Welcome to Five Questions. Today, our guest is Charlie Erdman who’s the Experience Design Director at Crispin Porter and Bogusky
, also known as CPB. Charlie also is a speaker at conferences like MidwestUX
. Today, our topic for the Five Question segment is going to be community and the sense of place in the digital life. Charlie, welcome to the show.
Thank you. Great to be here.
We’re excited to dig into this topic today. Let’s start off with sort of a framework question. What do you think the trends are in digital that are impacting our overall sense of community?
I think it’s a very broad question. There’s a lot going on there. Digital is constantly evolving, I mean, I don’t know if you had a chance to see Spike Jonze’ new movie
. I’m going to be seeing that on Friday so I’m pretty excited. That’s definitely giving a sense of how digital is impacting our sense of community. I’d say the whole movie is possibly a commentary on just that topic alone. We have so many things going on from what’s happening in mainstream to how community is being perceived from virtual community and now focused on physical community bringing in digital technologies to reinforce physical community to things that are happening on the fringe with the major culture and the experimentation that’s happening there that hopefully will someday start influencing what’s happening in the center.
Right. Could you give us some examples of each of those areas that you mentioned?
Sure. I mean, as we talked about a moment ago before we got onto the show, there’s a number of things that’s happening with the internet thing and I think that’s getting particularly interesting now with companies like Nest
which has gotten a lot of press recently with their thermostat and their smoke alarm. What that starts to do is exposing data about our own behaviors in new and interesting way that then once you connect that into a community, really starts to give us a new perspective on our own behavior and the implications of our individual behavior upon the community. For instance, I own a Nest and I thought it was really fascinating the way it tracks my energy use and then compares me to others like me in the state and then nationwide. Suddenly now, my own behavior is being looked at across other communities and I have again a larger glimpse into my own individual behavior. That’s one of the sort of examples I’d say that’s most salient to me right now in terms of what’s happening mainstream. In the fringe, as I mentioned before with the maker culture which has this almost unique license the maker culture has for experimentation and a low threshold for failure. In other words, you can fail as many times as you want because there’s really nothing invested in there, it’s not a lot of people’s lives hanging in a balance. It’s not a company’s future that’s hanging in the balance. The maker culture had this license to just do what it wants to do and try different things. That’s where you get this interesting combination of community art and design and culture from the community being mixed with the digital and that’s where I think you get this interesting combination of the internet of things is really happening in community on a small, local level in fascinating way. Boy, some examples of that might be again, the hacker, sort of maker culture, you wouldn’t hear much about these things. Some of them actually made in roads into people’s awareness like Dear Photograph
, very simple example I gave in one of my talks where people take photographs that were taken from 30, 40 years ago, revisit those location, hold up the photo and take it again with it in site of the photograph being held up in front of the camera and then in the background you see the actual site if it’s taken any changes. Little, tiny, subtle things but that’s part of connecting us with our community and our environment in interesting ways and then sharing those in a communal form. Another example of kind of things happening on the fringe that will probably make it into production was another example from my talk, Tableau, by a guy named John Kestner
where he creates this magic and delight by taking a bedside table and during the night, the knob on it, during the night, pictures start spitting out inside the drawer, inside the bedside table that are coming from someone’s Twitter feed. When you wake up in the morning, the little glass knob in front of the drawer would give this nice, soft ambient glow to tell you that images have come in while you’ve been dreaming and you open it up and inside, now you’ve got these printed out pictures from your community and the lives of the people that your networked to. Really beautiful, kind of a dreamy application. Those will be a couple of things I would bring up.
Yeah, I really love that, what did you call it? The dear picture, was that the name of the project?
Dear Photograph, okay. When I saw that the photograph of the place 40 years ago juxtaposed against the place now, right, that sense of continuous time is something that we get occasionally. You can get it in the city, if you’re working around, you think, “Oh, this building has been around since the 1800s,” in Boston, you can run into that fairly often. I think it might be a uniquely American thing that were sometimes we’re so focused on what’s coming next that we kind lose that sense of history. I think some other cultures sometimes handle that a little bit better, that sense of place in history. I thought that dear photograph really for me struck a chord.
Well, you’re wondering to a really rich territory there. I know it’s a little bit off track. When you talk about place and history and what surrounds us is invisible to us. Time is essentially invisible, right? Because that’s just the basic nature of being a conscious human is you can only be present to what’s happening right now. