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Video: Genevieve Bell–Being Human in a Digital World

In the first of what will be a new ongoing feature, we’re excited to have Genevieve Bell’s Keynote from Web Directions 2014, fully subtitled (with the transcript below as well.)

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The Transcript

Thank you, Sarah.

Thank you.

All right.

Well, it doesn’t get much better than that.

I refuse to believe that there is no one from Far North Queensland in the audience.

I think you’re just not going to put up your hands, which is a different problem.

It is always my pleasure to be back home.

It’s my distinct pleasure to be in Sydney and I can’t believe I get to talk at this particular conference, which I have admired from afar for a very long time.

It is true that I am at Intel,which means that every talk needs to begin with a legal disclaimer.

The things you should know about this is that you should not invest in Intel on the basis of what I’m about to tell you. You should invest in us, because we’re fabulous also, everything in here, you know, appropriately annotated that’s what you need to know.

All right.

So I thought about what I wanted to talk about here and I was reflecting on the other people who have spoken at this conference both this year and in other years.

And I realized I wanted to take a little bit of the privilege of having been a long time in the tech field to reflect on that work. And to think about what 15 years of studying human beings and the uses of technology has taught me. More about what it means to be human and less about the digital world.

But I wanted to kind of play in that intersection for a little while and think about what I suspect the lessons are in some ways, for all of us.

Both as people who sit in that world, but also people who use technology and who live lives ultimately impacted by it.

There are a lot of ways to introduce myself.

My corporate bio is one of them.

I always think it’s important to say that I’m a child of Australia, but I’m also a child of a particular kind of Australia.

I grew up in the northern territory in central Australia mostly in the 1970s and 1980s.

I spent most of my childhood living on my mother’s field sites. So I grew up in aboriginal communities in that time period with people whoremembered their country before white fellows and fences and cattle.

And who at the drop of a hat would take my brother and I bush with them.

And so I spent most of that period of my life without shoes.

I didn’t speak English terribly often, I was speaking Warlpiri and Pigeon.

I killed things around me.

I hasten to add and I mostly ate them which always frightens the Americans.

And I didn’t go to school terribly often.

My American colleagues believe this was, because I was home schooled.

The reality was I just mostly wasn’t in school.

Cuz if your choice is go bush with indigenous people who want to tell you about their country or learn how to do long division, it’s not an easy, you know,not a difficult decision to make, frankly.

That childhood left some significant marks on me that have shaped the course of my lifetime.

I think it would have been impossible to live in those communities and not come away with a very strong sense of social justice and of the kind of inequities that still color this country.

I was lucky to have parent who helped me articulate those things and who raised both my brother and I with a very strong moral core.

It was her considered belief that if you could see a better world, you were morally obligated to go make it happen.You should put your body, your heart, your soul, your professional life, your passions on the line to bring that world into existence.

And for nearly 50 years, I have watched my mother do that. And I’ve tried to do that myself, which has lead me on a very strange career path.

So I had this childhood in Australia.I ran away from Australia in the late 1980s to the United States,which was kind of unusual.

I found myself in American universities pursuing anthropology, because it was comfortable and familiar.

And in the late 1990s, I was living in Silicon Valley,teaching at Stanford Native American studies.

So clearly, why I ended up at Intel.

I was a perfectly happy human being, right?

I liked being a professor at an American University,Stanford was a nice place to be. It was sunny, they had a great library.

It was all good.

And in March of 1998 however, I had one of those pivotal events. I met a man in a bar in Palo Alto and he changed my life.

Again, for the Americans, I usually have to hasten to add I didn’t sleep with him,have his children or marry him.

But he changed my life nonetheless.

Because he asked me one simple question. A really kinda classic American man in a bar question.

He said, what do you do?

And I said I was an anthropologist.

He said, what’s that?

I said, I studied people.

He said, why?

Like, seriously?

Because they’re interesting.

What an odd question.

He asked me, you know, what I was doing with that.

I said, somewhat smugly, I will confess that, you know, I was a tenure track professor at Stanford.


And he sort of went huh, couldn’t you do better?

Which was an equally odd kind of thought and I thought really?

I’m so done with you.

And so, I stopped talking to this man.

Which makes it all the more surprising when the next day he called me at home.

Because my mother, a sensible woman, had told me to not to give my number to strange men in bars and so I hadn’t given him my number.

And this is 1998, so well before Facebook, LinkedIn, Google,probably before Netscape and Mosaic too.

So really before any box on the internet into which you could have typedredheaded Australian anthropologist. And truthfully, my name would have popped up.

But he done it the old fashioned way,he called every anthropology department in the bay area looking for me.

Got to Stanford where the secretary of the anthropology department said, oh,do you mean Genevieve? Would you like her home phone number?

Like, okay.

So not clear on the data retention data privacy issues right there.

So here is this man on the phone saying, you seem interesting and me going… you don’t.

Like seriously mate, didn’t give you my number for a reason. And ultimately, he said the magic words that some of you in this room will recognize cuz, you know?

He said, well you seem interesting.

I’m like, that’s nice.

He’s like, I’ll buy you lunch.

And I’m like, oh God.

I’m still freshly out of graduate school and the prospect of free food motivates me.

So, I let this man buy me lunch.

I let him squire me around the valley for a bit, introduce me to a whole lot of other people.

He turned out to be a venture, serial entrepreneur.

You know, he was doing interesting work in what appeared to be early RFID tagging of paper.

And over the course of a couple of months, he introduced me to a number of different kind of categories of people in Silicon Valley that I really hadn’t encountered sitting in the social sciences and the humanities at Stanford.

Ultimately, he would introduce me to the people at Intel,who unbeknownst to me were on the hunt for a research social scientist to help build out a team that they were kind of considering.

Unbeknownst to me also they desperately need a woman.

Unbeknownst to me thirdly,I didn’t realize that all the women that interviewed up until this point in time had been reduced to tears by the interview process.

Yeah, exactly, not a good look.

Now it turned out part of the reason for that when I walked up to Intel was immediately clear.There was a stunning disconnect between how I knew how to give interviews and how I experienced Intel.

I read a paper out loud for 45 minutes.It was a high theory paper, because it was Stanford in the 90s. I talked a lot about post-modernism, it was excellent.

The engineers were a bit nonplussed.

Afterwards, they said to me, we couldn’t believe you kept going.And we couldn’t work out why you stopped when you did and

I’m thinking, cuz I got to the end of the chapter.

But no, none of that was good.

So at the end of that and they then sat me in a room and every half an hour someone else would turn up and ask me questions, right?

What I didn’t realize was that Intel had just discovered behavioral interviewing or at least this part of Intel had.

And they understood that meant you should subject the candidate to the behavior you were interested in understanding their response to, not ask them how they responded when subjected to it.

This is a critical but subtle difference, because they wanted to know how I responded to something that Intel called constructive confrontation and I experienced as men yelling at me.

And so I would sit there and someone would come in and ask my opinion about something, e-shopping.

I would give them an opinion, they would tell me that was stupid. This is an interesting experience in a job interview.

And I’m enough of a good girl that I was like oh, God, that’s a bad answer.I need to come up with a better one, so I would come up with a better answer and the next person would tell me that was also stupid.

I may be a good girl, but I’m also Australian. And after about 45 minutes of that, I became somewhat Bolshi.

Just this much.

And proceeded to say, things like you think that’s a stupid answer.Let me explain to you how dumb the question was.I was like in fact, you may be stupider than the man who was here in before you and he was ridiculously dumb.

And that went on for like five more hours.

The end of the job interview, I was like I am so out of here and they were in love and offered me a job on the spot.

Because as it had turned out I fought with them and they thought that was terribly, terribly attractive and I was like uh-huh. Not so much.

And so for six months, Intel wooed me.

They would call me up once a month and say, when can you start?

And I would say, are you less horrible?

And inevitably the person on the other end of the phone would go,I don’t know what you mean.

I’m like, so that’s a no then.

And then I would ask them what my job would be,cuz that seems like a good question.I would be leaving a tenure track position, it’s like what’s the job?

And they kept going, we don’t really know.

I’m like, okay. I don’t know how to evaluate that.And about six months into this mad process,I realized that I was making a terrible mistake.

And it was tenure at Stanford was highly desirable thing.It wasn’t necessarily a desirable thing for me. And that, you know, I could do the best I could possibly do for six years and maybe at the end some, dean would tell me that I was worthy.

And I realized I wouldn’t have lived up to any of the things my mother had told me I needed to be in my life.

And it, here was Intel near as I can figure, 16 years ago in the middle of the largest technological transformation of all of our lifetimes and certainly of mine.

And they were asking me to come be in that conversation.

And once my mother was an anthropologist, my father and both of my grandfathers were engineers.

And I though to myself,do I want to leave the building of this next world to engineers solely?

And I thought, maybe not.

Maybe what they actually need are some women. And in my case, you know, a radical feminist with tendency towards Marxism. All of which I had told them, it should be said.

When the Intel people said to me, is there anything else we need to know?

I said, I’m a radical feminist with tendencies toward Marxism.

And they went, oh, will we like that?

I did have to say, I thought the first six months would be rocky and they were.

But, you know, I realized that being in the middle of making the future of helping shape what that technological landscape was that was the job I had to do. And I couldn’t say, no to that.

And so I quit Stanford, moved to Intel. Kind of, you know, put my heart in my hand and diligently went off to Portland, Oregon.

And on my first real day on the job, my new boss sits down and says, great, you’re here.

Here’s the job.

And I’m like, what, for six month you couldn’t tell me what the job is and now you know what the job is?

Like seriously, people?

She says, it’s really simple.

We just need your help with two things.


What are they?

So we need your help with women.

I’m like, which women?

Because you don’t seem to have very many.

She goes, well there’s that, that was a problem too, but now she needed my help with all women.

I’m like, what, all 3.2 billion?

Yes, said, my boss.

That would be excellent.

I’m like, okay.

What do you want me to do with 3.2 billion women?

Be great if you could tell us what they want.

So my notebook of the day I write down women all and underline all a lot.

And much like some of you in the room, I’m a researcher.

So the prospect of, you know, a project that explains women all is like excellent. Now of course, you know this project needs the first characteristic of explaining why women all is not a meaningful category.

And then do something else, right?

And I was off in some reverie of great happiness about this until I realized that this new boss had said, there were two things.

And if thing number one is women all, it is terrifying to imagine what thing number two might be.

I’m sure I hoped it would be men, cuz that would just round out the equation.But no, my new boss said listen, we have this ROW problem and we need your help.

Like oh, God.

Like, what’s ROW?

My new boss said that’s Rest Of World.

And I had a nagging suspicion I knew the answer to this next question, but I asked it anyway.

I’m like, so where’s world?

Such that there is rest of world.

My boss said, oh, that’s America.


So as I suspected.

So then to recap. My job would be to explain women and everyone who isn’t in America.

Yes, said my boss.

I’m like okay, good.

And at that point, I realized that I either had the best job on the planet and, you know, possible ongoing job security. Or I had just signed up for like,something genuinely dreadful.

And I realized at that moment that in fact the invitation was an extraordinary one, right?

The invitation was basically to explain everyone who wasn’t in the building to everyone who was.

And at some level, my job has remained that.

I mean, I’ve rolled American men in now just out of a kind of kindness of my heart.

Which as an Australian woman is a big concession.

