Tech (For Good) Can Damage Your Health

James Richards of Chromatrope ponders what the world would be like if as a society we treated tech in the same way we now treat alcohol?

I work in London a lot, and this year more than ever, I’ve noticed that the festive season has brought a lot of very, very drunk people onto the streets. People want to have fun, and for lots of Brits, having fun equals getting as pissed as possible at the Christmas work party. We’ve all (probably) done it and I’ve certainly done it myself.

Some of us are trying to be a bit more mindful about how we approach both booze and ‘technology’. As a society we’ve seen plenty of critiques of binge drinking culture in the UK, and the media is forever pondering why we can’t all enjoy booze like the famously and possibly erroneously moderate French or Italians. The same is now the case for technology. Is it bad for us? Are we addicted to tech? Have we sleep-walked into a surveillance-capitalist-consumertariat dystopia from which there is no escape and no return?

As we all know from banning the mass consumption of alcohol in 1920’s America to the contemporary ’war on drugs’, prohibition doesn’t ever really work.

You can’t ban an idea, and if the idea is to drink, smoke, or drink un-taxed cups of tea, then people will find a way. Prohibition drives the market underground. Robber barons muscle in to make a killing from the human desire to party hearty, and the quality of the product degrades and becomes even less reliable and unsafe.

The consumption of alcohol within society, now happens within complex legal, social and healthcare frameworks that emphasise safe patterns of consumption and the rights of ‘users’ to protect their own health and the health of others. Society once thought it was acceptable for children to drink alcohol or drink and drive, but we now understand that isn’t safe or acceptable and clear legislation protects us all from the harm that alcohol can cause.

Like changing attitudes to alcohol, the best ways of protecting people from ‘bad’ technology is to change the culture of use.

Openness about our habits, and more human shaped patterns of consumption that emphasise quality over quantity and the socially beneficial aspects of moderate drinking are certainly mappable to tech.

Many of us have become critical, not of technology itself, but the way in which it’s appeal to us as upright mammals has been honed and concentrated to a point where some of us are seemingly ‘addicted’ to our devices. The big difference in this equation is that we don’t have to drink alcohol, but we do (increasingly) have to use technology.

Blaming technology for such a vast and wide ranging spectrum of problems is a bit like launching some Cultural Revolution style war against the sea, because every year people drown there. In any case, we can’t ban ‘bad tech’ because tech is both good and bad. Rather than banning the sea or fencing off beaches, we instead teach people to swim and provide buoyancy aids. By enabling people to make safe choices for themselves we protect them, and get to still benefit from all the good applications of tech.

There’s currently a great deal of hand wringing and debate about the dangers of tech, and how we can all collectively ‘do tech better’. The fact of the matter is that for many people, ‘technology’ as a thing doesn’t really exist.

Technology is buried within the phones, computers and applications that we all use. The tech products that now scaffold and enable our interactions, jobs, entertainments and lives are offered to us on a binary basis; the ones that we get for free but which mine and exploit our data; and the other expensive ones, that apparently still do the same.

When it comes to technology, maybe we need to stop worrying about whether tech is ‘good’ or ‘bad’; or whether it should be banned, but instead imagine what the meaningful, lasting and measurable steps towards harm reduction might be. Like the corporate booze pushers, we should be taxing the vast revenues of the tech companies, and investing a proportion of that tax in measures that help the most digitally dispossessed and vulnerable.

We need to be clear about the places and times where we feel it’s ok to consume technology. For many people a glass of wine with dinner is fine, cider for breakfast probably isn’t. The same applies to our dependency and relationship with technology. We have to be more honest about the lines between what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ tech, and instead be explicit in our conversations about safe levels of harm reduction and apply palpable penalties to companies that obfuscate or lie about the relative ‘safety’ of their products.

What is tech for good? The short answer is that it’s the opposite of ‘tech for bad’ and ’tech for bad’ represents different things to different people.

