spotify sending me memail and a mixtape, I understood for the first time what Godin means by creating something extraordinary and making a connection with your customer. It was no longer just noisy marketing talk.

Create the extraordinary

For, the world has changed and we are overwhelmed with advertising. Everyday we get a million email, and those dreadful impersonal Twitter DMs saying Thanks for the follow please can you do this for me. (Err, no I can’t!), and 10 bajillion adverts on Facebook and everywhere else telling me to buy this, read this, feel this. I am exhausted.

So, to have Spotify send me this was so refreshing. I have said over and over on this site that at the heart of any interaction is our fundamental need to matter. We all want to be heard and we all want to feel like someone is listening to us.  When a person or business, ignores you, or changes the way they interact with you, for no apparent reason, it is painful. And, being talked at, like the emails in my inbox which threaten me with scarcity, deadlines and missed opportunities, is dreadful. The subtext is that you don’t count, you are not special, and you will have to fight for everything you want.

Yesterday, I got memail and a playlist, without even knowing I wanted them. Bottom line: I counted. Someone (well, software) took the time to understand what I liked and then created something for me – my story in song, my soundtrack of 2016 – just for me. I was recognised as having likes, dislikes, preferences. I was seen as me. How often does that happen in life?

Thank you, Spotify, I am thrilled. Merry Christmas!

Moments in modern technology

Final cover from film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

If I like a moment, I mean me, personally, I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera, I just wanna stay in it.

– Sean O’Connell, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

In The power of now, Eckart Tolle says that in any given moment we have three options: remove ourselves from it, change it, or accept it totally.

Sometimes though the present moment is just too much for us, so we do what we can to overcome it. Tolle says that this is an insane way to live, because the present moment is all we have, which is all good and well for Tolle. He gained enlightenment on a park bench in Russell Square and has been euphoric ever since. Whereas the rest of us, for better or for worse, have to rely on modern technology to get a semblance of that same euphoria, which is where things become tricky. Often, technology owns us, instead of the other way round.

Capturing a moment

With our phones, we can capture and share any moment we ever experience. And, if we feel unable to live fully in a given moment, then we can always postpone it and then experience it later. Sometimes, we don’t always want to though. When my daughter was born with kidney failure, I kept a blog for the first two years of her life, because I couldn’t bear talking about it on the telephone to anyone. I read it the other day for the first time in ages and really didn’t enjoy remembering all the moments my memory has tidied away.

But, even when a moment is brilliant and we recognise its importance, we can risk not experiencing it at all, because we are trying to so hard to capture it. This is when we step back, hold up our phone, and miss it. A while ago, I wondered about how different my round-the-world-year would be if I were to experience now. I would be travelling with my phone, recording everything and uploading it. Would I really be experiencing it? And afterwards, could I relive what I didn’t experience? Or, would I retroactively experience something else altogether depending on how I curated all those captured moments online?

In À la recherche du temps perdu, Marcel Proust revisits his life to find meaning, and explores what he calls involuntary memory. Eating his infamous madeleine, the taste of which evokes his childhood, Proust slips out of the present and into the past. And, then of course the act of writing and musing on his past in order to find meaning in it, creates a new moment: the combination of the present moment of writing and the past moment which exists in memoir only – a simulacrum of the two moments which created it.

Imagine if he had had a whole Internet full of his memories to write his memoir from. And, what happens to us now when we can record every single thing we ever do, and what gets said and done to us?

Feeding the need

There are at least a dozen times a day when we are needled, when our needs are not met, and our bodies immediately react with the flight or fight response. Imagine being able to record and remember every single needle, every single moment when we felt a lack? Joe Dispenza says in Breaking the habit of being yourself that we will try to run from any emotion which is painful, because to look at it is too uncomfortable. Amazingly, we can run away very easily with modern technology. We can alter our internal chemistry by laughing at a YouTube video, becoming fearful with the latest news on our social media feeds, or get into an angry or exciting Twitter conversation. The possibilities are endless and so our unwanted feelings seem to go away by these distractions. But, then we rely on these distractions – outside of us – so that we can feel better over and over again. And, often we are distracted by the angriest people who shout the loudest on social media, and who don’t make us feel better about ourselves or what is going on in the world.

Occasionally, though we have a breakthrough and experience catharsis, an emotional release, by living someone else’s story. Ultimately, this is why we love a good movie, a book, a meme. We find relief in someone else’s experience because it connects us to them, and also back to ourselves. We mirror each other.

Immersion

When we get immersed in a book, or online in a game, we get a new point of reference, and we use the world in the book or game as starting point, which frees us from ourselves. Normally, we are embodied, that is, we experience the world through our bodies and limited senses and then our brain interprets the experience in light of our past experiences. We pattern match any new experience to a similarly bad or good one that we have had before, and behave in a way that makes this new experience fit its predecessors. We never have a raw experience. But, in virtual reality therapy and in gaming, we can escape our embodiment and adapt to a new world, which potentially opens us up to raw experiences.

Research shows that computer games light up the part of the brain responsible for motivation and learning, and so games are being developed to help people with depression or who have suffered trauma, to train their brains to leave behind their thought patterns and develop new ones. Gamers can literally learn to lose themselves.

In the Gap

In his TED talk, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi identifies that those people who are the most satisfied with their lives regularly engage in activities in which they lose themselves to bring about a state of flow.

