Domesticate technology and bring it into our lives

Nicolas Nova is an interface design researcher. He teaches at the Geneva School of Art and Design and also co-founded the Near Future Laboratory - the innovation and foresight agency.

"Smartphones are a hybridization of humankind and technology and are an indication of a new relationship with machines that fluidifies communication."

Fascinated by our relationship with the many technological objects that have erupted into our daily lives, he launched a team research program called “Curious Rituals“, where he lists and analyses these strange new gestural patterns. He explains what such behaviors say about our relationship with digital technology, but also with our physical environment and other people.

What was your goal in studying our day to day relationship with digital interfaces? Why rituals?

The goal was to understand how digital uses and practices fit with users’ bodies, users’ gestures, and the way they talk about them. A computer, a smartphone, a robot, sensors: even if the general logic of these objects is understood, it is still a little strange for the general public, it works much like black boxes. We therefore saw that habits have been created, almost rituals in the anthropological sense of the term – that is to say a collective action repeatedly performed that also has a symbolic dimension. Beyond that, we found that technology can serve as a way of projecting meanings that are far from the actual function of these devices.

What form do these “Curious Rituals” take?

In concrete terms, they are seen in the form of people shaking their phones when they aren’t working, blowing into their USB connector, raising their arms because they imagine they will capture their smartphone network better, etc. But these rituals can also be seen in the gestures such as caressing your laptop, giving it a name, turning your mobile over in your hands to de-stress as you would with a pack of cigarettes. Basically, I see it as a way of domesticating technology to make it part of our lives.

What are the most common digital-related gestures?

Holding a smartphone as if it were a kind of appendage, an extension of the body, with a somewhat nervous compulsion to check emails or scroll down, it’s quite remarkable. Selfies (picture of oneself taken with a mobile phone), too, are quite remarkable – as is swiping which is the gesture for Tinder (mobile dating app), as well as for moving very quickly from one image to another or from one lot of content to another. You also see people articulating sentences in a somewhat mechanical way for Siri (virtual assistant with voice command on mobiles) – certainly not a gesture, but a significant behavior nonetheless.

To what extent has digital technology changed people’s lives? What does it reconfigure in our way of being, in our relationship with other people?

For many users, their smartphone is a very advanced form of hybridization of humankind and technology. It is not just a means of making communication more fluid – the smartphone’s obvious contribution. It is also a way of guiding our everyday behaviors. For example, quantified self apps (self-measurement tools, for example measuring the number of steps taken in a day) give us information about ourselves, but also manage us, give us suggestions. This leads to us reconfiguring our private lives, asking ourselves about the behaviors we would like to adopt, or – another issue – about what we want or don’t want to share with other people. Together this upsets the barriers relating to sociability, which until now were compartmentalized differently, and consequently leads us to redefining the barriers between our public life, private life and this intermediate space that has emerged along with digital technology.

Does digital also include the issue of temporality?

It is true that in studies of the uses of technologies, users mention a feeling of acceleration. But when we dig into it in more detail, comparing, for example, interviews and observations, we see that it is more a question of attention than of temporality. Historically, attention is related to something profound: being free of distraction for a long time to watch a movie, read a book or contemplate a landscape. With the advent of the very frequent use of digital technology (a computer that can launch several applications simultaneously, smartphones, notifications, instant messaging), another form of attention appears that is split. It feels like you can’t see a whole movie any more. At the same time, as soon as we hear something interesting, when we can’t remember a name for example, we go straight to Wikipedia. It is a change that cannot be merely reduced to being a loss of attention. And splitting our attention does give some people a feeling of acceleration, linked to a form of information bulimia.

We often hear about the “disadvantages” of digital technology in our everyday lives. But what are the benefits?

Digital technologies make things visible that were not visible before. They make it possible to refine our knowledge of places, people, contents and events for example. They facilitate contact between people whose interests are similar to ours, whether professional, friendship based, or even intimate. Finally, and this is the promise of Big Data, accumulating data over time gives a better understanding of phenomena, health issues and organizational optimization. But, despite the potential benefit of these different contributions, we do realize that there are also risks involved.

That being said, thanks to all these changes, thanks to digital technology a deeper relationship to others, and to our environment is being created. And not only by typing on keyboards, since all kinds of interfaces (vocal, gestural, etc.) allow us to extend our bodies and our intellects. And that is perhaps the main benefit. As anthropology has clearly shown, human beings create technical objects, and these in turn change them. This coevolution is absolutely fascinating.

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