The Future of Innovation - Beware it’s Dark Side !

This is a transcript of an Interview conducted by Firas El Jechy with Bettina 29th January 2013.

Bettina’s Keynote ‘The Future of Innovation - Beware of The Dark Side’, given at the ICED Congress 11 (Copenhagen, Denmark, 16th August 2011, to view the recording click here) inspired the topic for Firas’ Major Project which concluded his Master of Innovation Management at Central St Martins in London.

The Biggest Problem … a Lack of Consciousness

Firas: The topic of isolation might be a controversial one in an age of hyper connectivity, but it is argued that the very technology that connects us is also separating us from the real world and real people, by making us rely less on human interaction and depend more on virtual ones.

Is it possible that, in this context, innovation has a dark side? Were these technological solutions developed without taking into consideration the negative side effects?

Bettina: If you put a frog in a pot of cool water and you heat the water gradually to boiling, the frog will stay in the water and die. It doesn’t react because of the gradual change to the water’s temperature. But if you put the frog inside a pot of already boiling water, it will jump right out of it.

Firas: So do you think we’re not aware of the problem?

Bettina: Exactly! We’re being boiled slowly without actually noticing.

Firas: Do you think designers are aware of that?

Bettina: No. The biggest problem in humanity is the lack of consciousness, the lack of awareness. People do all sorts of things and when you ask them why they are doing them, they don’t have answers. Maybe it’s because they observe other people doing those same things or … I don’t know, but if you ask, “Why are you actually doing this?” they answer, “Well I’m just doing it”.

I think it’s the same with the new technologies that have become available. If you had the landline phone and you moved to these devices in one big step, people would have been much more aware of the significance of the changes and their impact on all sorts of levels. But because we had a huge brick of a mobile phone, and then phones gradually became smaller, and then we had our diaries on our phones, and then … Gradually, we could do more and more, and no one asked if they really wanted to do this or that, but started using them because it was possible.

In my family, I feel like I’m fighting against windmills. I’ve got two boys, eleven and thirteen, and, of course, they have iPads and they spend a lot of time on them. It’s a constant battle over how much time they are allowed on these devices. And there’s the constant argument—basically, “Mummy, we’re a different generation, own up to the new reality”.

For me, it is a constant battle because it is not passive time like sitting in front of a television, but is highly interactive. One of my boys is very more into the shoot-‘em-up games which I struggle with. The other one is somewhat more into constructive games, those games where you build zoos and, also, Minecraft, which was originally about building things though not there is also an element of fighting things. It seems somehow that eventually fighting sneaks in everywhere!

So I struggle with this—is building something online worse than building with Lego? What is my objection to them doing the same thing online? I find it really difficult. What are my grounds for telling my boys they shouldn’t be playing those games online? My older son keeps asking me, “You still haven’t given us a reason why we shouldn’t spend all this time in front of the screen. Why should we be doing another things? What’s your argument for that?”

Firas: Do you think it’s a generation gap causing this? Is it a generation’s perspective on media, like when I listen to new music—what the kids are listening to right now—and all I hear is awful noise?

Bettina: I really don’t know. My concern is that it’s not really a conscious decision, and the direct human interaction is getting lost. People are fantastically communicating through their alter egos online, where they create themselves into whatever they want to be. But in real life, with face-to-face interactions, they have a real problem. In a way, I can see us drifting toward the movie, The Matrix.

When Second Life was such a big thing, it made me wonder when we will come to the point where people can’t differentiate between real and virtual people - there is so much detail, involvement and seeming reality about their virtual personas that I wonder if people will forget or become confused as to which one is real.

Firas: This could be a discussion about how a person sees him or herself online, but what about the relationships in the virtual world, do you think it’s the same as face-to-face interaction?

Bettina: I don’t think so. It’s based on a constructed persona, not the person herself. In the virtual world, I can create myself to be cool, calm or whatever, but is that really me? Or is that how I would like to be, but am not? Most of the time, when we create personas in a virtual space, we enhance the things that are considered to be positive. A virtual persona is quite different than the person in the real world.

Firas: Do you think it’s possible to reinforce the importance of real space with online technology?

Bettina: If the technology is good enough some of the technologies can collapse space—a virtual window that provides access to an office on the other side of the world, for example; it can give you the impression that you could walk into the space your colleagues are, half way around the world. The difference is that the real people are represented in the virtual world, rather than representations of people or personas in the virtual world. Such ‘virtual meeting grounds’ are not based on a virtual creation, but rather enable the physical beings in different places to be able to communicate across distance in a much more visual way, like the video telephone or Skype when it’s not breaking down, just on a much larger scale. There’s a different degree of closeness that becomes possible.

I find it quite interesting. I’ve been running networking initiatives since 1999, and people always ask me why I don’t go virtual? Why don’t I do webinars? I’m sorry, but I’m a face-to-face person. It is very different to interact face-to-face and I believe certain kinds of relationships and interactions are only happening when you are in the same room. Even with the current standard of video conferencing you only get that section of the room that the camera is pointing towards and you cannot see what’s happening in the far corner. It’s just not for me.

