Several years ago my wife and I went to India to visit Brinda, an exchange student who lived with my wife for a year in high school. While we were in India, Brinda wanted us to visit her home region of Coorg to get a real sense of where her family’s roots were. We stayed with Ayu and Dechu, cousins of Brinda and her husband Anand. I could have stayed on their coffee plantation forever. It is a corner of the world that still moves with the rhythms of nature, not the fast pace of man’s progress.
Each evening after dinner we gathered in the garden overlooking the valley of their plantation and their cook would join us. He would then delight us with a story that would fit the mood of the day. When we got back home, we tried to think of a gift that was appropriate for Ayu and Dechu. We decided that since they liked stories so much, we would send them a VCR and several of our favorite movies and TV programs.
We received a wonderful thank you note from Ayu going on and on about how wonderful their new VCR was. About a year later I had a chance to drop in on them on my way to visit a supplier in Bangalore, India. I noticed that there was a thick coating of dust on the VCR and all the tapes.
I asked if there was something wrong with the VCR. They assured me that there wasn’t; that the VCR work just fine.
“But you don’t seem to be using it,” I asked.
“No, we really don’t use it anymore,” they replied.
I had to ask why.
Ayu replied “While the tapes are very nice, they are very impersonal stories from a very different culture. We find that we are much more comfortable with the evening stories from our cook. Because MY STORYTELLER KNOWS ME. He recognizes my mood and knows just how to weave the right story together to make sense of the day or heal the hurts of our family.”
In that instant, I was able to name what was so bothering me about my life’s work. I was one of many who are creating technology that keeps getting more and more impersonal. We are constantly having to adjust to the foibles of our machines (and their software), rather than the other way around. For twenty years, I’ve been working with personal computers who don’t even recognize me, let alone know me.
Larry Keeley, founder of the Doblin Group, observed that every urinal in American airports is more “intelligent” than the most expensive personal computer. Each urinal recognizes when there is a human present and when the human has left, flushing after a man walks away. With the advent of the modern laptop and smart phone, all of the technology exists to change this impersonal state of computers. But to do that, we’ve got to understand what it means to know someone else. It is also important to understand that knowing somebody is a loop, that is, I have to know about myself to be good at helping someone else understand me.
Recently, a new colleague, Chris Shaw, is bringing life to the human computer interface with what he is calling spontaneous animation. Using the camera and microphone of a laptop or smart phone, the user is able to “interact” physically and emotionally with an onscreen character. You can catch some glimpses of Shaw’s previous work in his videos of emotional animation. Stay tuned for a soon to be started Kickstarter campaign to fund the open source part of Shaw’s latest work.
Who is your storyteller? Do they know you?