On January 20, 2013, sometime before 7:45PM, Lauren McCarthy sat down at a table. She was early. She always arrived early. Once she had a spot, she checked her setup. She kept the iPhone in her purse, its camera poking out and angled to capture the whole scene. The iPod touch was kept close at hand. The iPhone was connected to Ustream and Ustream was connected to Amazon's Mechanical Turk. The Turk workers had a web form to fill out, which would send texts to the touch. Satisfied that it was all in order, she settled in to wait for her date.
Over the next two hours, McCarthy and an anonymous man went through the motions of a first date, while a rotating series of Turk workers watched the video feed for an average of four minutes and 32 seconds, wrote down what they saw and sent McCarthy instructions, which she tried her best to follow. At 9:24PM, one worker rated the interaction a five out of five, told McCarthy that she should say, "What are you looking for?" and logged the following observations: "man seems to pity her and find her exquisite at the same time. WOMAN SEEMS TO HAVE STUMBLED UPON THE WAY TO LIVE!" For this, the worker was paid $0.25.
“man seems to pity her and find her exquisite at the same time. WOMAN SEEMS TO HAVE STUMBLED UPON THE WAY TO LIVE!”
McCarthy's date was part of a project she's calling Social Turkers. In January, 2013, she moved to Portland, Oregon, a city where she barely knew anyone, and went on sixteen first dates. For each date, she streamed audio and video of the proceedings to Ustream, and paid workers from Amazon's Mechanical Turk (a market for crowdsourcing tasks) to watch, comment, and send her instructions. Her dates were crowdsourced.
It's a strange art project about technology and relationships. It's also a glimpse into a possible future for always-on wearable computing platforms like Google Glass.
Google is pushing Glass hard. Between the skydive stunts, a presence at New York's Fashion Week, high energy demo videos, and its exclusive invite system, Google is trying to imbue in Glass a glamour that transforms their strange face computers into desirable objects.
Google wants Glass to become a heads-up display for your life. With integration into GPS navigation, livestreaming chat, and third party services like Evernote, the information that you need when you need it should be available at a glance. If Google's other big new product, the predictive Google Now takes off, the promise is that Glass will get you the information you need before it even occurs to you to ask. This is Google as eternally attentive nanny, personal assistant, and data butler, whispering in your ear, and giving you superpowers.
Glass developer advocate Timothy Jordan hinted as much at SXSWi 2013. As The Verge reported, during a Q&A following the Glass preview event one audience member said: "I don't want to post more social network crap." Jordan smiled and said "We want to choose services that improve your life."
Lauren McCarthy's date — mediated by the Mechanical Turk — is the story of a woman who prototyped what one of those services could be.
This is the kind of thing McCarthy does. "A lot of this work comes out of feeling like it's sometimes difficult to connect with people in a really honest and open way because we are so caught up with social routines and expectations," McCarthy says. "I think, I don't know how to talk to people but I know how to code, can I hack my way out of this situation?"
She once created a table with a surface made of dimmable lights. Sitting at the table you could nudge a foot pedal left or right depending on whether you were loving or hating the conversation. The table combined your vote with the votes of your seated companions, glowing brighter or dimmer depending on the aggregate mood. If the rating fell too low, the table would flash a distress signal, summoning nearby people to step in and save the day. It's a technical solution to a social problem. McCarthy knows it's probably flawed.
"The technologies we create shape our experience into rational interpretations," says McCarthy. "I want to keep pushing on the boundaries of this and asking what kind of experience of reality are we building for ourselves."
Google Glass is a prosthetic. As marketed so far, it's a prosthetic for navigation, communication, and memory. Using turn-by-turn directions, search, and Maps integration you can find your way around. Using video or audio streaming you can talk to people anywhere. Using the camera you can store things as they happen, and using notifications you can remind yourself of things you need to recall.
McCarthy wants to see what happens when we turn a device like Glass into a social prosthetic.
She wonders if Glass can make you a better person. "I'm really interested in ways that these kinds of augmentations can do more than just supply you with information, putting you in a kind of autopilot where you barely need to think," she says. "Could they instead augment your experience in ways that change you as a person, at the level of core values and experience?"
Consider the problem of remembering names. It's hard! If you're the kind of person who meets a lot of people, it's a useful thing to get right. The obvious solution — the one that every augmented reality demo uses — is to throw up a person's name when the system recognizes them, next time you see them.
She has a different idea. "A more interesting implementation would remind me at the moment when I was meeting someone, to pay attention and remember, to ask again if I'd already forgotten their name. Over time, I might change my behavior and start remembering without the prompts, rather than becoming completely reliant on the technology."
This emphasis on the personal aspect of wearable computing has been part of research in the field for quite some time. Nicholas Negroponte wrote about it for Wired in 1996. "If you wish, your wearable computer could whisper in your ear, perhaps after playing for a few too many hours with a few too many kids, 'Patience, the birthday party is almost over,'" he writes, before going on to consider the need for emotional intelligence in these systems.
what happens when we turn a device like Glass into a social prosthetic?
McCarthy is thinking along similar lines. "It gets even more interesting when you think about a system where you could input the kind of person you want to become, the kind of interactions you want to have, and let the technology guide you there at a base level," she says.