Sometimes I wonder if it really is a generational thing; I often think how I consider trust to be build and real connection to be made. I am challenging myself, is it really based on physical presence? I have to acknowledge that I do find myself making amazing connections by email with people whom I’ve never met. I feel that if we do not know each other well the careful consideration of language and words becomes much more important, especially with new connections.

Though having said that, I would say that I am probably not giving enough thought to the effect the words I use in the emails I’ve fire off might have! When I’m writing a letter, I think much more carefully about the words I’m putting together. It is so easy to misunderstand things written in emails, so, to clarify the intention of my words, I rather use a lot of smileys in emails.

Firas: Is that because of the absence of emotion?

Bettina: Yes, absolutely. When wanting to create an awareness of the importance of connecting through more than just words I often refer to the Mehrabian model, which is based on research as to how we humans make sense of things. Only eight percent is based on the words that we hear. A larger percentage is based on the tone of voice and the biggest chunk is body language. With emails you don’t even have a ‘tone of voice’ that’s why I like to put smileys into my emails.

The way we communicate and connect is just so different from what my father’s generation were used. To meet someone and conduct business they had to travel the world or engage in lengthy exchanges of letter. Now we do the same by exchanging a couple of emails.

So am I already behaving differently from how I think I’m behaving? Am I already forming trustful relationships via email, in the virtual space, without realising it? Do I already use different criteria to establish trust? I don’t know. I do think it’s as if we are starting to communicate and interact by proxy, not directly. We might be sitting at a breakfast table and communicating via email with someone who is far away, but not with the people we’re physically with … is this good or bad? Maybe I feel it’s better to turn off my phone more often on purpose. How often do you sit in a restaurant where the people around the table engage in conversations - via their phones with people who are not there, rather than talk to the people who are with them?

Firas: Well in general, do you think the Internet is reducing this kind of relationship with people in physical space?

Bettina: I think it is becoming less.

Firas: Do you think people want this? Is it our choice or are we being dragged into the hype?

Bettina: I would question whether people ask that question at all. I think we slip into the things that are possible without asking whether we really want that. If you had asked people ten years ago, “Do you want to answer your business emails on the weekends and evenings? Do you want to be contactable 14/7?” they would probably have strongly objected. Today, if you say that you are going on holiday without taking your smartphone, people will be amazed. I get that reaction when I leave my electronic devices at home during holidays; well, not all holidays… depending on the holiday, I will not take communication devices with me.

Firas: Well, how do you feel when you leave your computer and phone at home?

Bettina: Fantastic! It feels rebellious! I dared to leave my phone at home!

But I once had a situation where my computer crashed. It felt so strange being without it! I realised that almost all of my work depends on having my computer! I am completely dependent on it … But in a way, it was also entirely liberating. I cannot recall the name of the movie, but right at the end of it the hero has a choice to flick a switch and destroy all electronic devices (by the way, the viewer is left guessing what the hero does!). Do we actually realise that we rely so much on technology? It makes you think …

Firas: Looking at current trends, we see everything converging into the mobile phone, how will that effect my behaviour?

Bettina: I have to come back to the fact that people don’t ask these questions. I believe we will just slip into using all that is offered to us, relying more and more on the technology and not think (sufficiently) of the consequences.

Firas: Do you agree that technology is affecting us negatively?

Bettina: In many instances, yes, certainly.

Firas: Would you say that awareness is a solution? Do we need a warning on devices similar to the ones we have on packs of cigarettes?

Bettina: I think it is about making a conscious choice, being aware of the implications, and understanding the implications in the first place.

Firas: From the designer’s perspective, who must make the ethical decision as to whether or not what they’re creating is wrong? Should they be involved as well?

Bettina: Absolutely, designers have a critical role to play because they give shape to things that are not there yet; they influence on how we interact with things … the easier it becomes, the less we think about it. On one hand we want user-friendliness, but the easier it is, the less we question it and we just do …

Firas: As you said, all this technology evolved slowly. Would that be an approach that we can use as designers? To introduce new alternatives gradually?

Bettina: Yes, I think that we should get a really good understanding of what is appropriate for any given time and context, because what the challenge is is context dependent. I sit all the day in front of the computer and yet I tell my children it’s not good, so should I be telling them off? Maybe devices should have a function that, after a certain period, uses pop-up questions such as, “Are you sure you don’t want to go outside and play a little football?” Or in my case “I think you should do some gardening now, you have been staring at the screen for far too long already.” The other thing I realise about these devices is that I certainly often do not realise how time goes by.

Firas: So … you like gardening?

Bettina: Yes.

Firas: Have you ever tried playing Farmville?

Bettina: No, what’s that?

Firas: It’s a Facebook game where you do your gardening online and share it with your friends.

Bettina: Oh I see, but I’d rather do that for real! I like the feel of the soil, the smell, to feel with all my senses that I am outside.

Firas: But what if a game can give you that experience?

Bettina: Why would I want to do that as a game when I can do it for real? If I grow something in the garden, I’d want to think that it was because of the way I prepared the soil. If I’m doing it online, I know that it’s the program, either I pushed the right buttons or not. Where’s the adventure in that?

