Web Directions 2014 – Being human in a digital world

This week I’m attending Web Directions South 2014, a conference for people who “design, imagine, create or build digital products, web sites and applications”. I’m excited to be part of this event. I’ll blog about my take-aways from the sessions I attend, and anything else that comes to mind.

Genevieve Bell is director of User Experience Research at Intel Corporation, and vice president of Intel Labs. She gave the keynote on day 2 of the conference: “Being human in a digital world”. Her focus was what makes us human and the intersection of tech and culture. Below are my take-aways from this funny, engaging, thought-provoking talk.

Genevieve told us about her childhood in the Northern Territories, where she lived amongst indigenous people who would take her out into the bush at the drop of a hat. She often spent time in the bush learning from the people instead of attending school. This has shaped the way she views the world. Next, Genevieve led us through a rollicking tale of how she got her job at Intel. It’s well worth hearing. When you have the chance, sit her down, give her coffee, and ask her about it.

Genevieve’s role could be summarised like this: How do you make sense of what people care about, and how do you use that to shape next-generation technology? It involves telling stories about the future. We saw some stories from the 50s about what the future may be. (This has been a theme of the  conference keynote presentations.) Some of them were eerily close to the truth. Genevieve said that the stories show us what people’s aspirations are.

People need friends and family. The technology that makes use of this fact, such as telephony, as the ones that have succeeded. The ones that help people connect with other people. Facebook, Instagram, and so on. We also want to belong to community of people who share our skills, interests, or values. Technologies play into this too. Pinterest, Tumblr, eBay. We need to belong to something bigger than ourselves. Viz the Arab Spring. We use things to tell the world about ourselves: clothes, cars, and technology – what do you own, what services do you use, and what worlds do you belong to. And lastly, we need to keep secrets and tell lies. Evidently the average human being tells between 6 to 200 lies a day! Sharing secrets with just one or a few people is a way of bonding.

We worry what people think about us. So, we filter what we tell other people and what we put on the Internet. Are smart objects such as bathroom scales and fridges going to gossip about us? There are of course also genuine concerns about the amount of data that is available about us now. But the notion of new technology revealing information about us isn’t new. Genevieve told how, when electricity was about to be introduced to homes, gainsayers said it would make people vulnerable because strangers would be able to see what they were doing in their houses at night.

It turns out that people need to be bored. It puts our brains into a different state, where creativity can happen. But we’re living in a world where algorithms generate content that we should like. We’ll go with that for a while, because we like the familiar. Then we’ll get bored, and want to be surprised.

Genevieve says there’s something unnerving about living in a world that knows how to entertain us. The notion that once in a while, your device might do something different and surprise you, is one worth contemplating. Genevieve gave the example of a device that wakes you up with your favourite coffee every morning, then one morning suggests you look at a particular piece of art before having the coffee.

Is the Internet making us more uniform, more global, or more different? People want to be different. We want to retain our cultural identity. We spend a lot of effort maintaining our boundaries, and we imagine technology will help us do that. Even the “Internet” is now split into different internets in different parts of the world.

People want to feel the passage of time, and to have periods that are distinguished from other periods. Genevieve thinks this is a space worth investigating, particularly in connection to our smart devices and digital technology. How can we manage them, in their always-on state? We also want to be able to reinvent ourselves, which means we may want to be forgotten.

So, where does that leave us? There are things that make us human, that don’t change or only change very slowly. There are parts of us that have been in flux for ever. Genevieve showed two columns, “stable” and “in flux”, with five aspects of humanity in each column: friends and family, shared interest, reputation, and so on. The technology that plays to one of the stable aspects of humanity will endure. And the side of us that is in flux is where there is space for flashes of brilliance. This is where we can do extraordinary work.

Thanks Genevieve for a funny and idea-generating talk.

About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 31 October 2014, in technical writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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