Talking to CBC Spark About Emotion and Technology by Scott Smith

British Deputy PM Nick Clegg looking algorithmically sad. Image: Dan Williams.

British Deputy PM Nick Clegg looking algorithmically sad. Image: Dan Williams.

Last week's edition of Spark, the technology and culture radio show and podcast of Canadian broadcaster CBC, featured a segment on the "Internet of Emotions," where I was a guest. Spurred by my Thingscon talk in Amsterdam last November, in my chat with host Nora Young (play below), I talked about what I find interesting about the use of personal technology to monitor and "interpret" our emotional state, the feasibility and desirability of doing so. We discussed the role of ethics, the slipperiness of "feelings" in a digital construct, and under what conditions monitoring emotions through something like a smartphone or home listening device could be useful, or problematic.

This isn't an academic discussion. Businesses are chafing to apply sentiment-reading technology as a means of "knowing" their customers more intimately—computational empathy, if you will. Hospitals and insurers are curious not only about your emotional state during treatment, but even if you've sounded stressed just trying to get an appointment to see a doctor. Your bank might want to check how you feel while applying for a credit card, or a soda company send you a treat to "cheer you up". Backing what sounds like futuristic technology into the current arms race around data analytics, already happening, leads us into "emotional credit score" territory quite quickly, for example. Or Amazon offering you product "purchased by people who feel like you do now". 

We're only scratching the surface of this topic, and I plan to stay with it. Your views and feedback, as always, are welcome. Tell us how you feel.  

Language, Power and the Future by Scott Smith

Are you here to help me or kill me?                            Image: Flickr/David Rodriguez Martin

Are you here to help me or kill me?                            Image: Flickr/David Rodriguez Martin

I wrote a piece for Quartz this past week about an issue that's been on my mind for a while: our growing inexactitude with language at a time when complexity and ambiguity are also increasing. The result is a more and more dense fog of confusion just when we need clarity of vision(s).

I picked on public use of the words "hacker," "drone," "algorithm," and "robot," but the list could have gone on and on. Phenomena such as search-engine optimization, the mad scramble for attention by a wider array of media, and an overall authority vacuum make it harder and harder to get, take, or use the time needed to properly define words and topics that are of major consequence. 

From the piece:

But “hackers,” “algorithms,” and to some extent “robots,” sit behind metaphorical — or actual — closed doors, where obscurity can benefit those who would like to use these terms, or exercise the realities behind them to their own benefit, though perhaps not to ours. We need better definitions, and more exact words, to talk about these things because, frankly, these particular examples are part of a larger landscape of “actors” which will define how we live in coming years, alongside other ambiguous terms like “terrorist,” or “immigrant,” about which clear discourse will only become more important.

As Rafael Osio Cabrices pointed out, this problem is compounded by the role English plays as a central, global language of technology and business, leaving other languages and cultures to deal with the semantic messes we create. The result? We stumble toward uncertain futures without a clear voice.

Thanks for the feedback and kind comments on this piece. I'm sure I'll come back to this theme again—it doesn't appear to be going anywhere soon.