Jessi Baker

Designer & technologist

Jessi Baker is a designer & technologist experimenting with ideas for the future of the Internet and the future of branding. She works as an interaction design creative + technology strategist, whilst being obsessed with open data and the emerging Internet of Things and their impact on advertising and choice... read more

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Designing Empathy into an Open Internet of Things

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?” David Foster Wallace

The future of mobile is ubiquitous. Paired connected devices and other niche hardware are starting to define the first form of a physical Internet - the emerging ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT). CES saw the arrival of an Internet connected fork to add to the already extensive list of things to have blurred the boundaries of ‘online’ and ‘offline’ recently. However, the Internet of Things vision doesn’t only render us with a plethora of talking gadgets, but part of a connected sensory network woven into the fabric of our material world with interactions no longer confined to a screen.

Through sensing, transmitting and responding the Internet of Things can gather environmental data at a grassroots level, informing and affecting how we behave as a society. In the wake of the Fukushima disaster inexpensive Geiger counters provided crowd-sourced monitoring of the radiation levels over Japan with previously unachievable granularity. Safecast collated individually collected data using Cosm to form a map of live radiation levels. Cosm is an example of one of many emerging platforms for connected objects to “broker sensory data” allowing users to collect and share data from the rising number of environmental sensors all over the world and develop their own data visualisation tools.

Mobile connectivity has increased our ability to make in-situ informed choices about many things and through the Internet of Things, from Withings wifi scales to the Nike Fuelband, our bodies and our actions are becoming evermore quantified informing those in-situ choices. The environmental and ethical implications of our daily decisions are often hidden from us. However in a world of quantified selves, in an increasingly quantified planet, full of quantified things the implications of everything we do becomes increasingly measured and socially benchmarked. It is possible for our decisions to be informed and calibrated to reflect our true values. To do this the quantified repercussions of our choices must become transparent.

The interface is our medium for decision-making and “you can only choose from that which you are presented” (Vilem Fluser). Introducing empathy into everyday decision-making allows us to embody our values in those data driven decisions. One demonstration of this, The Natural Fuse project (Usman Haque), used a network of plants to offset the carbon footprint of the energy used in an electric lighting system. Haque replaced the on/off switch with a selfless/selfish switch: “If people cooperate on energy expenditure then the plants thrive (and everyone may use more energy); but if they don’t then the network starts to kill plants, thus diminishing the network’s electricity capacity.”

A prerequisite of informed, holistic decision-making systems like Natural Fuse is open data. I was part of the group in London that drafted the Open IoT Bill of Rights in June 2012. We attempted to carve out a consensus-based approach to handling data, focused around the idea that individuals should “own the data they (or their ‘things’) create.” Without such rights in place, in a world of pervasive sensing and responding, data being controlled by a monopolising entity becomes not only problematic, but also unconstructive to informed decision-making, the very reason we are often collecting the data. 

The mobile technology of tomorrow may be real-time, always on and algorithm driven in it’s characteristics, but there is a real opportunity to design, create and promote open, empathetic systems allowing the Internet and connectedness to not only empower us to act as a global society, but to embed this in our every action, forging more than communication, but empathetic, social connections, between us, our lives and actions and other people, societies and environments.

This article was published in the MLOVE book for Mobile World Congress 2013. My talk from MLOVE 2012 on the same topic can be found here


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