In the language of meditation this flow is known as the gap, which is where our unbounded consciousness – the space between our thoughts and ego – lie. It is there where we find our pure potential and infinite possibility. Meditation guru davidji says we have all experienced the gap during those times we have dazzled someone in conversation, that moment when the roller coaster drops us into free fall, or when we lose ourselves in the one we love.

I find meditation incredibly difficult, but gaming less so, and it is with excitement I view the possibilities of technology to teach us how to truly connect to a moment in the right way. And this is why I used The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013) at the beginning of the blog. It got mixed reviews on its release but I love this film. For me, it is a gentle celebration of living in the present moment and connecting with who you are.

Walter Mitty lives a grey life as a negatives manager at photo magazine whilst in his head he lives out the most colourful fantasies, until the day his job is threatened and he is forced to engage with life instead. The film’s colour palette saturates, causing Mitty’s grey life to become as colourful as his fantasies because he has opened himself up to the present moment and all it has to offer.

And, this cinematic devices captures perfectly what happens when you tune into your own life in the gap or follow your bliss as mythologist Joseph Campbell put it. Mitty also gets the girl, because instead of just imagining, sometimes hilariously, himself in relationship with her, he learns to stays present in his own life long enough to discover the magic of being all of himself, which is what life coach Martha Beck identifies as the key: Being loved is all about loving yourself. And, being fully present in a moment, paradoxically, is about letting go and losing yourself in it, whether you are holding your phone or not.

I have always believed that technology augments us, and social media reflects us, so it makes perfect sense that the digital landscape has the potential to teach us how to be more ourselves, more human, in every moment of our lives. Perhaps technology doesn’t own us after all.

Designing design: Conclusions

astrolabe pic

Design is the science of the artificial – Herb Simon

[Part 12 of 12: 1) The science of the artificial 2) function, behaviour structure 3) form follows function, 4) no function in structure, 5) the medium is the message 6) types and schemas 7) aesthetics: attractive things work better 8) managing (great) expectations 9) colour 10) styles and standards 11) design solution spaces 12) conclusions]

Humans are overwhelmed with information both online and offline, a desire to understand the world around us, and for it all to make sense. So, we look for patterns and signs, and stories to reduce complexity into something more manageable.

At the same time we love to be surprised and delighted with variety, which is shown by the information users focus on most on social media and by our love of twist in the tale stories and thrillers. And, we use stories most of all to find meaning in our own lives and in everything around us.

We are moving into a most exciting time with the Internet of Things and our Digital Culture which is all part of the Connection Economy. We are only one click away from each other and our devices are all communicating with each other constantly. And, in this world we feel that we must be somehow always connected. It is difficult to disconnect for even a little while, for disconnection is our greatest fear.

Throughout this series we have looked at the various ways designers can manage our expectations and give us cues to manage how we behave with the technology before us. We have even see how designers can manage their own information overload with types and schemas. But, it seems to me that as we advance further into this digital landscape, today, the designer’s job is to now to make sure that we harness the power of technology in the right way. In the past, society was formed by technological advance, and we were just carried along with it regardless of our opinions.

We need our designers to design for the good, to protect humans from even more overwhelm and to support us as we work, and in the same way that a good design solution can come from constraints and boundaries, we need these online. Feedback with care: Hey you’ve been online for hours now, go to bed, we will all still be here later.

Designers are change agents whose job is to make the world easier for us to live in offline and online. Let us all learn to design for that – an easier world for us to live in.

Designing design: Solution spaces

solutionspace

[Part 11 of 12: 1) The science of the artificial 2) function, behaviour structure 3) form follows function, 4) no function in structure, 5) the medium is the message 6) types and schemas 7) aesthetics: attractive things work better 8) managing (great) expectations 9) colour 10) styles and standards 11) design solution spaces 12) conclusions]

The artificial intelligence community views a design space as something to explore as it if is a mountain or a wilderness. A space may be incomplete or the domain knowledge uncertain and this is reflected in the names of search techniques: hill climbing, branch-and-bound, hunter gatherer.

Fabulously nowadays we have massive computing power which can help us search through big data sets or solution spaces. However, in the broadest terms when we are looking at a solution space we are hoping to manage it by the following:

Constraints

With constraints, we introduce boundaries which may potentially the number of solutions. It is this tension which can cause wonderful solutions such as when artists obey the haiku rules of 17 syllables: three lines of five, seven, and five syllables, to give us pared back poetry.

We can also introduce constraints by fixation on one thing such as cost, or efficiency and then we can see what solutions are possible.

Otherwise, we can use a more exploitative exploitation approach of what-if. What if we place an excessive load on this bridge? What happens then? Does the solution still work? What will we need to change to get it work?

Transformation, combination and exploration

Inside the solution space we synthesise and analyse by using some of the ideas this series has explored. We map our types and schemas or our models of aesthetics and affordances and link our function to our behaviour and then structure. But, when all else fails we can remove the constraints or even remove the boundaries or the domain knowledge which can lead us to moving outside the context.

Thinking outside the box

Sometimes designers do this on purpose, other times like the post-it note, new ideas are serendipitously discovered. SMS texting was originally invented for engineers to communicate with each other whilst working on mobile technology. Who could have anticipated that a tool which made engineers’ lives easier would appeal to mobile phone users as a cheap and cheerful way of communicating instead? The same happened to post-it notes, once the context of inventing glue was removed, the user was free to think of it as a really cool book mark.

With a solution space we can define what we are looking at, and what we are looking for, and then should we decide we want to look at it differently, or look elsewhere then we have a map and a plan, which is what all humans like to have in this information overloading world of ours.