Design View | Articles and opinion on design professionalism, technique and culture by Andy Rutledge

The Blind Leading the Blind

March 12, 2009

Pattie Maes' talk at the recent TED Conference provides a chilling reminder of how careless people can be and how easy it is to mislead sheeple. I’m a huge fan of most of what I’ve seen come from TED, but Pattie’s presentation demonstrates a measure of irresponsibility, misrepresented facts, and shallow thinking seldom witnessed outside of a politician’s stump speech. In her TED talk Dr. Maes makes it very clear that computer scientists shouldn’t pretend to be actual scientists. In fact the “science” she represents here violates, um, science …and common sense, for that matter.

What is just as disappointing is the fact that this video presentation is being highly touted all over the web, especially within the design community. Dr. Maes’ presentation is being referred to as “brilliant” and “game-changing.” This demonstrates that there are a lot of incredibly gullible and thoughtless people out there, eager to consume information without having once even slightly considered the contents. Either that or there are a lot of very stupid sheeple in our community. I prefer to think that it is laziness, not stupidity, which accounts for this.

It would be good at this point if you were to watch her presentation (if you’ve not already) before continuing with this article. There is much in her presentation that must be challenged, but one of my primary objections and perhaps her most glaring error comes in this passage early in her presentation:

“…And so my research group at the Media Lab has been developing a series of inventions to give us access to this information in an easy way without requiring that the user changes any of their behavior.”

Unbelievable. Dr. Maes is either regrettably naïve, irresponsibly careless, or she’s deliberately trying to mislead her listeners. In fact, one could scarcely conceive of any greater change in behavior than what her technology imposes upon people in some of the contexts that she has presented here (and many others, besides).

I am not suggesting that what she and her group are working on is entirely problematic, or that the technology is entirely corrupt or corrupting, or even that she is deliberately trying to misrepresent science. Much of this technology is quite fascinating, creative, useful, and could provide a springboard toward much innovation. Benefits aside, I take issue with much of how she suggests it should be used and with the erroneously expressed results and implied benefits found in those experiences.

To put it plainly, some (but not all) of what she’s suggesting in her presentation is incredibly dehumanizing and crippling technology. It works to turn people into unthinking, unaware, disengaged beings relying on often contextually inappropriate data generated by unknown, unfathomable, often distracted and ill-intended people. She’s suggesting that it is somehow a societal advance to allow ourselves to be effectively blinded, to disengage our incredibly rich, deep, and complex sensory capabilities, and have our decision making based on remote, unaccountable data …and that this constitutes no change in our behavior.

Now for you designers reading this, let me make clear that all of what Dr. Maes is talking about and all of what I’m talking about here is related strongly to design. In order to design for human beings you must know quite a lot about human beings; their general tendencies and capabilities, their physiology, psychology, sociology, as well as human history and evolution. You’ve got to understand human society and how it was built, why it was built …and how what we’ve built differs from or is similar to the rest of nature, and why.

My points here will dwell largely on the fact that Dr. Maes has apparently no grasp of these things yet she and her “research group” aim to design and recommend technology to us that ignores human capability and works to corrupt vital components of the human experience. Some of her suggested uses of this technology do not advance the human race, but retard and cripple it. This is a cautionary tale.

The mysterious and elusive 6th sense

Dr. Maes begins her presentation with this passage that might seem innocuous …if you are oblivious to the capabilities of human beings and how we acquire and process information about the world around us:

“I’ve been intrigued by this question of whether we could evolve or develop a 6th sense; a sense that would give us seamless access and easy access to meta-information or information that may exist somewhere that may be relevant to help us make the right decision about whatever it is that we are coming across. And some of you may argue, ‘well, don’t today’s cell phones do that already?’ But I would say no.”

Wait, cell phones do that?? She goes on to talk about meeting someone, pointing out that you don’t typically stop to Google them on your phone before deciding how to interact with them. She also mentions standing in the grocery aisle, pointing out that we don’t typically in that situation go to a website for information on which of the toilet paper brands is the most ecologically friendly, to “…help us make optimal decisions about what to do next and what actions to take.”

She makes these observations about what we don’t typically do in certain situations with the suggestion that these behaviors are due to some vacancy in the information that is available to us; a suggestion that is patently false. The reason we don’t start accessing digital devices to help us to decide how to proceed in those situations is not because it’s too encumbering or impolite, but because most of us are not irretrievably stupid. Perhaps someone should point out to Dr. Maes that we already have this “6th sense” that she was wondering about earlier. And it’s far more robust and trustworthy than her shallow and misguided technological placebo. We human beings gain, interpret, evaluate, and act upon far more than what our five senses would seem to grant us from sensory input, and that comes from the world around us when we pay attention to the world around us. We don’t need the Borg Collective to substitute for and direct our perception because we already possess what we need.

Meeting someone is a very human experience and that experience is fed by an unfathomable volume of data from senses we inherently possess.

Meeting someone is a very human experience and that experience is fed by an unfathomable volume of data from senses we inherently possess. What’s more, we’re very good at interpreting that data and making decisions based on our perceptions. Almost all of that decision making process is unconscious, based on what many might call our “gut feelings.” We’re analyzing pheromones, we’re monitoring skin color and texture changes, we’re taking into account eye motion and pupil condition, we’re examining almost imperceptible physical movements, facial expressions, body carriage, voice tone and timbre, and much, much more. We’re taking into account these very same clues from those around us in the context of the meeting. Yes, we know within seconds an incredibly large volume of facts about a person we’ve just met, and this information is far more reliable than what a “word cloud” (from the video) or anything like it can convey.