But you know, my job continues to be and has been for 16 years now.How do you make sense of what it is that people care about? What they’re passionate about? What frustrates them? What they want for their kids and their families and their communities and themselves? And sometimes, even their countries.

And how do you use all of that to drive next generation technology to development?

And that’s been the job and it’s been an extraordinary job.

And there’s lots of stories I could tell about that, but I realize I just want to kind of narrow down on one piece. Which is that it turns out in addition to that job of understanding what people want now, I also think that I’m in the business of telling stories about what the future could be.

That every time we make a piece of technology,every time we develop a piece of code or a service or an application, we’re actually making stories about what the future might be and about what we want it to be.

And I’m acutely aware that there have been other times in human history when those stories were told by different people.

You know, back in the 1800s the world’s fairs, crystal palace, you know? Those were visions about the future that were told by governments and nation states and sometimes companies.

And throughout the arc of the twentieth century, it was the same thing.We told stories about the future to each other in many different ways.

[Slide] This is probably my favorite piece of marketing collateral from the mid 1950s.

This came out of Time magazine in 1956. It’s actually an advertisement for a consortium of electrical companies in California where they spell out this vision of what the world will look like, in their mind in the 1960s.

So this is the 1950s looking ten years forward, I know. So many things.

In the advertising text that goes with this they declare that they imagine within the next ten years food will cook in ovens in the kitchen in minutes not hours.

So, okay.

Microwave ovens, good.

They imagine that television will hang in flat panels on the walls,like pictures and mirrors.

Well, 40 years off, but not bad.

They imagine that houses will be heated and cooled by a large box sitting outside the back door.

Okay. Central air,

you know, somewhere in the right ballpark.

They imagine that windows and doors and lights will automatically adjust to the weather.


And then delightfully, they imagine there will be self driving vehicles. On the roads of California in order to keep the passengers safe and to manage congestion differently.

This is the story we have been telling ourselves for a very long time.

Now, many pieces of that particular story from the 50s have come true.

The story about self-driving cars, a bit like jet-packs is a future perennially deferred. And even we were to get close to thinking about self-driving cars now, I’m willing to bet it is not with a nuclear family with him at the wheel in a tie.

But we all recognize this as a story about the future, right?

And those are compelling stories, because they tell us a tremendous amount about the way the world is and the way the world will be.

And there is a whole school of thought about how you critically interrogate stories about the future, because they are texts, right?

They tell us about what people’s aspirations and concerns were. That this is from the 1950s is immediately apparent both and in dress and in power and gender relationships as well as the vehicle itself, right?

And we know how to read those things.

I think it’s also the case that we sit inside a set of social political media forces that tell us that everything is changing.

We live in a world where people tell us that change is happening really quickly.The technology is changing everything. The technology will change everything and we see all the signs and signals of it all the time.

I want to suggest, however, that it’s a little more complicated than that.And I want to do it, because I get to do this at home and I couldn’t ever do this anywhere else using cricket.

So not all of you in the room may be as cricket tragic as me, but at least I’m assuming most of you know who this figure is here.

[Slide] This would be DK Lillee.

Yeah, I know.

Yehey, Dennis.

That’s exactly right.

I’m the child of cricket people.

I’m the grandchild of cricket people.

My grandfather was a cricket tragic of the first order and used to take me to the MCG when I was little.

When I was about six years old, I thought you summoned all fast ballers by chanting, Lillee, Lillee, Lillee. So sort of magical thinking, I just thought that’s how they would appear.

We know how to look at this picture.This one was actually taken in the early 1980s.

And for those of us who know anything about cricket in Australia, we know that the 1980s was a period of rapid change. We’re moving from a five day test match sequence to the beginning of the Packer regime of one day tests and one day matches.

This was probably the last time that cricket was played solely in cricket whites.

This is a period of time when television broadcasting was slightly different in terms of its configuration and we recognize this as the past, right?

I mean, there’s many things about this you don’t need me to tell you that this is the 1980s.You don’t need me to tell you, this was last year when we were shellacking the English either.

And it’s reasonable to say, between 1980 and 2014, there were rapid transformations in cricket.We changed the ways cricket was broadcast.

It was something that was now available on mobile phone platforms.There were updates and notifications. It was available on the web.

Cricket is trained differently.They had different body types. They were from different social orders.There were paid differently. We now engage with an endless procession of pictures of their girlfriends and in Mitch’s case his mother.

You know, we know there are different ways in which the game is played in terms of the rules.

In terms of how those rules are arbitrated, in terms of the technology that’s available on the pitch and in the umpire’s, you know, hands.

At one level, it looks like everything is different here.The reality is however lurking underneath all of those things that are different in Australia at least.

For a particular collection of people,there are things about cricket that have not changed in a hundred years.We still want to beat the English, every time relentlessly.

We will still under almost all circumstances,turn down the volume on the television and put on ABC’s Grandstand.



And we all know why we’re doing it and we will still chant at the cricket in all kinds of ways. Because it turns out that cricket isn’t just about cricket, right?

It’s about stories about the nation state,it’s about stories about nationalism and it’s about a particular kind of collective activity.

What I want to suggest is that sometimes,it’s really easy to be taken by all the things that change and you forget the things that don’t.

And that we spend so much of our time talking about worrying through and admiring the ways in which technology changes everything,we sometimes forget the things that aren’t changing and,frankly, I think the things that have always been changing.

And really what I want to do is kinda tease some of those apart.

And what I want to suggest is that there are things that make us human that are,if not indelible are certainly longstanding in their duration.

And I think there are five of these things that ultimately have been steady and stable for a really long time, a 100 years, 200 hundred years, maybe a millennia.

They have changed in some ways in their outward manifestation, but their underlying stability is undeniable.

