Sleepwalking into the future

In an era where app-creators and developers are the new rock-stars, it's critical that we keep questioning the social impacts of the technology we create, warns Angela Oguntala

When you think about the future, what do you see? I see flying cars, robot servants, and holidays on space habitats. This vision has been shaped by the society I live in and the culture I consume – by the dystopia of Gattaca and the optimism of The Jetsons.

It’s a question Angela Oguntala thinks we should be spending more time on. Originally from Philadelphia, Oguntala is an alumna of the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design (CIID) and works, as she puts it, across design and future studies. This work has seen her head the Innovation Lab at Eskild Hansen and in 2014 was named one of 27 Future Innovators by Ars Electronica.

Oguntala wants to challenge our assumptions and get us to recognise our biases, whether they be individual or societal. This approach influences her choice of projects, which tend to touch on the relationship between our physical form, society and technology.

One such project was Momentum, in which she sought to explore self-perception and societal perceptions of how people perform and behave in highly public and often stressful situations. She attached biosensors and probes to her subjects, and conducted extensive interviews to monitor how their bodies and minds responded to these situations.

“I created a programme to analyse different bodily and behavioural aspects and to provide real-time feedback to people in these moments. The end goal was to create a feedback loop to understand how we present ourselves in public situations, how we reflect on these situations afterwards, and what that means for our sense of self and identity.”

Oguntala conducted around 80 experiments with different speakers, who received real-time haptic and other sensory feedback through wearable technologies such as a body band that collected bodily diagnostics like breath, sweat, and heart rate. Other devices would blur out the speaker’s view of the audience based on the way their body was reacting to the event.

Afterward, people could review their performance through recorded videos overlaid with their biometrics and speech patterns to reconcile the way they actually appeared with the way they thought they appeared.

“It’s known that people who behave in a certain way – cool, calm, collected and masculine – are perceived as more intelligent and competent. This was also supported in my data, even down to the fact that people who spoke in a deeper voice were perceived as more trustworthy and more intelligent,” says Oguntala, adding that the experiment demonstrated the human predisposition for conformity – both conscious and unconscious.

“We look at archetypally successful people, whether it’s a slick talking, uber-confident ‘Brad’ from corporate America or a hyperactive start-up whiz kid, and we emulate them. But in the process, we reinforce the message that if we show anything innately human, like unpredictability, irrationality, doubt, nervousness, emotionality, then we are somehow much less intelligent or competent.”

Fear Experiment: 1 from Angela Oguntala on Vimeo.

Recognising bias
Oguntala says Momentum was a “soft and behavioural” exploration, and wasn’t designed to result in any scientific conclusions. But it did prove useful in demonstrating Western social norms and how they limit our ability to listen to different types of people.

The fact is that we are biased, and as a result, our technology will be too. But making that case is not always easy in scientific and tech communities.

“When it comes to technology or design, unbridled techno-optimism often prevails. We place a lot of faith in human reason, and often don’t fully take into account how irrational, unpredictable, vulnerable and strange we can be. I have experienced that some of my colleagues in this space can take a great deal of offence when you use a platform at a conference to say that algorithms and data sets can be biased, that they represent systemic biases that are already in the world,” says Oguntala.

“There are a lot of people who get very angry with that, who take it as a personal criticism, who don’t think their research would be biased. But I don’t believe anyone’s doing it deliberately; I don’t think they’re evil. The only way we are going to move beyond bias is by acknowledging that it pervades our everyday lives. If we don’t, it will just fester and continue to influence our technological and policy decisions.”

Oguntala’s experience is that an attempt to address the biases embedded in the way we develop technology often gets confused with an attack on the need for technological developments. But the two issues are separate, she argues.

“I am incredibly interested in and work with emerging technologies and the cycle of culture to technology and technology to culture. But I do think that we need to reflect on it and be honest about how the cycle takes place. Right now, a growing subset of those in charge tend to have a techno-optimistic view. As their agendas are pushed forward, we will need to build in frequent pauses in our society to reflect on whether technology and efficiency is always the solution. Robots and algorithms are increasingly making decisions for us and making our lives more efficient, but can we trust machines to always make the right decisions for everyone?”

Photo: Rasmus Degnbol

Photo: Rasmus Degnbol

Makers and start-ups
But it’s not just technological leaders that may suffer from a lack of critical reflection on the social and cultural effects of technology on society. In recent years, the rise of cheap hardware, the ubiquity of smart phones, and cheap manufacturing technologies have opened up technological development to the masses.

On the one hand, it has fostered a thriving ‘maker’ community that uses technology such as sensors and 3D printers to create whatever they can imagine. The increasingly lucrative mobile app market continues to foster a ‘start-up’ culture that can turn people into billionaires overnight. Take the photo-messaging app Snapchat, for example, which turned down a four billion dollar takeover from Facebook in 2013, just two years after its initial launch.

“You can be seen as a naysayer in some communities across design and technology if you question the ambition to build and make. I do believe in making for fun, or just for the spirit of seeing if and how we could make something, you know, like the PancakeBot which takes your drawings and makes pancakes out of them…or the myriad of weekend hackathons where people come together to collaborate and experiment. But that’s different.

“I just think that if we are building a solution for or with people, then there should be some level of discussion and reflection about the emotions and philosophy imbued in the solution. We just have to accept that we bring all of our baggage with us, and we need to put forth and outline what our worldviews are. That would be a great first step, but some people have a difficult time accepting that first step, because you have to criticise some of the baggage you come with and the biases and filters you use.”