For some, the problem lies with AI taking away our jobs. For others it’s AI’s role as amplifiers of bias and inequality within society. Other people are concerned about the existential threat that surveillance capitalism poses to our individual and collective privacies and freedoms. ‘Tech for bad’ has shaken democracy and skewed election and referendum results. Tech allows and enables the mass surveillance and control of huge populations, and in China is responsible for an entire generation subject to levels of dystopian social control that would have seemed unimaginable a few years ago. We’re told that tech is isolating and damaging and leads to bullying and blame. Some critics state that tech has brought us to a culture of snowflakes swirling in a never ending social media maelstrom of anger and offence. Tech is also marvellous. Like a hammer that can be used to either build an ark or used to bludgeon squirrels, technology is only as good or as bad as the hands that wield it. Raise a glass with me to toast the future of humane and mindful technology as we all stagger towards the new year. Cheers!

Public Sector Co-Pilots

In navigating towards a ‘public service internet’ it can be tempting to have the vision of a better future, obscured by a dystopian miasma of gloom. The collision of data and AI certainly present us all with some hefty challenges, but we’re still in the game, and there is a great opportunity for public sector bodies to act as our co-pilots en route to the final destination of a functional public service internet for all.

Organisations like the BBC, have a key role in helping consumers to safely navigate the airspace of their own personal data. This activity should be centred clearly around the establishment of the individual as lead pilot of their own destiny; as creator, owner, and protector of their own data. We’ve been really pleased to have been doing some thinking and doing with the BBC and others to help make this future more certain, but there’s always more that can be done.

Everybody needs a little help
Publicly funded agencies, acting in support of the common good, would be trusted by many to perform the critical role of ‘data buddy’. Designed in the right way, and with the correct, compelling route to market, the personas of the ‘data buddy’ might even shape themselves to dynamically respond to audiences. One stop ‘drop in’ products can sit alongside imaginatively realised content formats, video and products designed for longitudinal use. The key message for us all as users and generators of data, is that the world has changed and is certain to continue to change. Users can look to public bodies for the reassurance and support they need for the long haul.

Empowerment and opportunity
The invitation from public organisations to better understand and engage with our personal data, is best framed in terms of empowerment and opportunity, than in catastrophe and doom. The issues for many of us around the ‘affordances of data’ are in fact the issues that affect us and the lives of the people that we care about personally. Understanding (more) and acting (effectively) to respond, relies on a baseline of personal data literacy, and to have a lasting impact and reach we need to frame the stories and activities in terms that engage most people. This engagement is best framed within the language and mechanisms that already speak to us as consumers, using all of the tools, platforms and techniques of traditional and new media.

Data and identity matter
If data is the blood in our new digital bodies, then identity is the brain of the organism. The verisimilitude of our ‘real’ identities, formed from our ‘unreal’ virtual, digital selves is now less certain. Whereas we might once have supposed that our digital identities, were less complete (and completely) a representation of our ‘self’, we now must face the fact that our digital selves, may be a more truthful representation of who we really are. Access to and ownership of these identities is critical, and public bodies can and should act as advocates and protectors of that ownership, being maintained in the hands of the individuals themselves. The impact of a programme of well realised data literacy initiatives, can be significant on the digital health and well-being of the UK population. Establishing the right approach now to capitalising upon our collective data, is as important to the the long term happiness and survival of the citizens as climate change. It’s also just as important to the long term survival of the BBC and other public sector organisations.


Towards a Public Service Internet

With the revelations of Cambridge Analytica and Facebook’s role as malign hackers of human emotion and democracy, it can come as no surprise that there’s a scramble to look beyond the worryingly dystopian looking internet present towards some preferable futures.

The BBC has historically fallen under the glamour of the larger, shinier and more commercial competition, who are in fact, given the unique way in which the BBC is funded, not really the competition at all. Rather than asking how the BBC can be more like Google and Facebook in theory and method, the BBC could and should be making a crystal clear statement of difference. The corporation should be asking how it can make it’s offer diametrically opposite, even if that means an initial drop off of audience numbers. It should feel a confidence that those audiences, when looking back to survey the smoking wreckage of the data wars, will know that the BBC and other public institutions were on their side.

In recent years there has been a troubling move within the corporation to dodge awkward questions about it’s own (and it’s shell corporation Media Applications Technologies) spending with Facebook,Twitter and Google. Freedom of information requests have been denied on the grounds that information is held for the purposes of ‘journalism, art or literature’, and therefore exempt from the act.