It’s also the case that these five things have profoundly shaped the kinds of technologies that have been successful.

If you appeal to one of these things, you tend to have a winner when it comes to technology.

The first one of them is really straightforward and easy.Turns out as human beings, we are social creatures.

More than anything else, we needs friends and family.

Who we imagine that family is, is very different than it was 100 years ago or 20 years ago or even 10 years ago.

But we can now have clear, candid conversations about gay marriage,about de facto relationships, about different configurations of family suggests that what it means to talk about family is different than it was, but the persistence of family is usually important.

The same with friends, who it is that our friends are. How we communicate and stay in touch with them.How we think about them.

Those things may have changed.

But the importance for human beings of being nested inside this set of social relationships is remarkably enduring. And frankly, technologies that have played on this have all been terribly successful.

If you look back at the early history of the telephone both in the United States and Australia.

Much of the early business, quote unquote, transacted on telephones was not actually of anything other than the what are you doing?

How are you?

Where are you?

When will I see you?

What are the kids doing?

What did they do yesterday?

How did he do at sport?

You know, I can’t believe she wore that.

And in some ways, that conversation was what made telephones hugely important.

When I was growing up in central Australia, there was something in the afternoons called the gala session when they opened up the radio, telephone system for three hours in the afternoon to anyone who could get online effectively.And it was the most extraordinary cacophony you ever heard.

It was like being at the maddest cocktail party in history with people just yelling at each other across, you know, thousands of kilometres.

But everyone found the voices that they cared about and that technology persisted,because what it let happen was people connected to other people.

It is no surprise that the, you know, the legacy of those things has wrapped themselves around things like Facebook.But also, things like Vine and Instagram and even, you know, anything else in that space, right?

If you can appeal to this notion of being social, you’ll always be successful.

It turns out we also want more than that, though.


We want to belong to a community of people who share our values,share our interests, share our particular set of skills.

So 500 years ago, this might have been guilds.20, 30 years ago this might’ve been unions.I think it is also the case now that we have all kinds of groups we belong to.

Someone was reminding me earlier today that Sydney is home to one of the largest IXDA sort of organizations in the, in the world and that’s true, right?

We want to belong with people who share our values.

We’ve just finished doing a study in my team at the Country Women’s Association here in New South Whales and there is another kind of organization with people who share a commitment to women to rural Australia to each other.

And there are lots of places where technology has played into this.

The early stories of eBay, as basically a group of people who collected Pez dispensers.

Hardly salubrious beginnings for something that has been quite spectacular, but you might also want to suggest this is what makes Pinterest successful.

This is how Tumbler works.

Is that this is about how do you find people who share your interests,your values, your preoccupations, possibly your activities.

And there’s a whole lot of technologies that have fallen into this space andforwarded this particular set of activities over a very long period of time.

Laddering up from that.

So if you think about it sort of kith and kin, so social and family, community.There’s this larger kind of thing I think that we share as human beings,which is a desire to belong to something bigger than ourselves to have meaning beyond our individual lives.

In the arc of the 20th century that’s been nation states,the idea of countries, the idea of big things like that.Church, I think, falls into this space, something that is bigger than ourselves.

I think this is a harder one to think about where technology has fallen into this. Although, I would say over the last six to eight months watching things unfold particularly on Twitter, I’m acutely aware that there are ways that we now talk about ideologies that resemble this.

A 100 years ago we have argued about ideas about freedom and democracy women in many countries around the world talked about the right to vote, they were suffragettes.That was an idea, that was something that was meaning beyond themselves, right?

It was a cause.

And this is one way to think about what’s happened with the Arab Spring. With the umbrella movement in Hong Kong, I think you could probably even, and I hesitate to say this, put Gamergate here too.

Is that, you know, the hashtagging of Twitter has been a way that people have found causes that were bigger than themselves and found relationships that gave them a sense of belonging to something.

And there is something strongly human in a need to belong to something bigger than ourselves and it is reflected and played out over and over again in the kinda machinations of the world.Beyond all of those things, family, community, nation, state and ideology, it turns out as human beings we also have this ongoing twitch,if you want to think about it this way.

Where we need to use stuff to talk about who we are to ourselves and other people, whether that is the technology you choose to use.

Are you an Apple fan person? Can’t say, Apple fanboy and take myself seriously, but, you know?

There’s something about what are the technologies you choose to use?

What are the cars you drive?

What are the clothing choices you make?

I’m willing to bet most of you got up this morning and made some set of decisions about what you put on.It may simply have been, it was clean.

But even that is a decision and there is something about the way we choose to use objects, most of them physical.

As a way not only to talk to other people than to talk to ourselves about who we are?

What we stand for?

What we value?

Technology has clearly fit into this both in the ownership of technology, but even in what services do you use.

You know, what operating system do you use?

What applications do you use?

What worlds do you belong to?

All become part and parcel of the way we talk about ourselves.

And you can see this kind of moving forward in a similar domain, right?

What is the personal assistant’s system that you operate within?

Are you a, a Siri person or Cortana person, a Firefly person?

There is something here about what the landscape of objects is that will be complicated and interesting. But make no mistake, we always use things to have those conversations.

Last but by no means least,it turns out that one of the things that makes us indelibly human and has done so for a really long time is we need to keep secrets and tell lies. I know you’re sitting there going, oh, not me.Yeah, welcome to one of them.Turns out the average human being tells somewhere between 6 to 200 hundred lies a day.

By the time you’re on the 200 hundred end you’re probably pathological.Or I suppose under some circumstances a politician. Imagine that somewhere in that space, however most of the rest of reside. And here, you need to be kinda thinking that this is not for those of you who were raised Catholic.

I’m not talking necessarily about the sins of commission, so much as the sins of omission.

But this is sometimes not about the things we deliberately manipulate, but the things we choose not to say.

Or the things we say in order to not hurt people’s feelings.

Yes, that was an excellent talk.

My, the coffee here is good.

Yes, it’s always nice to be home in my country.

Yes, I’m so glad you’re running things.

We know what those are, right? Cuz we tell them all the time. And there are lots of reasons why we tell those lies. Not necessarily for our own benefit, sometimes just to grease the social skids. Sometimes, simply as a way of not causing further trouble.

We also live in a world where keeping secrets is a part of how you establish forms of social reciprocity.I tell you something, you tell me something,we are bonded in the things we will no longer tell.

We also know, I would say, for the last sort of 16 months that it is hard to keep secrets on the internet.

You either have to as, you know, some of our journalists friends would suggest,you know, have technology that never connects to the internet or you adopt the strategy of hiding things in plain sight.

I think all of those things are true.

We also know that we’re coming into a period of time where there are a great many services that have existed online and that in some ways appeal to this,whether it’s about Snapchat and Whisper and Secret.

Whether it’s about BitCoin and cryptocurrency, people are clearly trying to rewrite the relationship between disclosure and identity and between digitalness and permanency and all of those things play out in different ways.

But it is the case that no matter where you think you fall on this spectrum,chances are you are doing both of these things.

I have a colleague of mine at Cornell University who studies.What he calls digital deception, excellent phrase.He decided the easiest way to study this was online dating sites.For what will become immediately obvious reasons.He surveyed Americans who are on online dating sites and 100% of Americans admitted to lying in their dating profiles. Now 100% of Americans don’t ever do anything, so that 100% had admitted to lying was really something quite else again.

Men and women lied about different things.Men added about three inches to their height, women shaved 5 pounds off. I want to suggest those aren’t radically different acts, but that’s okay.

Turns out my colleague also discovered that men lie more often, but women get caught less.

I leave you to think about that also.

And of course in a not dissimilar survey when the English were asked only 60% of them said, they were lying.Which means 40% of them were lying about not lying, which is excellent.

So, and it turns out, of course, we’ve been doing this for a really long time.Every major religious tradition in the world has a prescription about lying and a classificatory system of them. Permissible lies, slightly less permissible lies.So this, this rolls into the world of technology, it’s hardly surprising. Because frankly, it’s been in everything else before this.

I mean, you know, whether you want to consider the synthetic radio broadcasts of cricket than the 1930s a lie. Certainly, the use of, you know, the pencil on the tabletop to mimic the sound of willow on leather wasn’t necessarily the truth either.So, this has been ongoing for a long time.

So for those five things, right. Our socialness, our need for community, our need for a purpose bigger than ourselves, a way that we talk about who we are and a way we don’t talk about who we are.

If those are things that are constant, I also think as a set of things that have been in flux for a long time.

And yet, the story we tell is that the current generation of internet technology has changed them all right now. But I actually think that they have been changing for a long time.

And I think they’ve always been impacted by technology, at least the last 250 plus years.

So the technologies in here that I’m particularly interest in are electricity and, and forward them out.

It turns out the first one of these is about reputation. We have worried for a really long time about what other people thought about us. We’ve sometimes called this privacy.We’ve certainly called this trust.

But, you know, for as long as we have lived with other people, one way or another, we have worried what they thought about us.

Now, the possibilities for assessment here are very different than they used to be. We did a study not that long ago. In my lab, where we built our smart set top boxes. And one of the things we had heard from people in our studies was that they were deeply, deeply frustrated by how much time and energy they put updating all their various social media profiles about what they were watching on television.

And we said, oh, we can fix that, we’ll just automate it for you.

Set top box will just tell the television, you know?

Set top box will just tell the internet what you’re watching.

And in multiple countries around the world consumers resoundingly went, no.

Because of course, it became clear that they were not actually telling the truth to the internet about what they were watching on television.Because we all desperately want to be cooler than we are, right?

So we’re telling, you know, the internet we’re watching the things we should be watching as opposed to the crap we’re really watching.Not just simply when you start to talk to people about what it will mean to have smart connected technology in your home where your fridge and your bathroom scales and possibly your washing machine are in dialog with one another.

The first thing consumers imagine is that all those things are gossiping about them. And they want to know what is the nature of the communication that is happening between those objects again about them. And you’re like listen if the fridge is talking to someone,I don’t really think they have an opinion about you.

They’re like I’m sure it does.


So, I think there is a piece here that says that we are perhaps not unsurprisingly, secretly worried about what everything and every one thinks about us.

And part of it is, you know, to riff on the ever delightful Phillip Seymour Hoffman, we’re all just deeply uncool and we desperately wish we weren’t. And we worry about these things. Now some of it’s more serious than that, right? We are also entering an era of unprecedented capacity to recirculate and make sense of the data about us in ways that we couldn’t possibly have anticipated five and ten years ago.

And the capacity for algorithms and companies and analytics to stitch back information about us into new holes and to traffic in those is something quite remarkable.

And how we start to think about regulating that and legislating that and even living with that is a set of questions that we haven’t had to manage on quite the scale before, but it’s not the first time we’ve had these conversations.

When the American government was contemplating rolling out electricity to people’s homes 100 years ago, there was a senate standing committee or basically the moral equivalent of the US. A committee on the House of Congress that took testimony from people about why electrifying homes would be a good idea and why it wouldn’t be.

There are a number of fine women, Lillian Galbraith and Christine Fredrickson wrapped up on one side basically saying listen, if we electrify homes we will liberate women from the drudgery of housework.

Sad.Turned out that didn’t quite happen.

On the other side, there were a bunch of people going.If we electrify homes, we will make women and children vulnerable to predators,because they’ll be able to see that they’re home at night. And in this particular instance, electricity was seen as being a danger because it revealed who we were and what we were doing in our houses.