The start-up community, she argues, is particularly prone to focussing too heavily on the eventual payoff, rather than on what the possible social impact of their products could be.

“There’s a fever pitch in the start-up community, which I belong to. I go to loads of events and there seems to be this frantic hustle and hype, where the focus is on the quick flip. It’s glamorous, because we’ve seen people come out of nowhere who are nobodies one day and rock stars the next. People are enticed by this get-rich-quick approach, and I think we shouldn’t be blinded by that. By now I had hoped we would have had a come-to-Jesus moment and have a more open discussion about how to structure this new reality, but I don’t think we are going to have that moment because the prospects are so glamorous.”

Oguntala argues that our educational system is somewhat to blame for the lack of reflection. While we are encouraged to specialise and find a niche in which to work, we end up lacking a broader understanding of the way the world works.

“We have so many more opportunities to create change now than ever before, but we have to ask why we are doing it, who we are doing it for, what are the associated risks, how do we negotiate these risks, and what do our decisions say about us. I think it would be great to pair technical and engineering courses with a course on science and technology studies, because right now academia doesn’t reflect the real world, where everything is connected. We need to learn how to think consequentially and systemically about the larger socio-cultural, political, economic and environmental consequences of our decisions.”

Future values
Though teaching, workshops, and consulting, Oguntala works with students and organizations to think and feel through the consequences of technology and the types of possible futures they’d like to create, as well as the ones they’d like to avoid.

“What’s interesting is that you don’t need to start at a place of extreme knowledge. You’d be surprised how people can think through the different consequences just using their life experiences, then build connections between the different impacts. For example, what would be the impact in the developing world of a breast pump that introduces vitamins? A lot of the impacts would require doing a bit of research, but most of the time they can come up with scenarios just by thinking how their family would be impacted by the new technology.”

Thinking through the consequences of technologies can also help identify possible scenarios where the technology works against our values. The rise of the automobile took place within the capitalist pursuit of individual freedom. When there were few cars on the road, this freedom may have existed. But what freedoms are the residents of smoggy and congested major cities around the world missing out on because we built cities to accommodate cars, and not mass transport?

But would car culture have developed if Western values weren’t so individualistic? Perhaps not. Technology isn’t neutral, but because what we acknowledge as technological progress started in the West, we are often blind to how it is imbued with our myths and language. As the peoples of the world become increasingly developed and capable of finding their own solutions, Oguntala argues, our approach will no longer hold a monopoly.

“The West has exported its ideas and its approach to life to the rest of the world for decades. That worked for a period of time, but it doesn’t work any more. Developing countries are now starting to see returns on solutions they created in their own likeness and developed out of their own history, traditions and knowledge,” says Oguntala.

“A Nigerian writing science fiction would tell very different stories to us about how artificial intelligence would affect a community. As a result, the technology they develop based on these stories would be built and behave differently. Science fiction has long been written outside the West, but it’s been given wider access and accolades probably only in the past 5-10 years. There is more and more speculative literature being published in the developing world, where people are imagining different types of futures.”

Oguntala points out that the West has already been influenced by technologies that were created to address the different needs in developing countries.

“We often fail to realise that the technological solutions that are created in developing countries can benefit us. Take mobile payment systems. Ten years ago, few people in Kenya had bank accounts, but they still needed a way to send money to family members that lived far away and to pay school fees. So they started using mobile airtime as a mode of money transfer. Kenya became a pioneer in the mobile money market this way. My mother-in-law pays for everything with MobilePay. That was inspired by how Kenyans live and their vision for the future.”

Developing countries are no longer following the West’s trajectory of development, and instead they are leapfrogging ahead. Oguntala argues that this is an empowering process for these countries, which are often criticised for investing in technological innovation over poverty reduction.

“Many developing countries such as Ethiopia and Bangladesh have space programmes, but people are incredulous that these countries aren’t spending all of their resources on directly tackling poverty instead. And sure, there’s a conversation and a cost-benefit analysis of some sort to be explored in there. But I think it’s a conversation that is much more layered and complex than the one we have now, which often centres on whether or not poor countries should have the audacity to dream and to allocate resources in this way.”

Ogunatala argues that it is a valid ambition of developing countries to be more self-sustaining and to gain insight into a range of issues that can directly impact their economic prospects. Ethiopia, for example, is looking to boost their local agriculture and communication industries with their space program.

“It’s not far-fetched to think we could learn from their research and from their programmes. Look at India, which launched a Mars probe for a fraction of the budget the European Space Agency and NASA spent. And India continues to reap substantial benefits from their program, both economic and life-saving – weather-monitoring systems have provided accurate early warnings for extreme weather events in regions where such events would have previously killed thousands.”

Back in the West, disruptive technologies are upending the status quo. While Uber and Airbnb offer consumers cheap and reliable services, their long-term impact on the labour market and economy have yet to be fully appreciated.

In the meantime, increasingly powerful recommendation bots control what we read and watch. Behind the scenes, highly-educated graduates fine tune these algorithms to make our lives run more smoothly. But Oguntala wonders whether a smarter computer is really what we need to solve the problems facing the West and the world.

“I am anxious about the future. I’m not fearful, but it’s definitely going to be interesting.” M

Correction: In the original print version of this article, we incorrectly wrote that Angela Oguntala is still head of the Innovation Lab at Eskild Hansen. She is no longer working there.

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By Peter Stanners

Co-founder and Editor-in-chief. Occasional photographer.

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