Genevieve Bell, director of the Interactions and Experience lab at Intel, presented the closing keynote, "Rage Against the Machines: Designing our Futures with Computing," for Interaction12. The IXR lab, in Portland, specializes in exploring the ways in which technology can be integrated seamlessly into daily life, through re-imagining user experience. Bell asked the important question: Instead of designing interactions, what would happen if we designed relationships between people and technology?
Bell was animated and humorous throughout her talk on the final day of the conference. This might have been because she was warned that her presentation was the only thing standing between the attendees and the Guinness storehouse, where the closing party was held. In her introduction, Bell shared her background as a second-generation anthropologist focusing on cultural practice. She reflected on her initial recruitment meeting with Intel for the IXR lab. Intel told her that they wanted to learn about two things: women and the "ROW." "What does 'ROW' stand for?" she asked. Intel's easy reply was, "the rest of the world."
While Bell was on the search to learn more about women, "ROW" and their relationship with technology, she began to consider Intel's user group. Bell stresses the importance of knowing your users. She shared an image of Intel's perceived user and then another image of who she discovered was the actual Intel user. The image of the Caucasian middle class family, sitting around the television laughing on the couch was an unrealistic vision of whom Intel was designing for.
Intel perceived user
Intel actual user
Upon identifying the more realistic user group of a single man in a cluttered apartment, Bell began to explore the relationship between the user and their technology. According to Bell, one woman she spoke with during her initial research mentioned that all of her technological devices were like a "backpack full of baby birds." Each device has its own ring tone or notification. The user often has to reassure the device; for example if the user wants to delete something, the device has to be reassured that this is the actual chosen action. These machines seem to demand attention in the same way a baby bird relies on its mother for love and food.
After sharing this analogy, Bell takes a step back to consider the relationship between people and technology with examples from history in a mix of anxiety and wonder. She gave the audience an overview beginning with a mechanical duck that was created around 1750 to mimic a real life duck in every sense, even biologically. She utilizes this as a way to begin the conversation about the love and fear people have felt for technology and how this concept has been expressed through science fiction, creating anxiety in culture about technology.
Can a machine think and feel? Frankenstein is an example of the questions raised when considering the "morality of creating life" or giving a "monster" emotion so they can understand what it is like to be human. Another example she gave was of the movie Terminator, sharing an image of the Cyberdyne Systems logo and making the point that our fate of extermination was decided in a microsecond. There was a sense of paranoia and fear of machines taking over and destroying people, their creators.
What would it be to imagine an alternative? Bell shares an example of a graceful robot that serves tea. Utilizing the same tradition of mechanization as the duck, but with more grace. Something about having the robot perform a ritualistic act, in this case serving tea, gets rid of the anxiety and paranoia of machines overtaking their creators and instead, creates the notion of grace and wonder.
Our society is already imagining alternatives and new relationships. More recently there has been development in robots as companion. An example that Bell shared was Pleo, a robotic pet dinosaur that mimics the behavior of a baby dinosaur. Pleo is marketed towards people who might want the companionship of a pet but without the true responsibility. She also shared a cultural tradition from Singapore where they leave offerings of items for their loved ones who have passed away. The offerings can be any item that their loved one cherished while they were alive, but Bell found that three dimensional paper versions of iPads and smart phones are among the most popular items.
Today these technological devices have become so much a part of our lives that we need them alive or dead. Bell closes by challenging designers to rebalance the users relationship with technology by approaching each project through designing relationships and not interactions.