Episode Sixty One: I Sense Feelings, Captain

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

I am about thirty minutes north of Kansas City, Missouri. I didn’t plan on being here, but family emergencies have a habit of sneaking up on you. This one, though has been sneaking up on us for the last two years and, sadly, frustratingly looks like it might be coming to an end. Cancer, as they say, is a bitch. So my mind isn’t how it normally is, but you know what, I’m going to keep doing this anyway. Because, fuck cancer.

1.0 I Sense Feelings, Captain

Tim O’Reilly wrote a piece[1] the other day in advance of the O’Reilly Solid Conference[2] where he talks about the Internet of Things and Humans, puts forward a framework for thinking about Things of the Internet (“sensors + network + actuators + local and cloud intelligence + creative UI for gathering both explicit and implicit instructions from humans”), and then goes on to talk about a shift in the way we think about Things of the Internet by making sure that humans are part of the fabric of a Thing of the Internet device or service.

And this is where O’Reilly’s spiel falls down a bit for me, and I get to mount my current hobby-horse of pointing out the empathy gap in yet more things. A while back, a tweet attributed to O’Reilly proclaimed that the new startup teams would be comprised of data scientist, industrial designer and software programmer[3]. Of which, sure, but the thing that struck me (as I’m sure you can work out by now) was the curious lack of where understanding user need would come from in that new three-pronged startup team. You could make an argument that an industrial designer couldn’t be a particularly good one if they didn’t have capacity for empathy with their audience, but then that almost seems like circular reasoning or something of a tautology: you’re presupposing that empathy is a desired trait in the first place and thus mandating that each role be able to fulfill it in some way.

My spidey-sense goes off because it’s my gut feel that when O’Reilly talks about an “industrial designer” he’s not really rating the capacity for empathy that highly. Or at least, not explicitly. And there’s obviously the manner in which caring about the user is devolved to one person’s responsibility as opposed to everyone’s responsibility, but I fully admit that I could be reading into what he’s said.

But that spidey-sense is augmented with O’Reilly’s piece about the Things of the Internet. Now, this might just be a byproduct of the way that certain people are able to look at systems and abstract them and reason about them as a whole without getting bogged down in the minutiae, a sort of 30k feet systems-view that shaves the edges off things so that they can work together properly. But my point is that things don’t work properly, and that it’s weird when humans actually see themselves through the curtain as being treated like cogs and components in a machine. No one, I don’t think, wants to be thought of or treated like a cog or a component in a machine. We are all of us wonderful and special unique snowflakes.

It’s the abstraction that bugs me. O’Reilly talks about these new Internet of Things and Human systems as humans and things “cooperating differently”, but the language that he uses feels less like co-operation and more like, well, not entirely like exploitation but there’s certainly an asymmetrical relationship going on, not least of which one that is, I feel, more opaque on the thing-end than the human-end. Humans co-operating with other humans are a known quantity, even if they’re frequently an unpredictable one because humans are opaque systems themselves. But at least we’ve had a few million years of evolution to get that bred into our system, if you will. Humans co-operating with algorithms that have human design (and sometimes, not so human) design behind them is an entirely new thing, and it’s not even entirely clear if the co-operation is one that’s enabled with consent.

I have to admit that this is all a bit disconcerting to me. I am as much into technology boosterism and the belief that Science Will Improve Things and that, broadly, Capitalism Is A Good Thing (modulo Piketty’s book[4]) and would under other circumstances be totally excited about Real Genuine Spimes erupting into our world any day now.

But the thing is, they’re Real Genuine Spimes from Real Genuine Corporations and some of them behave more like Sirius Cybernetics than, well, Nest.

I guess my point is this: it’s one thing to have corporations with sociopathic tendencies in the general environment, and hopefully those tendencies are somewhat alleviated thanks to the decreasing cost of communication. I would like to think that the successful spimes are going to be the ones that are empathic in the first place, and, in a subtle difference from O’Reilly’s position in terms of being designed to take advantage of inputs from humans, are instead designed to be genuinely collaborative and co-operative with *people*. The next sentence might feel a bit inflamatory, but I feel like “humans” is to “females” as “people” is to “women”, and that it’s not the best mindset to be starting from when you think of people as actuators for the service that you’re designing. Because, you know, actuators tend not to have feelings and opinions about things or theory of mind about what the other actuators might or might not be doing.

Or, even more bluntly: on my empathy crusade, it would be nice if the Internet of Things revolution resulted in a profusion of *more* empathic objects in the world, rather than an orgasmic emission of sociopathic internet-connected objects that enforce stupid corporate policies like tying brand interactions to the contractual waiver of the right to sue[5], and let’s be clear: those corporate policies and the way they’re communicated are exactly the kind of dumb sociopathic solely self-interested behaviour I’m pissed off about.

It’s different when personalities are given physical form, I think. When they’re rezzed into the world and instantiated, they can so much more easily become the target of emotional outbursts. And when behaviour increasingly tends toward the sociopathic, along with devices that don’t allow for flexibility, I get super excited about yet another wonderful dystopian future.

[1] http://radar.oreilly.com/2014/04/ioth-the-internet-of-things-and-humans.html
[2] http://solidcon.com/solid2014
[3] https://twitter.com/landlessness/status/443818684520624129
[4] Capital in the Twenty-First Century: http://amzn.to/1jPbtfi
[5] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/17/business/when-liking-a-brand-online-voids-the-right-to-sue.html?_r=0

It’s been a long day, and I haven’t had any sleep. If anything, I’m more angry than I was before, but I did appreciate all of your notes and attempts to cheer me up. So, please send me more.