Cyborgs, identities & asking the right questions

We’re all cyborgs, says our friend Sami Niemelä in a talk he gave at Playful Conference in London the other day. Some thoughts on how human and machine identities, and why we can’t find answers just yet.

Our friend and former CoCities speaker Sami Niemalä (of Nordkapp fame) gave a talk at Playful. Sadly we had to miss it, but he posted his slides online:

I love the way he dives into the discussion if (and how) we qualify as cyborgs. More importantly, though, he shows nicely how the future isn’t the polished thing it was expected to be back in the olden, black-and-white days. Instead it’s gorgeously broken and bursting full of weirdness (tweeting plants are just the top of the iceberg).

As he points out, designing machines and household appliances to behave in a human way (if that’s even desirable) is hard:

Should every single thing at your house have needs and feelings? Would you like to have an emo couch or the more rational one. Is this a question you want to think about?

We’re still figuring out the right questions

This is something we need to think about much, much more. While we in the industry are experimenting with certain types of behaviors, and the industry as a whole is going through various stages of learning, it’s important that we remember that we won’t solve any of these questions. In fact, I believe we’re nowehere near a point where we can even try to answer any of these questions, and are rather at a point where we’re still trying to figure out the right questions.

And we see this popping up all over the place: Sami collected a few great examples of weirdness and Uncanny Valley in his presentation. We’ve been discussing software agents that (seem to) emulate human behaviors like Foursquare check-ins, Retweets and (re-)blogging with David Bausola. (He builds some of those software agents. They’re called Weavrs. I set up a few to experiment, and they’re roaming the web freely, which is fascinating to no end.)

Identities

Speaking of identities. While software, services, products have long since started to develop identities that at least emulate human behavior, we haven’t even figured out how to project real human identity on the web.

Above, you see a talk by Christopher Poole, aka moot, founder of 4chan and its tamer brother Canvas. At Web 2.0 Summit, he explored the different ways that the big services like Facebook and Google approach identity. And he (rightfully, I think) smacks them left and right:

Google and Facebook would have you believe that you’re a mirror, but in fact, we’re more like diamonds.

The current model on the web is to assume that you have one identity, and that you just need to be able to share different bits of information with different groups. But our online identities should be multi-faceted, since that’s how it works in the physical world as well. As Chris Poole states, it’s not about who we share to (as Google+ assumes with Circles, and Facebook with lists), but who we share as. Am I posting this as a friend, coworker, son?

This is a hugely complex topic; yet, it’s one of those big questions that we need to work out. In our work, when we talk to clients, we often don’t have simple answers for these questions. (In fact, if anyone claimed they had simple answers, I’d be seriously suspicious.) What we try, though, is to work out the right questions, and then take it from there.

We produce more data, more and different data trails; we can access big data & aggregated data; increasingly personal data, too. When you look at building a service or product, make sure to look at the different aspects & contexts of data and identities, of how your thing might be used in different contexts. And allow for plenty of experimentation – you might not yet be asking the right questions. We’ve been exploring this cluster of topics and data trails (ranging from web data to city data to body data and beyond) in various formats, from Cognitive Cities Conference to talks and workshops at PICNIC and WINnovation, and we’ll keep digging. Follow this blog and our tweets for upcoming workshops.

Author: Peter

Peter is a digital strategist who enjoys connecting people, insights and ideas. Before founding Third Wave he worked as a freelancer with clients like ARTE, Wolters Kluwer, Bertelsmann Stiftung, Google, SPD, Tumblr and several public broadcasters. He organized events like TEDxKreuzberg, atoms&bits and Likemind. Peter holds masters degrees in Communications and Media from Freie Universität Berlin (MA) and The University of Sydney (MMP). Peter has lived in Berlin, Sydney and Washington, DC.