Is Adam Greenfield A Communist Or...?
Having been to 'The Web and Beyond 2008' (delicious tag: twab08) and hearing about Adam Greenfield's keynoting at the coming EuroIA Summit in Amsterdam, I started thinking about what he said at the time and what his words could mean. I also took into account two of the other main presenters: Ben Cerveny and Jyri Engeström.
The theme for this year's TWAB was mobility and the subject was presented from many different angles. Some took the word literally and did (sideshow) presentations on mobility devices (TomTom) or about using devices while being mobile (RaboMobiel). Others took it figuratively and talked about data portability.
The keynotes were more about looking forward and at the bigger picture. What's going to happen and how does it affect everyday life? That's what a user-centered interaction designer should ask! The presentations from Ben and Jyri were about seeing what everybody else around you in your group does, your peripheral vision as Jyri called it and what your group advises/filters for you from a parallax of subjectivities (Ben). The sharing (movement) of data or information is the mobility tag you could put on their speeches.
Adam Greenfield took a different route and talked about being mobile in a city. In his new book 'The City Is Here For You To Use', he describes his worries about social pullback in major urban areas. People hiding behind their cell phones and iPods, because of the monotonous surroundings they're in. His solution would be a (future) world that uses ambient informatics to counter that. But why should it be like that?
It should be like that, because people need it. The world is becoming so cluttered with information that a little guidance is necessary. Because you can't browse the whole world anymore you have to search your way through. One means to that is the famed and aforementioned TomTom car navigation device. It's your guide to that special place where you and yours meet and the only thing you have to do is listen to its voice. You don't have to notice the world around you because it notices you. It knows where you are and where you're going in all senses of the meaning. Just adhere to the programming and everything will run as efficiently as possible.
But hey, isn't that a contradiction of sorts? Adam said people are pulling back from social interaction because of technology (e.g. iPods, cell phones, etc.) and he likes to counter that with yet more technology? It's true, you can fight fire with fire, if you do it right. Done wrong the fire gets bigger. Is this the right way?
In a sense, that makes him a socialist. He believes in an utopia. And like Ben said: "An utopia for one (single group) isn't the utopia for society as a whole", unless you enforce it in some way. Or put into other words, you could design it! Call in the interaction designers, whose natural tendencies are towards controlling everything, the whole user experience. But Adam won't allow that, because he already recognized that trait and tries to neutralize it with three simple words: 'Underspecify, underspecify and underspecify.'
And he's right about the middle one. If we don't design lose weaves (you got to love the irony in that) serendipity would be over. Meeting random loved-ones-to-be for example would then only happen when things break. That's not very natural, is it?
But what is natural? Years ago, most people only saw their immediate surroundings. Maybe a few people around you were like you and because you wanted to be in a group you had to adapt to that group and leave a part of your identity behind. Now it seems people have the opportunity to travel longer distances so they can meet more people like them. They expand their 'lebensraum' to be themselves more. That's the big reward. You would actually need cell phones and such to communicate in that expanded 'lebensraum'. The consequence is the 'pullback' from society, which is actually more a pullback from the immediate surroundings because the ones close to you aren't there.
In a sense, we would all be regrouping into new groups where differences are relatively small and distances relatively big, but now it's your 'own' choice. A side effect of that is not really meeting people geographically close to you. Nowadays, you would actually know less about them in comparison to fifty years ago. Because you know less, you talk less. If you talk less, you have to do something else. In comes the iPod.
What if transportation costs rise so high most of us couldn't afford to be mobile. What would happen? Do we go into cyberspace more or 'settle' with for friends nearby? In Holland in 2008, people already visited friends and family less often due to higher oil prices. I'm sure similar things could be said about the United States and other countries. How far will it go?
Adam's idea that ambient informatics could significantly alter the direction society is heading is, like socialism, an utopia. One that's hard to achieve due to human nature. I do think however, technology can ease the way and help people deal with information overload.
Jeroen Elstgeest is interaction designer at Informaat. He can be reached at jeroen dot elstgeest at informaat dot nl.