Tech, design and intimacy; first thoughts

19 October 2015

Last week, I was invited by IDEO to attend a small event on the theme “Design x Intimacy.” The theme intrigued me, as the intersection of design, technology and intimacy is one that I’ve not (consciously) put much thought into before.

The panel discussion that I was part of was recorded and will soon be online, I believe. It was a short discussion though, and in the lead up to it I benefited from a lot of smart people sharing their thoughts on the topic with me, so I wanted to share some of the discussions that we had.

First off, though- definitions. Intimacy in this context doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with sex, or sexual relationships. Rather, it’s a closeness, or a feeling of attachment, perhaps part of a relationship, or perhaps not. For this post, I’ll discuss two ways that I thought about intimacy with respect to technology; intimacy between people in online communities, and intimacy with our devices.

intimacy in online communities and discussions

Through technology, often through online social networks, people can find others who share their experiences. For example, the very active mental health community on Tumblr, where people can look for comfort from others who know what they are going through. Especially for those who might be living in areas with strong social norms to which they do not conform, online social networks can provide a way to express themselves, and to find others who might be going through similar experiences.

But this kind of intimacy can be facilitated, or destroyed, through seemingly simple design decisions. When Facebook friends can add other friends to groups without their knowledge, all sorts of unforeseen consequences can happen. People who might not have revealed their sexuality to their families could be outed, or decisions that they had chosen to share within certain social circles but not others, revealed to all of their social network, without their knowledge. Intimate secrets that we’ve shared online can be revealed with the flick of a switch in Silicon Valley.

how tech works, or how users think tech works

No matter what the technicalities are, in reality, how something technically works doesn’t always affect how the user understands that technology to work - and consequently, what they choose to do with it. There is a clear gap in technical literacy between users and those designing and building our systems, and sadly, it’s only getting bigger. Sometimes it seems as though really understanding technology and digital security is becoming more and more of an elitist endeavour.

Our computers, ever thinner, are glued together so we can’t look inside them. Terms and Conditions are so long that nobody ever reads them, and if they do, it’s not a pleasant experience. As Nathan pointed out to me last week, Facebook’s insistence that our Newsfeeds are controlled by us, not them, conveniently helps them dodge the blame for any issues we might have with it - and helps keep the majority of users in the dark about who really controls their Facebook experience.

All this to say, though, that technology can be used for intimate endeavours without the layperson user ever realising (perhaps until it is too late) that their intimacy is built on a fragile, untrustworthy structure. The argument that I hear too often is that a user chose to do a certain thing, and so should face the consequences no matter what they are - but this seems like an unuseful and un-nuanced way of approaching what is clearly a growing problem.

reclaiming our spaces

Because of the way in which intimate communities are treated in the wider internet, women are turning to newsletters to carve out their own safe space - or, otherwise put, to create their own intimacy online. As I wrote previously, this makes complete sense to me, but the discussion last week highlighted clearly for me again that awareness of online violence against women can be shockingly low.

But sometimes, intimacy can be destroyed unintentionally. People tweeting when they have 35 followers can legitimately expect that their tweet will be seen by relatively few people - perhaps all of whom they know. Getting retweeted by someone with a million followers, though, transforms that potentially personal tweet into a piece of text with high visibility. And depending on who the person is, and what they’re tweeting about; this can bring with it unwanted comments, threats or online violence.

I had this experience once; I tweeted something about an awards list that had terrible gender representation. Unbeknownst to me, it was quoted in a tweet by someone with a few hundred thousand followers, and suddenly I started getting some horrible replies. I stayed off Twitter for the day, and blocked them afterwards. Needless to say, it wasn’t pleasant.

intimacy and our devices

This brings me on to the way in which we treat our devices. In the example I just described, it was a strange thing to look at my phone - normally the source of calls from friends and loved ones (I don’t use my mobile phone for work) - and see these unpleasant replies from complete strangers.

Nowadays, many of us feel a strong affinity to our devices, and playing on that affection is Josh Begley’s Metadata app which sends push notifications whenever the US carries out a drone strike. It plays on the ‘intimacy’ that we feel with our devices, and shatters the illusion of warmth, bringing an actual, current event that we should all be much more aware of to the forefront of our minds. At least it did, until it was taken off the App store last month.

playing with boundaries

Another example of an app that Leil pointed me to is Somebody App, by Miranda July. Taken from the Somebody app site:

“Somebody is a messaging service for which ordinary people are enlisted as the messengers – a sort of Uber for telegrams. You boot up the app, compose a brief note, and select a recipient, and then a nearby stranger will be recruited to deliver it. You can specify that the message be whispered, or shouted, or punctuated with a selfie or affectionate hug. Then it’s simply left to this makeshift courier to carry out his duty as planned. The walls that divide us are torn asunder. A stranger gets to be somebody.”

Essentially, the boundary between online and offline becomes blurry; you send a message using an application, that is delivered offline to the person of your choice. I’ve no idea whether the app works, but I am very curious.

It also reminds me of one of Peng’s apps that they came up with last year during their Google parody - the Google Hug, which uses its “unique behavioral monitoring algorithms” to “know when you’re not at your best and what kind of interaction you might need to feel better”, and match you with someone with the same needs. It was a parody, but the ideas behind it are creepily almost something we might expect in real life.

…and then what?

This is a topic that I’d love to explore further. One of the best examples that I’ve come across of an app that facilitates intimacy both between online, and offline, communities - as well as helping to increase technical literacy, is Panic Button, which a number of my lovely colleagues have worked closely on. In the coming weeks, Danna and I will be hopefully expanding upon some of the above thoughts within the context of Panic Button, for a more detailed feminist critique on technology and intimacy.

Thank you to everyone who shared their thoughts with me on this topic!

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