Firas: What about addiction? Are we getting there because brands and product designers are increasingly asking for engagement?

Bettina: I think addiction and engagement are two very different things. It depends on how you define addiction and engagement. In my opinion,engagement is a choice whereas with addiction, I wouldn’t have a choice - at least it will feel like that. If I take my iPad away, am I still enjoying life? Or am I getting depressed and suicidal because I don’t have access to my game? Or if I can’t have access to my little online village, will I be unable to sleep? If I can’t function anymore because I need the fix, that is addiction … the withdrawal syndrome. If I’m enjoying the interaction, that’s engagement. What happens to me when I don’t have my engaging device? it’s not about whether or not I have the device, but whether or not I’m still a happy person when I don’t have it.

Of course, many games penalise you for not playing frequently! I remember some of the games my boys are playing where animals die if they are not fed regularly and so on. Such design features are meant to re-create reality but really, nurture addiction.

Firas: But what about when you mentioned that your computer crashed and you couldn’t use it anymore, would you say that your reaction was close to addiction?

Bettina: Yes, absolutely, because at first I panicked and didn’t know what to do. I had to laugh at myself! How stupid can you get? Then I realised that life is not about having this on my desk, and that I can do other meaningful things … that I don’t need this thing. How often did I check my email five years ago? And now I’ll probably check my email as soon as we finish this. What is so urgent that I have to do that? When I left my phone and computer at home when I went on a two-week holiday, I felt really brave.

Maybe we’re taking ourselves too seriously! Do we really believe that the world cannot survive without us checking whoever sent us a message or an email … if we’re not available 24/7? I think this satisfies a human need of being wanted, being important. I don’t know how much this might have to do with how happy people are within themselves. Constantly focusing on the external means you do not have to look inside…

Firas: Are there good and bad innovations?

Bettina: Maybe not the innovations themselves, but rather how we apply and use them. I think yo can put a negative or positive spin on most things. The challenge is, how can we prevent the negative and enable the positive? Being aware of the possible negative implications in the first place is essential, and this needs to be followed up by put mechanisms in place to prevent them from happening.

Firas: Do you personally do this when you’re coming up with an idea? Do you consider the negative side?

Bettina: I try to challenge others and myself about consequences or implications. I think that to often we do get carried away by what is possible and do not think enough about possible negative consequences. I would go even further, those who ask the challenging questions are considered to be annoying, rather than seeing the challenging questions as an opportunity to understand what we are doing better, deeper. It seems to be that challenging questions and a desire to understand are often seen as negative and ‘criticism’.

Firas: How can we put ethics in a thinking process? And do we consider ethics in the beginning or towards the end?

Bettina: You absolutely have to start with ethics. If we ask ethic questions at the end we quite likely will have gone so far down a particular development route that we are unwilling to go back. Too much has already been invested in it - and rework is always much more resource consuming than planning it in from the outset. Like with the nuclear bomb … they could anticipate the destructive consequence yet were so keen to try it out to see how it would work.

So the question is not whether an idea is good or bad, but rather how can we make sure it is good … how can we use this idea to create positive implications, rather than negative ones? The question then isn’t whether or not the idea is right or wrong anymore, but how an idea is transformed into reality.

Maybe if the question were asked, “What are the implications for the 3Ps—People, Profit and Planet?” and ensure there is a proper balance between them. And keep asking these questions throughout the development process to check if the idea is still in balance and if not ask what we need to do, how we need to change and execute our idea in order to put it back in balance? At the end of the day, it often depends onhow you use things that makes them either positive or negative.

An important role for designers is to design things in such a way that amplifies the positive and minimises the negative from the outset.

Firas: Do you think that if we create a product that is less intrusive and does not call for your attention, it would still work?

Bettina: Maybe it is something to do with the frequency. Again, it is about the balance—how can you create the tension that makes you want to go to the next level of a game, but perhaps not instantly; perhaps a time-lag can be built in that so that we have to take a break.

Firas: So with the negative side of innovation in mind, how do you personally push for change?

Bettina: Other than constantly talking about it?

Firas: So it’s awareness …

Bettina: My own behaviour is, in the end, the only thing that I can change. It’s all very nice and well understanding what’s most appropriate and talking about it but in the end you have to do it, you have to be the example.

Having said that, even with all that awareness, changing ones own behaviour is still so very difficult. I think, I hope, I’m changing my behaviour.

Firas: Do you think there currently are any incentives for changing our behaviour?

Bettina: No, I don’t think there is.

Firas: So let’s say you’re running a workshop on how to create ethical products. Would you say anything before starting the creation process? Would you share your values and make participants aware of what you see as concerns and challenges?

Bettina: Yes. What I generally try to do is to use stories or exercises that will enable people to understand why it is important, and why it is important to them.

But doing this just at the outset is not enough. We need to keep reminding people (ourselves!) and keep checking in again and again as we tend to get carried away by what is possible, without asking ourselves whether what we are creating is also desirable and beneficial from a wider perspective, from the perspective of human development.

#digitalcommunication

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