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Seams: Private and Public in Digital Lives

Last Tuesday night I was fortunate enough to hear Genevieve Bell, anthropologist, future-thinker, and director of Intel Corporation’s Interaction and Experience Research, speak. It was a really compelling talk with lots of big thoughts. There was a small one I wanted to pick up on, though: in a discussion about seamless technology integration, Bell told an anecdote to illustrate how people always think they want seamless technology when in actual fact they usually don’t. In this story, someone took a photo of some company-sensitive information on their smartphone in order to email it to other employees as follow-up to a meeting. So far, so good. But this smartphone was set to sync all photos to an account shared with that person’s partner…who happened to work at one of their company’s biggest competitors.

Bell’s point was that there is this illusion that we want this seamless integration of all of our devices (or all of our data), when in fact quite a lot of it we’d rather preserve behind a barrier. What we actually want is something that knows the difference, which isn’t currently what is being designed.

But my interest in this was more the language Bell used to describe this desire for a non-seamless world. Often this compartmentalisation is couched in the language of consent: do you consent to give your details to a service provider, when and how often do you need to authenticate your account, what levels of consent have you provided to do with your data?

I don’t know about you, but in the world we’re in now, I sometimes think the word ‘consent’ has become reduced to its function in discussions about sexuality. There are all kinds of consent, but discussion and debate around this word crops up most frequently in discussions about sex, the body, personal agency, personal responsibility, public and private, gender… the weightiest, most fraught topics in our lives.

In many ways consent about personal data and information (in which I include anything that could be used to identify you: photos, purchase histories, your geolocation, etc) falls squarely in the category of weighty, fraught topics. These artifacts pervade people’s identities; they are expressions of self in a very intimate way.

I wonder, though, if this focus on consent as a fraught terminology of power makes it a little scary. In a way that means maybe people aren’t really considering in practical terms its significance with reference to technology, because they think such a fraught term can only apply in a crisis.

This is why I found Bell’s use of the word ‘seams’ instead of ‘consent’ useful. ‘Seams’ provides a sense of physical boundary located outside the self. It’s pragmatic and down to earth, not tucked away in the shadowy corners of the mind. (Not that I am saying discussions about consent or public debates about the meaning of consent should be like this. But regardless of what they should be like, I think they often are caught in a very fraught discourse.) It’s a much less loaded physical metaphor for the transfer of digital artifacts.

I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts: are seams a better metaphor for boundaries in our digital lives, or are existing discourses around consent still a useful framework?

3 thoughts on “Seams: Private and Public in Digital Lives

  1. Consent is a strangely disempowering thing: how often do you want to just “give consent”? Very rarely, I would expect — commonly you want to participate in the things that you’re in favor of, and outside of that the reactions are “yes, of course, that’s what I told you to do, why are you asking again?” (“Because our 50 pages of terms & conditions have been revised again, of course”) and “no, obviously not, why are you even asking such a ridiculous thing?” (if you actually stop to read those 50 pages of terms and conditions, only there’s no way to negotiate the pg 28 section 3.1.c “We may choose to harvest one of your kidneys” clause so the interaction suddenly stops… all because of your selfish attachment to your kidneys).

    So the point is that while *at least* consent is necessary and whatnot, the preferable goal to evolve towards is watching the actions that the person participates in and then building out a framework of implicit consent for contextually similar and subsequent events.

    Google’s design docs for Android say that the system should learn what the user is probably doing so that it can suggest to the user what they’re about to do, but leave it to the user to take the action. But we’re not to the (algorithmic) point yet where the status quo implies all consent for the future, nor to the point where the machines can figure out where that implicit consent we want them to clue into is going to stop. Figuring out organic context and human whims is still a difficult thing to do.

    And yes, there is a lot of parallel with human sexuality, especially in that first paragraph, but I’ll let you read what you want into it.

    • Thanks for your very thoughtful and thought-provoking comments, Jason. I’m interested to hear from people with different viewpoints as I imagine this is a loaded issue for a lot of people.

      On your point about how different connect algorithms are structured, I think it’s important to continually renegotiate the seams we put in place–for example, I find it annoying when someone I was previously close with but have since fallen out with shows up in my close contacts, on my Facebook wall, etc. Those are easily removed, of course, but I wonder if there are more efficient ways of negotiating those digital boundaries.

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