So this notion of technology making things visible and that visibility having the possibility of assessment, isn’t new.

Who is doing the assessing is always complicated here.

And frankly, we’re sitting at the beginning of what I imagine is a ten year cycle of various governments around the world having a point of view about this.

Whether it’s the EU, who are quite actively engaged in thinking about consumer’s rights in personal data.You know, the right to be forgotten legislation, which has gone under other names.The most Kafkaesque of which was the right to partial obscurity.Slightly different business than the right to be forgotten.

It’s clearly having really interesting kinda, you know, debate around it. And certainly, the consequences of one person’s right to be forgotten appears to be someone else’s sudden erasure and how that gets managed through is deeply kinda complicated.So we have this notion about reputation and privacy and security, but I don’t think that’s new.

Likewise, I think not so new is our incredible ambivalence about how we spend our days and our time and how we engage with content and experiences. I can’t believe I’m about to cite him, but Heidegger back in 1917 wrote an article on boredom in which he lamented the loss of boredom to the ongoing clatter and clatter of new technologies.

So in 1919, he was deeply worried about the appearance of movies and the sort of endless proliferation of things that could preoccupy us and take up our time.

He argued that as human beings, we needed to find a way to be bored more often and that boredom was a direct conduit to creativity. He was arguing that as a philosopher.

It turns out in the last five years,there’s been a great deal of work done in the medical profession that suggests that we actually need to be bored periodically, because of what it does to our cognitive capacity and our brains.

Effectively, when bored, your brain configures itself differently much the way

it configures itself when you have particular kinds of sleep, which we know we need to renew certain kinds of cognitive process,the same is true about being bored.

Now of course, methodologically this is actually really hard.It’s really hard to make people bored, so that you can study their brains and it’s really hard to make them bored well in an MRI machine,cuz that’s always kind of agitating.

But, you know, people kind of got there. And one of the things that became very clear was that boredom is actually this critical, neurological state that we need to pass through and spend more time in.

I’m of a generation in Australia where in my childhood,certainly when we lived in Melbourne and Canberra. My mother would say, in the summertime, just go out there and come back when it’s dark.

And, you know, you’d be going, but mom, I’m bored. Well, you can always mow the lawn.

And suddenly, you weren’t that bored.You could find something else to do.

And, you know, we created all kinds of things with our time. Now, it turns out that was actually significantly important,neurologically speaking.

Some of you have heard me, you know, wax lyric about this before.But with increasingly more studies about this,it turns out that the need to be bored is more prevalent than it’s ever been.

Of course, it’s also very hard when we live in a world of devices that make it palatable for us to give them our attention. Where the response to giving them the attention is constant stimuli. And when frankly, many of us work in worlds where inattention or taking time off is viewed negative, negatively.

I understand those things, but there’s this interesting challenge here. It turns however the other piece of this that is also kinda complicated is our relationship to things that might bore us.

So if you want to think about it this way, we are living in a world of algorithms that deliver up content for us to enjoy and experiences for us to enjoy.


Whether it’s Amazon, Netflix, whatever your local purveyor of content is.

It says, hey, it’s Mark, you’re back.

Here’s some things we think you might like since we last saw you.

And we think you might like them, because they resemble one of a number of things, right? It’s either the same characters, it’s the same plot line. It’s by the same director.It’s some of the actors, it’s in the same place. And then they’re just looking for what is the commonality that kind of works for you, right?

One of the problems with that is that as human beings, we tend towards liking things that are familiar for a really long time. Familiar, familiar, familiar, familiar and then we start to get bored. And we desperately want something to surprise us.

And, you know, anyone who produces television content knows this well.I think there was an arc in the United States where we went through the housewives of New Jersey, Houston, Orange County, Dallas, New York, LA.How many housewives are there in like 2014? The answer was a tremendous number.

But somewhere in that period, people went hmmm, Breaking Bad, Mad Men seem to be very popular.

Hmm. And then there was Game of Thrones,which is clearly not a reality TV show in any way any of us would like to imagine.But is very different in terms of its richness of narrative and it is no surprise that, you know, when episode one, season three was downloadable, that you could actually see a spike in global internet traffic. Mostly, driven by us here in Australia.

Go Australia. Yehey. Go team. But you could actually see the content move around the world, right? And that was partly, because we wanted to be surprised and delighted. But it’s really hard in the world of algorithms to think about how to do that.It’s very easy to write an algorithm that says,how do you mine what everyone has liked before now and find more things like that.

It is a much harder business to say, what is it that will indicate boredom is coming and that there is room for delight and surprise and wonder before they will be more familiar.

And truthfully, one of the things we might want to ponder in this space is that as we live in a world with an increasing number of algorithms, they’re all retrospective.

They all look backwards, right? They all look back what’s right,they all look at what we have done not what we will do. And there’s something kind of vaguely for me unnerving to contemplate a world in, which we never get to reinvent ourselves. Because everything is about what we’ve already done not what we might want to do. And how we think about a world of algorithms that know how to surprise us periodically or delight us or even on the edge of creep us out without going over the edge.

It’s an interesting research and design problem, right? Cuz think about every story you’ve been told about the future of smart connected objects.

The perennial one, I get told is you’re gonna come to a new city. Your phone’s gonna know where you are. It’s gonna know what you like and in my instance, it’s gonna go, Genevieve, we know you’ve been up since 4 a.m. Here is the next coffee close to you, flat white.

Reasonably, well recommended and I would just think that was an excellent thing. It would be something else all together to imagine that same smart connected object going yeah, yeah, yeah.

We know you want a coffee and there will be one momentarily. But there’s this piece of public art that transcendent and you should see it, cuz it will make you think it will move you or make you cry and then you can have coffee.

