Being Online When the Internet Can Self-Reflect
Words by Annelise Keestra
Illustrations by Pavel Mishkin
The BBC and Internet Age Media are researching how to teach skills in self-control in the age of device and online-led media. Annelise Keestra was invited to go along for the ride.
Andrés Colmenares and Lucy Rojas are the brilliant minds behind the Barcelona-based laboratory Internet Age Media (IAM). For the last couple of years, they’ve been looking at the future of contemporary societies, including education, art, media, politics and power, science, psychology and philosophy, through the lens of technology and internet cultures.
Their annual IAM Weekend event facilitates conversations and connects like-minded people from around the globe. It’s attended by hundreds of inspiring speakers and guests who share opinions, challenges, thoughts and critical optimism in real life. Their research-specific ‘creative jams’ invite partner institutions and guests from different disciplines to come together for a couple of days to discuss and prototype future-faced, sometimes speculative, concepts in response to a given challenge.
For the April 2018 IAM Weekend, in Barcelona, I was invited to take part in a creative jam with the BBC. Based on the BBC research project Ethical Experiences and led by Kate Coughlan, head of audience planning, and Emily Hawes, senior audience planner, the challenge was to prototype design solutions to encourage healthier behaviours towards media, today and tomorrow, with a focus on digital media and devices.
“We have a needs model at the BBC, which we use to understand what people might need to get from media,” explains Coughlan. “It’s four basic things: mood management, social connection, learning discovery and ability and independence. We asked a media psychologist to look at digital online media and say whether or not the contents, and its design, would help achieve these needs. What we found was that 75 percent of the provocations of your phone are prompted by the phone. That is so extreme!”
“On the positive side, if you’re using social media as a tool to do something you intend to do, like keep in touch with somebody or promote your business, people reported it as being a positive outcome. Whereas if they just felt they were scrolling, comparing themselves to others, not being able to keep up with life, feeling a ‘fear of missing out’, it was on the negative side. You don’t feel connected to these people, you don’t sense the together, you just feel the alone.” explains Coughlan.
“This is a piece of the puzzle we haven’t been able to prove or disprove,” she says. “But the heart of the hypothesis is that by being responsive to your phone, by being interrupted, responding to notifications, feeling like the world is happening somewhere else and your attention is being taken to it, basically we are being trained into having extrinsic motivations rather than intrinsic.”
The interesting and potentially dangerous implication of this shift in motivation relates to our changing workforce. “If you look at where the future of work is heading, manual tasks are going to be undertaken by more and more automated systems and our creativity will be the thing that we are going to increasingly need to use,” explains Hawes. “We need to make sure we are training and exercising our brains the right way. [But] if you’re always unconsciously training it to respond to every little distraction, you can’t.”
By the end of 2017, the BBC team had finished their research. “We had all the research material but the research obviously only tells you so much,” Coughlan recalls. “We believed it, but what do we do with it?” The pair knew they needed to take their research to practical concept, as well as give people the tools to understand their own experiences and their impact. “It’s one of the reasons we wanted to work with Andrés and Lucy from Internet Age Media.” With the theme for the 2018 IAM Weekend being ‘Subversion of Paradoxes’, the pair were in luck. “[It was] uncanny because that’s what we are talking about!”
The ethical experiences creative jam was attended by a diverse crew of problem solvers: designers, an art critic, a photographer, a journalist, a futurologist, and some members of the research and digital teams at the BBC including Coughlan and Hawes. We were eager, ready and willing to tackle the issue, which was to build on the BBC’s research and quickly explore future scenarios of healthy behaviours for society’s digital devices, social media and general online media usage.
With a focus on the human and the social, we highlighted the fact that our devices are using us, rather than us using them. Our aim then became about drafting solutions to empower the user, using current or speculative technologies. Following events like Trump’s election and the Brexit referendum, we know that the internet has started to ‘self-reflect’ and we have started to hear more about the concept of ‘filter bubbles’. These virtual ‘zones’ are driven by algorithms, likely to keep pushing our consumption of content with cultural and ideological concepts we already agree with. These zones also allow opportunities to be part of an online community of like-minded people. We realised that these filter bubbles didn’t need to burst, but that people need to be given the tools to understand how the system is operating in the background.