I started this post with two different impressions about the phone and computer screens that stand between us and what we want to realize or accomplish—that is, the devices that increasingly mediate our everyday experiences. I still don’t know where to take these impressions.
Two articles about technology gave rise to them. One was about how “smartphone-savy millennials and Gen Zers” answer the doorbell by sending text messages instead of opening the door and facing the person who is ringing it. The other came after reading an interview about Microsoft teams that are building products which try to respond to human needs instead of asking the end user to do all of the adapting. The first story illustrates how smart phones diminish human interaction, while the second suggests a role for technology that actually might enhance the human experience. One seems a warning and the other welcome news.
Who knew that young people don’t answer their doorbells, and may even be “terrified” when they ring. I would have put this article in the armchair anthropology pile, but its observations and conclusions came from Christopher Mims, who studied neuroscience and behavioral biology before he became a technology reporter around 15 years ago. He also posts regularly about the intersection of these disciplines, and I invariably find myself nodding to his conclusions. So maybe something more is happening in these awkward exchanges that young people are trying to have with cell phones in between them.
Instead of answering the doorbell that announces an expected delivery of, say, a pizza, this teen through 30 cohort apparently would prefer that the delivery person text them when arriving so they can text back with payment, a tip, and a request to leave the pizza by the door. Both would prefer never to encounter the other. The talking heads who commented on this behavior included:
– a so-called “teen-whisperer” who said that text means “friend” while a door-bell says “outsider;”
– the founder of Ring, a WiFi connected doorbell that enables those inside to communicate with those outside without making eye contact; and
– a psychology professor who says this behavior suggests a further decline in face-to-face interaction by teenagers and young adults, with implications for their emotional closeness and mental health.
While young people may be on the leading edge of this kind of social change, I think what Mims is observing effects everyone who uses mediating technologies and not just young people. Do I bank on-line because I don’t want to deal with tellers? Do I click on a website’s customer service bot because I prefer it to conversation with an actual customer service representative? By doing so, am I slowly losing my ability to interact in an effective manner with other people?
And there are other questions too. What should parents do when their child rarely seems to interact with anybody live? What should I conclude from a table of college students at Shake Shack this week, all on their phones but never talking or making eye contact with one another? What do you make of people who email you at work when they could walk a few steps and either ask you or tell you something in person?
I don’t know what’s happening here, but it may be affecting our wiring at a very basic level. From a values perspective, it’s difficult to see how the “distancing” that our devices permit could be improving how we relate to ourselves or to one another.
Besides Mims, another voice in the space between human behavior and technology is Sherry Turkel at MIT. A TED talk that she gave a few years back catalogs similar concerns about the anti-social uses of mediating technologies.
On the other hand, when a mediating device tries to respond to human needs and create new possibilities it leaves a better impression.
Dave Nelson is Microsoft’s lead designer, and he makes many interesting statements in an interview he gave recently, including how early exposure to Flash technology allowed him “to make things come alive and get rich feedback from screens, which were traditionally hard to interact with.”
By the time he got to Microsoft, the desire for even greater responsiveness led him and his designers to focus more on meeting customer needs than on how to get people to adapt to a device’s limitations. As he put it: we began to look at “how we can get the computer to be more human-literate rather than making people more computer literate.”
The break-through came during exchanges between Microsoft engineers and customers while developing a new platform called Compass.
The engineers saw firsthand the range of emotions that real people had while working with their product. They saw the setup, the trepidation of trying to get in, the pain points, and the joy…This became the central turning point for our culture today. Now every single person in the [design] team has gone on site and spent time with our early customers. This has never happened before at Microsoft. The change in perspective for engineers and other personnel has been huge…It has put people at the forefront of our processes.
It should also be said that Microsoft’s designers had never been this integral to a product’s development before. They were suddenly interacting with people who don’t sit in front of screens all day—baristas in coffee shops, construction workers, health care professionals—who needed interfaces that streamline everyday work functions like scheduling. In a way, Nelson’s designers were learning how people speak so they could teach new Microsoft programs how to understand what was needed and be more responsive to those needs.
This story made me ask some additional questions.
– If new devices can sense our needs for better scheduling and work flows, can they also support and even encourage qualities that make us more human and less like machines?
– Can they enable richer human connections instead of making us increasingly isolated from one another?
– Will devices allow us to expand our capabilities at work or will they marginalize us until they eventually replace us in the workforce?
– Will our technologies enable greater human freedom and autonomy or herd us like sheep to buy certain things and behave in particular ways?
When I read this week about doorbells and Microsoft’s design team, I realized how little I’ve thought about these questions and that the future of technology for me extends no further than the features I’m likely to find in my next iPhone. Maybe it’s because this future comes so fast that all of our energy is spent trying to absorb what’s here instead of anticipating what might be coming next or thinking about its implications.
Still, concerns are being raised about the impact of recent technologies on human behavior. Frank Wilczek (from the “Learning By Doing” post two weeks ago), Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and others recently signed an open letter about the urgent need for a debate about advances in artificial intelligence. But beyond this plea, few have been bold enough to propose how the human future should unfold in the face of these innovations, or to publically debate the proposals that have been made. It should also be said that almost none of the rest of us seem to be clamoring for such a debate.
Oscar Wilde famously said: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not even worth glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always headed.” Wilde said that a century ago, but instead of visions of more humane futures all we seem interested in today is the entertainment value of post-apocalyptic worlds. Articles about avoiding doorbells and technology that begins with human needs provide grounds for concern as well as hope when it comes to what’s next. Maybe they are as good a place as any to start the process of dreaming ahead.