South by South West – Three big ideas

A little over two weeks ago I was lucky to have attended the South by South West (SXSW) design, technology and creative conference in Austin, Texas – the 2018 theme was ‘Globally connected: we’re all in this together’ – This blog post is about sharing the three ideas that stuck with me after attending.

The three sticky ideas all have something in common – at face value they seem to be about technology but behind that façade all are about very human needs. In this case, identity, acknowledgement and human growth.

Sovereign Identity and Blockchain

Whether you believe the hype or not every other technology session at SXSW was about blockchain and how it would literally change the world – over 3-4 sessions I listened to pundits describing this public ledger technology as simultaneously amazing and probably coming to a theatre near you in the next five to ten years. All of the experts were in agreement about how it worked but very few could agree about what it should be used for.

A blockchain is a decentralized, distributed and public digital ledger that is used to record transactions across many computers so that the record cannot be altered retroactively without the alteration of all subsequent blocks and the collusion of the network. A blockchain database is managed autonomously using a peer to peer network and a distributed timestamping server. By design, a blockchain is inherently resistant to modification of the data. It’s append only so if it’s in, it’s staying in. (Wikipedia)

That is until one expert shared the work that the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is doing to support displaced people in refugee camps – working in partnership with tech giants Microsoft and Accenture they use biometrics to create new identities for those who have lost the ability to prove who they are – This technology captures and stores fingerprints, iris data and facial images of individuals, providing undocumented refugees with their only personal identity record. Given that the blockchain is a public record, refugees who travel on to other countries have a means of proving their identity. In many ways this is beyond proof of identity which is proving that we are that Morgan Williams. This is proof that you exist at all.


The word most commonly associated with blockchain is immutable (unchanging over time or unable to be changed) because information stored within it’s highly distributed system can only be edited or changed if every block in the chain is altered, something that would require consensus and expenditure from every user – this is in contrast to one organisation (Apple perhaps) who can edit all records in a standard database instantly and without necessarily seeking permission. Blockchain is not immutable in the strictest sense of the word but it still presents a better guarantee that these new proofs of identity won’t get lost or arbitrarily changed. No one state actor, however altruistic should maintain the only record of a person’s existence.

The big idea being expressed through this technology is sovereign identity, that we can prove who we are without recourse to commercial or government systems, that we exist independently of being reflected in private databases (blockchain is public by design).  SXSW taught me a new phrase…FAANG, which is the acronym that describes the combined data lakes of Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google. These organisations store the identities of countless billions of global citizens but what they know about us is hardly sovereign and immutable – part of the deal we make when we stream a movie or ‘like’ a page is that we (mostly) allow these companies to manage who we are online.

Blockchain, as experienced by these refugees is providing a far simpler and more honest picture of who we are, one that is ungilded and managed only insofar as it is made available as a proof point (of existence) when required. It is unlikely, even with growing movements like #deletefacebook that we will ever take back the management (and curation) of our identity from the FAANG companies but maybe we’ll shift the balance towards a greater degree of control over our identity.

You can read more about the UNHCR project here and here.


Seeing and being seen…


While much of the Artificial Intelligence (AI) commentary at SXSW and elsewhere seems to be about digital interfaces like chatbots and voice interfaces I see something more interesting in computer vision (AI driven extraction of understanding from digital images) and in the broader notion of seeing and being seen. On my way through Los Angeles airport (LAX) the border control guard photographed then finger printed me, checked my passport and then sent me on my way to my next flight – beyond the high-tech mechanics of the exchange we also shared an experience of mutually being seen.

Screen Shot 2018-03-25 at 4.28.18 pm

Computer vision promises to revolutionise this very human experience of being scrutinised at the border in that computers can now identify us by our faces. Displayed above is a picture of me that was fed through Microsoft’s Emotion API which is freely available to anyone who finds it. As you can see ­­­(scores) the AI engine has ‘seen’ me and has categorised what it thinks my emotions are – and unlike my moment with the border guard I have been seen, but I have not seen…anyone. These technologies are made available to us citizens of the internet for free because AI needs training data. In a nutshell, by uploading my photo I’m playing a small role in training the Emotion API to ‘see’ me and whoever comes next.

Humans say, ‘I think I saw Elon Musk at the bar’, AI records confidence intervals. Like us, AI isn’t sure of what it’s seen but it can put a finger on just how sure/unsure it is that it was in fact Elon Musk. In a funny kind of way, the fact that AI has confidence intervals humanises it as a technology. Josh Clark, whose AI session Design in the Era of Algorithm I attended made the point that we are seeing the rise of ‘intelligence as a service’. An interesting notion but at this point it feels more like ‘really fast categorisation of things as a service’. AI ‘sees’ faces, ‘listens’ via Alexa or Siri to its users and ‘chats’ to customers via chatbots but in many ways it’s categorising these inputs and comparing them against what it believes them to be – with confidence intervals. Alan Turing the great English mathematician and father to the Turing machine (early computing device) said that ‘if a machine is expected to be infallible, it cannot also be intelligent.’ so perhaps we should manage our expectations of AI as being truly intelligent.

As designers, maybe we need to consider this as a pause point in our inexorable search for efficient, frictionless experiences. Computer vision can certainly replace a significant number of proof point exchanges (credit cards at the checkout, smart cards to access public transport) but they can also potentially devalue acknowledgement, that which is achieved when we see and are seen by others. We need to reflect on the relationships that those we design for want and need to have, not just on what the individual is trying to achieve. We can’t and won’t stop to talk to everyone, but we can usually engage others silently through a shared look or glance.

There’s a trade-off between human needs (silent acknowledgement) and efficiency to be considered – Hong Kong airport are piloting facial scanning and recognition so that after check in your face speeds you through customs and also acts as a boarding pass. This technology will likely speed up your passage through their airport but maybe passengers will be left feeling unacknowledged, that the brusque look from a border guard is now missing.

A future world where we are seen but increasingly see fewer people might feel like a lonely place.

You can see Josh Clarks session here.

Asleep at the wheel?


Steve Selzer, one of Airbnb’s design managers delivered a thought provoking session called Design for Disruption – in essence his point was that designing all of the friction out of experiences was a bad thing because it also removes opportunities to learn from the many random and serendipitous life experiences that just happen if we are open to them and there. During his SXSW presentation, the CEO of Waymo (Google’s autonomous car company) showed the picture above and with considerable pride explained that they were very proud that their driving experience was so smooth that one of the many test passengers had fallen asleep. This is perhaps the most friction free experience on offer, an experience so smooth that we simply don’t have to think or be conscious.

Also shared by Selzer was the work of twitter pundit Start Up L Jackson who once described San Francisco as having fallen into a state of ‘Uberification’ or as I see it a state of heavily manufactured convenience.

Screen Shot 2018-04-04 at 4.00.25 pmSo, what is the role of a designer in all of this? Do we design for frictionless, manufactured convenience or do we find a way to build in some of life’s chance encounters? Both, but getting the balance right is key. As we’ve seen from Waymo’s sleeping passenger too little friction sees us literally asleep at the wheel, oblivious to the world around us. Whilst this is clearly an extreme example it highlights the potential impact of designing for frictionless experiences. If you liken Steve Selzer’s serendipitous moments to the act of growing muscle through experiencing stress and then recovery we are at risk of facilitating human weakness, where there is simply not enough exertion in our life to grow.

Designing away the potential for delay or discomfort in our lives may mean that we miss these bitter sweet moments of human development. A designed experience only describable through superlatives may seem like the right thing but maybe we need to be a bit more pragmatic about what makes us human. Life isn’t always a bed of roses and thats OK.

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