Try to sign up for BBC iPlayer and you’ll be asked for not only your date of birth and postcode but extraordinarily your gender. The BBC insists that this information is protected and designed to improve personalisation, but it indicates a hand over fist data grab and collection that mimics the worst practices of the surveillance capitalism behemoths. Similarly the BBC has toyed with ‘addictive by design’ principles in other digital products. The autoplay function hated by anyone with kids, is enabled as a default on their iPlayer Kids app and impossible to remove in settings when viewing in browser.

The intersection of data and AI represents a range of amazing opportunities and risks for us all. The impact of big data on all our lives, is arguably as fundamental an issue for us personally, societally and globally as climate change. Like climate change, the topic can be illusive and hard to visualise. There are few people who can claim to have a clear or accurate mental model of how data and AI are combining to create our futures. Consumers should be in a position to trust public bodies to assist them with making ways of accessing, understanding and making the most of your data, safe, accurate and clear. Consumers need help in understanding the complexities of their own personal data; many just don’t know it yet.

There isn’t one solution or provocation that can serve to both alert consumers to the existential threats to their own privacy and then engage them with action to mitigate against those risks. The issues that we’re all facing are larger than us, and need to be addressed on a level that is outside the experience and influence of many of us. There are however beginning to be significant signs that the challenges and opportunities for combined data and AI, are beginning to concern the population. This is in part because of a growing coverage in the media of the problems inherent with constant surveillance, the loss of privacy, and the mass abdication of responsibility and ownership of our own data. It is also in part due to a simple passing of time, and an accretion of the larger and small signs of how we really are, into more rationally explicable statements of being and truth. The BBC has a significant role to play, as interpreters of these ways of being and truths, on behalf of and alongside audiences and citizens.

Creating Live Action Drama in 360

IMG_2063The Echo Chamber – Notes 08

When we first embarked on the live action 360 drama journey, some we spoke to suggested that we were crazy to consider it. It seems that filming drama in 360 is known to be notoriously difficult, with the formal constraints of having to use cameras that can only really capture the action in mid-shot, and the renegade behavior of viewers who might just look the ‘wrong way’. In approaching the production we also wanted to explore what it would be like to create a live action drama on a tight budget, delivered to Google cardboard, therefore maximizing access to the film. We were stacking up a range of challenges to overcome, or at least in a research and development context to tackle and learn from.

We believe that a lot of innovation happens at the edges of things, where creative opportunity meets constraint, and in this case we were limited by the vision that we’d be able to capture, as well as the constraints of the sound design. We’d originally hoped to use binaural sound to push and pull audience attention, but our chosen platform meant a stereo mix at best, so we were also limited to some extent with what we could do with sound.

Directing the actors brought another series of challenges which we’ll cover in another post, but clearly with a camera rig shooting in 360 degrees, the physical space of the set has to be cleared of any crew, and the director who would ordinarily be present on the other side of the cameras also has to be absent. This led to a very different way of working across the production, and was characterised by a certain calmness and trust between crew and actors which was separately commented upon by many of those involved. This relationship was very much down to the professionalism of the actors and the director, and relied on very clear communication and a preparedness to try and re-try different approaches.

With no live view of what we were shooting we had to work against the script and the constraints of the technology and the sets to ensure that we were getting what we needed for the edit, as well as shots which wouldn’t be so distorted that we would need weeks of post-production to fix them. We found that the handy little Ricoh Theta S camera could be placed into the scene to provide a live view via their app, of the shots that we were likely to get. The Theta also proved useful as we tried out various camera rigs and set ups for the in-car shots – yes, we have shot 360 inside a car, which is also according to current thinking a bit bonkers.

All these uncertainties combined with absence of a huge fix budget to throw at problems, could have resulted in much stress, and although there have been moments, in general the process of producing a live action drama in 360 has been highly creative and innovative. The proof of course will be in the final film, but with the picture lock now with the sound designer, and the online edit booked we are on track to offer a film experience we hope you’ll find thoughtful and moving.

If you have any thoughts on our posts, please join the conversation on Twitter – #echochamberdrama





The Theatre of VR

The Echo Chamber – Notes 07

Producing 360/VR films is predictably very different to creating traditional linear films or TV. The cameras that we’re using to create the drama formally restrict the types of shot that it’s possible for us to get. We’re making a drama with essentially two characters, so the subtle interplay between our actors and the ways that they respond to one another and their environment is particularly important. But VR means no close ups, and no longs shots because the closer you are the more the image distorts and the further way you are the less you’re going to see. Mid shots work best, so we’re making those work as hard as we can.