Imagining what technology would look like that could deliver that is a very different thought exercise about what it might mean to manage a world where we need to be periodically surprised.

I don’t think I’d want a device that did that every day, that would become irritating. But the notion that once in a while, your devices might play on a different landscape is a interesting thing to contemplate, right?

And these notion of boredom and surprise and delight runs through the last 300 years of technological innovation. Television has been something that has served up both ends of this spectrum. When we talked about the early history of electricity, it was very much in the space of here was a technology of delight and wonder and surprise before it became in some ways, deeply familiar.

But for my great grandmother in the, inner Melbourne suburbs of, you know, Cremorne in the early part of the last century.

She would still walk in and out of rooms when I was a little girl turning on the light and going, light, dark, light, dark and I’m like, really?

You’re like 80 and she said, it was great. And I’m like okay, so there is something there about what it is that technology might deliver to us.

And where it has sat in the spectrum that is,I would say, persistent and long standing. It also turns out one of the things that we always have this remarkable ambivalence about is being different or being the same.

I’d say, over the last ten years this story has played out around things like globalization and localization.

Is the internet making us more global?

Is the internet making us more local?

Is technology making us all like everyone else, because we are all consuming the same stuff? Or are we being robustly different, because we are consuming different stuff or the same stuff in a different way?

This conversation amazingly long standing when the first boats started regularly trafficking between the United States and Europe.There were many conversations that went on in Europe about what it meant that there were now all these other goods and services and what was that gonna make people like.

And what did that mean about us and people were all moving around was,was this kind of loss of distinctive cultural identity.

It turns out we have worried for a very long time about what makes us not like other people and like other people. And I don’t mean in the sense of despise and have distasteful, but I mean in the sense of resemblance.

Because it turns out one of the strongest things about most cultures is our boundary maintenance activity. How do we tell the difference between ourselves and others? And we have used all manner of technologies to signal that.Some of it not entirely accidental, but hardly deliberate and the fact that we drive on the other side of the road here is a way we signal difference.

I’m not sure that it was necessary intended to mean we’re not like everyone else around us.

Same with electrical voltage, same with certain kinds of standards.

I think it’s certainly the case around certain kinds of technology standards that there are ways of managing out differences and similarities.

But, you know, one of the things that we are abidingly,thus is that we want to be different from one another.We want to have some form of difference and we imagine that technology will help us do that.

By the same token, we’ve also written on the top of many technologies. Particularly, the internet that it would make us all the same.


That there would be a single internet and that it would carry with it values of information wanting to be free and of democracy.And the reality is, in 2014, there are many Internets on the planet now.

They are configured differently, they have different payment structures,different information moves on them. They are regulated in different ways and not all of them embody the values that, you know, the ARPA / DARPANET people imagined. All that, you know, Kevin Kelly and Steward Brand hoped for.

Cuz the reality here is that there is always this tension between everyone wanting to have a shared set of values and people desperately wanted to be different from one another. It’s also the case that for as long as there have been technologies of various kinds.

I think the last 500 years, we have radically shaped our notions about time. When clocks were first coming into existence 500 years ago in the West at least, they stabilized something that had been profoundly local and fluid and flexible.

Once you had a clock or at least you could hear the bells go,you knew that time was now a thing fixed in place. It was noon, it was evening prayer, it was morning prayer. And we had those kind of distinctions.

When electricity came along, we had a really weird moment of relating to how time worked right, things started to be different.You could make night into day. Things that were once in some ways un-goable became places you could go and things you could do differently.

It turned out that had consequences for us physically about our sleep patterns and about changing ideas of about how to sleep.

And it turns out we’ve seen something not dissimilar happen as the internet in particular mobile devices have heated up in our lives.

I live in a world where I work with people who are building the next generation of technology.And that technology works best when it is constantly connected to power and content and the network.

It’s all very happy.

All the mobile devices in your world are very happy to have lots of little bars on them and the battery is full.

Turns out as human beings, we function infinitely better when we are periodically disconnected from all of that stuff.

You know, we have major world religions that tell us this. We have the Sabbath, we have the day on which God rested. We have Lent, we have Ramadan. We have festivals and periods of time where we’re in some ways, instructed to think differently about space and time.

But we’re living in a moment where the devices around us don’t know that. And what it means to think about teaching your device that you’d like to be asleep or not connected is actually quite hard.

There have been a series of, you know, moderately successful apps in this space mostly in the United States.

A lovely one mostly funny, because of the comments on its application page that turns your iPhone into a brick for like 30 minutes at a time.

The comments usually like, but I can’t turn my iPhone back on.

Yes, that was the point.

People kinda working it through right.

And the fact that, you know, last summer the company’s are both covers of both Fast Company and Wired Magazine talked about digital detoxing oflike spending either a month offline, a weekend offline.

There was a whole move in silicon valley this August to have analog August,stunningly unsuccessful. But it’s an interesting thing for people to be aiming towards. I remember, 10 years ago when the previous pope talked about giving up SMS for lent complicated in so many ways. He’s relented down to just a weekend.Cuz that was just too much to ask.

But I think there’s something here about how people fill time and how we think about what it means to imagine establishing a different kind of control over the hold our devices have on us in the way they structure our time.

And I’ve seen multiple moves in this space that are interesting. As a number of companies in France, Germany who in the last six months have moved to turning off their email servers at 5 o’clock on a Friday afternoon and not turning them on until 9 a.m.on a Monday morning, there is no email, which is fascinating.

And they don’t let you take your devices home,cuz they discovered that they actually discovered that people are more productive if they had a whole weekend off, who knew?

We’ve seen similar moves in other places. I think there are certainly moves I have seen on the con,sort of the homefront, the consumer side with people thinking differently about,

Do computational devices live in the bedroom?

