Wearing our brains on our sleeve.
25 June 2017 05:29 (South Africa)
Sci-Tech

Don't talk to me, talk to my machine

  • Theresa Mallinson
    Theresa_1-1
    Theresa Mallinson
  • Sci-Tech
lips

How much of the quotidian speech we utter to friends, colleagues or lovers can be classified as meaningful? Couldn't a robot perform our routine chit-chat just as well? Gerard Ralló's series of Post-digital Social Entities is designed to make us reflect on just these questions. Sure, he's highlighting the automated aspects of our interaction, but his aim is to provoke a heartfelt human response. By THERESA MALLINSON.

It wasn't that long ago, perhaps just more than a decade-and-a-half, that email was a novelty. If you were fortunate enough to work somewhere that was connected, you'd still probably physically walk over to the office next door to chat to a colleague, rather than ping them an email (unless you were a tech geek).

Fast-forward to 2010, and digital communication is a seamlessly integrated part of our everyday life – in and out of the office. Depending on how connected your friends and colleagues are, almost any occasion – from conferences to dinner parties – has two facets these days: what's physically happening in the room and what people are saying about the event online, primarily on Twitter. Even if you're not attending a specific event, chances are you're still plugged in, even during “down time”.

Spanish technologist and designer Gerard Ralló, who is part of the London-based Studio Good One collective, has created a series of devices that interrogate our relationship with technology by physically embodying our reliance on digital communication. His series of “Devices for Mindless Communication”, which is part of a larger series “Post-digital Social Entities”, imagines a world of evolving digital interaction, while questioning its implications.

The “Conversation Challenger” listens to one half of a conversation between two people, and then displays competing information on an electronic ticker-style device. Say I'm having a conversation with you about WikiLeaks. The device will, theoretically, come up with facts about the organisation's history, as well as the latest leaks and their impact. As the person talking to you, I have to try to retain your attention so that you don't become more interested in machine-speak than what I have to say.

The distracting size and physical presence of the Conversation Challenger foregrounds the notion of competing with a digital device for attention. And it's not speaking to an automated future, but forcing us to engage with a situation that is happening all around us, right now. It's a hyperbolic representation of your friend who seems more intent on communicating with her BlackBerry than with the real, live human being in front of her over dinner. In some circles, it's become socially acceptable to Tweet while you eat. But are we actually thinking about the implications of promoting our digital avatars above our real-world personae?

Watch a demonstration of the Conversation Challenger:

Another of Ralló's projects is the Reiterative Communication Aid. This machine hangs around your neck, and records all of your speech, noting the repetitive patterns. So, when you're faced with mundane small talk, for example, “What do you do for a living?”, instead of having to say “I'm working in human resources” (or whatever), your communication aid will display this on its digital screen. (And yes, it'll also tell your partner “Of course I'm listening”, provided that's a phrase you utter often enough.)

In the video demonstrating the reiterative conversation aid, the guy who's wearing the device around his neck has his time freed up to engage in the activities he wants to (in this case, reading a book), rather than having to utter platitudes to his partner. But instead of  saying that human interaction is devoid of any real meaning and can be replaced with automation, Ralló intends his devices to provoke thought about the value we place on our relationships with others.

Ralló says: “I have always been very interested on face-to-face interactions (maybe because I have never been very good at those), and wanted to develop projects that could make people think about how they engage with those around them, with what purpose. A specific example of something that actually helped me to (...) commit to this subject, was to discover that certain mobile phones came with the SMS template 'I love you too'.”

Of the reaction to his conceptual devices, Ralló says: “I could see some classic 'machines replacing human interactions. That is very sad' reactions. Others see the projects as an ironic attack on the machines replacing human interactions, and some other people have been more insightful and realised that these devices also tell us that we don't value conversations. We tend to switch to autopilot and engage mindlessly with mundane social situations. Devices like these would make people realise that engaging with others mindfully is a gift we should appreciate. So, (my work has resulted in) a nice discussion, as it was intended.”

Watch a video demonstrating the reiterative communication aid:

Ralló's work is conceptual in nature, but he's tested his devices in the real world too. “While researching and experimenting, I built a sound-based version of the reiterative conversation aid gadget and went to the street with some pre-recorded conversations that could be triggered with a remote control, to see people's reactions to this machine mediation. The conversations were those to order a meal in a fast food chain, get a travel card (and so on). We didn't get any weird reactions. Everybody behaved as if they were meeting people (communicating by) talking machines every day. They would very probably think the wearer was handicapped and would understand that such technology could exist to improve their every day (life).”

Ralló's aim is to challenge us, as digital consumers and producers, to reflect on what role we want technology to play in our lives. “Technology is changing everything, and, without positioning myself on how things should be, I like using design as a tool to make people think about how  they want things to evolve.” DM


Read more: Fast Company, Studio Good One.

  • Theresa Mallinson
    Theresa_1-1
    Theresa Mallinson
  • Sci-Tech

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