Wearable fitness trackers are meant to be self-discipline prosthetics. They promise that by quantifying ourselves, they will help us become fitter, happier and more productive. Wearables like Fitbit and Nike FuelBand aren't meant to just track what we do, they're meant to encourage us to do it better.
As it turns out, outsourcing your personality can seriously mess you up
As Mat Honan points out at Wired, these are still early days. These wearables could be coaching us, but so far they aren't. They will be soon.
When Jawbone, maker of the UP, purchased big data startup Massive Health, it bought a company intent on using crowdsourcing to (amongst other things) coach people to be better eaters. "Imagine if you could have a personal trainer who knew you and cared about you who could show up for 30 seconds 10 times a day," said then CEO Sutha Kamal last year.
This is wearable computers, the quantified self, and massive data services as tiny homunculus, sitting on your face and whispering advice in your ear. What kind of daemon or angel should they be?
"This kind of thing both terrifies and fascinates me," says McCarthy. "It's all being imagined and developed right now, so I see my role as an artist as pushing on the edges of these technological futures. Creating scenarios that tread a line between something dystopic and something positive, and trying to tease out some of the issues and subtleties in the confrontation."
Social Turkers is an experiment in what happens when you turn over life coaching duties to a crowd of (paid) strangers. "We've seen with open source software development, for example, how communities can come together online and create something beyond what any individual could even fathom," says McCarthy. "What if we applied similar methodology to ourselves and our lives?"
There is a freedom in turning over your decisions to someone else. By outsourcing part of her personality for the duration of the date, McCarthy didn't need to worry about the awkwardness of trying to read a situation and push forwards or hold back. The Turk workers took care of that for her. It was clumsy, but all prototypes are clumsy.
"I didn’t find love, though I was definitely open to it," McCarthy says. "I’m interested in art that blends into reality, so I wanted to let this affect me and my life as much as possible."
The random strangers part of Social Turkers is clearly unworkable. The quality of advice given wasn't that good. Imagine if she could assemble a collection of smart and trusted Turk workers.
The hardware and software parts are all in place with Glass. It already offers livestreaming to and from the device. A well-designed cloud service could handle the rest, matching paying clients to smart advisors, be they human or software agents. The same tech that powered McCarthy's dates could match her up with a board of wise elders instead.
Imagine a system that makes better decisions than we'd be able to make on own. We go to bars with wingmen and women to look out for us. Why not virtual wingmen? We turn to friends and family for advice on big decisions. Shouldn't we plug in to the collective wisdom day to day?
“When he tried to kiss me, I believe my exact phrase was ‘I really don’t have any grasp on my basis for making decisions about this stuff right now, so ok?’”
"I go into all of my experiment projects open to the possibility that the system I've set up for myself might work out better than my normal, and I might end up living the rest of my life that way," says McCarthy. "However, a couple weeks into each one, the projects usually get pretty psychologically difficult, and evidently unsustainable for a lifetime."
As it turns out, outsourcing your personality can seriously mess you up. To turn over your decisions to the crowd is to encounter questions about what it means to be an individual or to be part of a hive mind.
"At first I felt really uncomfortable not having complete control over myself, it was hard to say and do things that felt like they weren't 'me'," McCarthy says. "Over time though, as I surrendered to the system and tweaked some of the technical details of the user experience, I started to really embrace the collective consciousness and naturally incorporate it into my concept of who I was."
It's strange enough to talk to someone not knowing whether you are talking to them or them + crowdsourced overseer, but McCarthy says it was even stranger to live as that person. She says it began to provoke a profound identity crisis. "Who am I? Am I Lauren or Lauren + The Turk Hive? And which do I like better?"
Consider the case of wearable computing pioneer Steve Mann who found himself stripped of the rigs he'd been wearing for years by overzealous airport security back in 2002. "Without a fully functional system, he said, he found it difficult to navigate normally," writes Lisa Guernsey for the New York Times. "He said he fell at least twice in the airport, once passing out after hitting his head on what he described as a pile of fire extinguishers in his way. He boarded the plane in a wheelchair." He was assaulted again in 2012 at a McDonald's in Paris with similar results.
Lose a beloved smartphone, or find yourself without data while roaming in a foreign country and you get a glimpse of what that was like. Suddenly you'll find it difficult to navigate normally. Everyday tasks like contacting a friend become expensive and hard. It's like gaining a disability.
If these technologies are successful in the way their makers want them to be, we are setting ourselves up for a profound dependence on the next generation of wearable hardware and related services.
When January ended, McCarthy returned to the East Coast in a "pretty confused state." She ended up on a date recently, unplanned and with no Turk workers to back her up. "When he tried to kiss me, I believe my exact phrase was 'I really don’t have any grasp on my basis for making decisions about this stuff right now, so ok?'"
McCarthy's disorientation happened after only a month of using a system that was kludgy and unoptimized. With Glass and whatever the rest of the wearable computing industry brings, we are being promised much more intimate and seamless relationships. This is dangerous. The more seamlessly we integrate with our tools, the more wrenching it will be if they are torn away.