Do you take them on vacation, and on holidays?

What’s the debate about how those things function?

This is clearly a space that we are still struggling as both, I would say,individuals, communities and families and countries to think about what is the relationship we want here.

But there is something about what it means to be able to feel time and time’s passage and to understand that it’s not all the same thing.

That turns out to be kinda critically important and an interesting, I would say, area for exploration.

And last but by no means least I often get asked what I think about the singularity and Ray Kurzweil’s notion that there will be a moment, it’s always perspective. Somewhere over the time horizon, will, will just be uploaded and that’ll be it.And we certainly talk a great deal in use cases about new technologies,about what it will mean to have technology that records everything that you’ve ever done in full living color and gives you access to it.

And there are many of us I am sure, who have thought about wouldn’t it be nice if there was a device that would tell me who that person was that’s talking to me and how I know them. Cuz we’ve all had that moment going, no idea who you are, but it’s so nice that you’re still talking.

It turns out however, that one of the things about human beings and we have had debates about this for quite some time is that we actually want not to always be remembered.

For cultures that desperately seek certain forms of immortality and certain kinds of, you know, remembrance. It turns out we also want to have the capacity to not be remembered. Psychologically, we need to have the capacity to forget.

If you remembered everything you’d ever said or ever been said to you, it is hard not to imagine that might make you crazy and not in a good way, mostly in a very bad way.

And there is something extraordinary about a promise that the technology delivers, that we will never be forgotten.

That everything you ever did and ever said and was said to you would be retrievable, isn’t necessarily the picture of a world we want to inhabit.

Cuz it turns out one of the things about being human is we actually want to be forgotten, cuz it gives us the possibility of being forgiven and of reinventing ourselves.

And those are hard things to thread through a world where many things are captured in many digital forms, right?

But what is the promise here that we are making about the societies we want to live in and what are the commitments we might need to make to ourselves, right?

This is not about the right to be forgotten or partial obscurity. This is something slightly more, I think significant. But about what it is that we want for ourselves and in a world of technology. And my argument here is I think that we want the ability to reinvent ourselves. And it’s hard to do that in the world that we are heading towards.

So where does that leave us?


I think, what is fascinating to me, having spent 15 years in Silicon Valley in the middle of all of the conversations about what the future will be and about many of the build outs about what that future will be.

About all the ways in which we are seduced by the conversation that says;

Everything is different.

Everything is different in 2014 than it was in 2000.

Everything is different in 2000 than it was in 1990.

Oh, it’s all different than it was in 1996.

And the reality is there are many technologies that are new, many that are novel, many that we will not remember the names of three and five years from now that preoccupy us all right now.

What is also the reality is that there are things that make us human,there are things that have made us human for an incredibly long time that move really slowly. We can’t say, glacially anymore in a world of climate change not that apparently we believe it here, but nonetheless. There seem to be things that are moving very slowly.

And that in fact, the way to think about it in my mind is that there are somethings about what makes us human that are very stable and some things that make us human that have been in flux forever or at least just long as one might want to contemplate.

It’s also my argument here that if you want to make a successful technology aiming to the things that have been stable is always a winner.

Big, longstanding technologies of the arcs of our lifetime have aimed here and been successful and technologies that play to one of those things usually endure.

However, and I think as that of being kind of the space of innovation in some ways, right? The side of things that is in flux, I think that is the space where there is room for flashes of sudden brilliance.

If you can be the person to crack the code in one of these spaces or to find a new way of thinking about it or a new approach to that set of problems or a new way of assuaging those anxieties.

There is extraordinary work to be done there.

It’s in some ways easy to say, people care about friends and family, so we’re just go build things that let you have more friends.

Okay, good.

That’s excellent.

What it would mean to think about crafting a set of next generation algorithms that deliver, delight and surprise and wonder is a very different kind of project.

It’s different intellectual work.

It’s different design work.

It’s different regulatory work.

And for me, what I think about what are the conversations I want to have us have over the next ten years?

I would like to have conversations on both sides of this divide here, all right?

I would like us to acknowledge that are things about being human in multiple cultural context that are remarkably stable.

And I also would love us to acknowledge that there are things that aren’t changed by the internet.

They’ve been changed by electricity and train travel and all of the other things before it.But that those are places where our intellectual energy, our creative talents could be well spent, because there are things there that are genuinely hard.

They are places where the opportunity to delight and surprise and deliver.

For me, you know, in some ways the most important thing about new technology deliver magic or the possibility of magic.

For me, I think they sit in both places.

But if I were to have one request, it would be that someone go tackle some of those things on the flux column, because I think there are huge opportunities there.

And places where there is room for different sorts of thinking and different kinds of imagination.

And it’s not just as simple as saying well technology, you know, the internet.

Makes us think about privacy, privacy genie is out of the bottle. We’ve all moved on, cuz the reality is that isn’t true.

And the reality is there are many interesting innovations and inventions and opportunities there for us to explore. But ultimately for me, it’s also about being able to be a little bit critical about the technologies that live in our lives.

How is it that we can maintain both a kind of optimism about the opportunities they deliver, but also a kind of critical eye to both the discourse that says, everything is different and everything will be delightful and democratic with the reality of the fact that these technologies were made by us.

And as a result they will encode all of our preoccupations and biases and in some ways blind spots.

And that we have an obligation as human beings, as citizens, as builders, as designers, as creators to make sure we’re asking the harder questions and doing the hard work.

Cuz ultimately, those are the, in some ways, the things that matter most.

And so with that I’m gonna stop and say, thank you.

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Thoroughly enjoyed Web Directions — met some great people, heard some inspiring presenters and added a whole bunch of things to my to-do list.

Joel Roberts Web Developer