What’s more, I am not my word cloud and neither is anyone else his or her word cloud. Anyone relying or paying attention to this meta-information is missing the actually relevant information and his actual senses are disengaged by reliance on this technological “sensory” input. There is a real human being standing in front of you; this is not a virtual experience! Acting as suggested in Dr. Maes’ video is irresponsible and highly dangerous behavior. Where does someone’s word cloud come from? Do you know the people who generated it? Can you reliably trust those people? No, you don’t and you can’t. It is irresponsible to make decisions based on that data rather than actually relevant information that you already have the capacity to access.

Yes, this imposed data is not perceived in addition to our other senses. In fact much of what civilization offers us or imposes upon us already works to interfere with our highly evolved and accurate senses when dealing with other humans, but her technology as used in the contexts suggested by Dr. Maes would almost wholly circumvent our perception and divorce us from our senses. We would become, quite literally, senseless and nonsensical.

It is simple fact that when presented with heavy-handed, contextually incongruent data our behavior, our motor function, our perceptions, our relevant skills, and our ability to reason breaks down momentarily to varying degrees. These are the systems and abilities that allow us to be high-functioning organisms and help to differentiate us from, say, cattle or self-obsessed 14-year-old girls.

It is simple fact that when presented with heavy-handed, contextually incongruent data our behavior, our motor function, our perceptions, our relevant skills, and our ability to reason breaks down momentarily to varying degrees.

For instance, most of us have the capacity to learn to be excellent automobile drivers, despite the fact that driving a car is a ridiculously complex operation requiring continual multi-sensor input of a huge volume, information organization, interpretation, evaluation, complex choices, and deliberate actions. Given a modest amount of time (a few short years), most of us can drive with almost psychic skills. We can tell when someone is going to change lanes even before they activate their turn-signal. We can quickly perceive a host of traffic situations at once and unconsciously dismiss the non-threatening ones. We can monitor half a dozen other vehicles around us and respond instantly as, often before, one of them deviates from their predicted path. We can merge, we can negotiate narrow toll lanes at high speed, we can safely and surely turn while avoiding a ball rolling out into the street without spilling our coffee while yelling an admonishment to children on the side of the road. But, add a cell phone to the mix and all of this changes.

With the addition of a cell phone—an incongruous instrument for feeding us incongruous data—our driving performance suffers in every conceivable way. In fact, when talking or listening on a cell phone while driving in a straight line with no traffic conditions, most people will continually move slightly out of and back into their own lane. We’re talking about trying to simply drive in a straight line here, folks. Add more significant traffic conditions and diminished performance is even more clearly demonstrated. This is just one example of how intrusions of data diminish our abilities.

So when Dr. Maes suggests that if tangential, incongruous data is foist upon us (or sprayed upon their shirt, as her video shows) when meeting someone, the suggestion that this experience and our perception is somehow enhanced and that we’re better able to cope with the task of deciding how to proceed is both generally ludicrous and scientifically vacuous. She is irresponsible to make this suggestion and it rightly brings into question all of her other suggestions.

As for things like how to choose the most ecologically respectful brand of toilet paper, this too is something that we already know. We don’t need this technology to help us. We know this because these sorts of concerns are driven by personal values, and we have personal values and we work to satisfy our life’s needs with respect to these values because our lives and reputations depend upon us fulfilling these sorts of responsibilities.

Buying toilet paper (or any other consumable) is not something we might encounter once or twice in a lifetime, requiring information we’ve up-to-then neglected. Shopping for the things we need is something we likely do once or twice a month every month for our entire adult lives. If you’ve not been motivated to research brands to ensure you’re buying the right ones to suit your values by now, this information clearly has no place in your life. Here, Dr. Maes’ premise, and any other like it, is vacuous.

In conclusion

Disengagement from the world around us in favor of shallow, largely irrelevant “meta-information” does not make us more effective decisions makers. It makes us data drones; it weakens us in immeasurable ways and builds our dependency on an infinitely more flimsy and less-reliable informational source than that which we already possess.

Now, I’m sure that it is not Dr. Maes’ intention to work to disenfranchise us from our powerful innate senses in an effort to weaken us, diminish our life experience, incapacitate us, and lead us into error. But intentions have no relevance in consequential matters and I’m not taking her to task for the quality of her intentions. Rather I’m bringing into question her judgment, her attention to detail, even her very qualifications. All are clearly suspect.

Technology seldom offers enhancement of proximal, immediate sensory experience, as replacement is almost always the bargain. Be highly suspect of anyone who tells you otherwise.

But mostly I’m suggesting that all of us would do well to actually consider what is presented to us. Look more deeply than the surface, work to see past the mesmerizing demonstrations. Look beyond the implied majesty of the lone figure illuminated on the dark stage. Hear past the intelligent-sounding foreign accent. Do not be cowed by terms like “media lab” and “research group.” I ask that you not adopt the disengaged, senseless experience that Dr. Maes technology would have you assume. Take responsibility for your life and don’t be led down a path by someone you don’t know merely because they have “Dr.” as the prefix to their name.

You already possess a capacity far greater than that which technology can offer you. Technology seldom offers enhancement of proximal, immediate sensory experience, as replacement is almost always the bargain. Be highly suspect of anyone who tells you otherwise. And if you don’t understand these things, educate yourself so that you do. It is no exaggeration to suggest that your life depends on it.