Glen Travis
Director Glen Travis

Similarly the much discussed, ‘what happens if they look the wrong way’ comes into play as well. We can only effectively guarantee where the viewer will be looking once per ‘act’. When a new ‘scene’ or shot comes in we can fix the viewer attention on an object, effectively filling their field of view, before giving them the facility to look, left, right, up, down etc. Audio cues are going to work to drag attention to where we want it, but our director is doing a lot of thinking about how we make these junctions work as hard as possible for the story.

Sleeping Beauty
Sleeping Beauty

Interestingly we’ve been referencing theatre production almost more than film and TV in putting this project together. I recently took my daughter to see the really amazing Sleeping Beauty production at Sadlers Wells. In the production the baby and toddler Aurora is brought to life by three black clad puppeteers. The willing suspension of disbelief in the audience is total and we sat there really wanting to believe in what we were seeing. This effect was enhanced when with a classic bit of misdirection the puppet Aurora changed in front of our eyes (expect we were looking the other way) into the real dancer. These totally compelling tricks and techniques drove the story along, charmer the audience and drew real gasps and chuckles.

We’ve been pondering the impact of some of these techniques on our own production. What would it be like is Erin’s neurological decline was represented by figures (invisible to her) hiding objects and adjusting her environment as she tries to navigate a changing reality? We’ve even been thinking about a highly stylised performance style; an almost kabuki like series of actions to represent repetition, habit, practice and then the corresponding disruption and loss of those elements in someone with dementia.

What we opt for will remain a bit of a mystery for now, but it’s interesting that in making this experimental ‘film’ we’re being inspired by and drawn back to the staging and formal techniques and skills of the theatre world.


Designing Magnets – Pushing and Pulling Attention in VR

The Echo Chamber – Notes 06

Eight years ago I was lucky enough to see Elan Lee speak at the ETech conference on the topic of ‘Designing Magnets: Connecting with Audiences in the Wired Age’. Elan focused on the techniques he was experimenting with and applying to attracting and repelling audience attention in the ARG world. I wrote up some notes at the time, as did Cory Doctorow, but essentially Elan’s talk described ways to draw people towards and away from the story elements, real world activities and experiences that you’re designing for them. Elan’s talk was really exciting, stayed with me and we ended up working together on a development project which I commissioned.

360 and VR has the same level of hype and opportunity attached to it as ARG’s did back then. What makes them similar is the offer of both the strength and depth of engagement with audiences/viewers. We recently covered in another post how we’re thinking about this process now as being more about creating and holding attention rather than jumping straight to necessarily generating an empathy response.

In 360/VR the viewer is able to look around and experience the virtual world in a similar way to the way they experience their own real world. This agency is creatively a great opportunity in so many ways as viewers are likely to be more immersed in the story and combined with sound design they experience an intense visual and audio sensation, with a correspondingly intense emotional and engagement response.

There is a great concern in some quarters about what happens if the VR viewer looks the wrong way, and misses a particular nugget of action. Will the story fail? Will it make sense? How do we guarantee that the viewer will be looking where we want them to? The answer is that we can’t guarantee that they might look the ‘wrong’ way.

We know from second screen research that when people say they are watching TV they are in fact doing a whole range of other things at the same time. An awful lot of time and money is being invested in making sure that those valuable eyeballs are swiveled in the right direction when the ads come on.

We believe that the trick is in not thinking of viewer attention as ‘right way or wrong way’. As filmmakers we can only guide them in the same way that Elan talked about designing magnets to push and pull people towards and away from amazing and memorable experiences. Within our ‘Echo Chamber’ drama, all the nuances and subtleties of direction, staging, mise en scène, dialogue, acting, sound and production design should combine into a jigsaw of pieces that can fit together in enough varied ways to give a compelling narrative and theme.

Both narrative and theme will work together to deliver the experience we’re designing, but in fact if viewers miss some or even all of those cues, they will still take away an experience that succeeds to thematically reach them, even if they choose to take another story route than then one we intend.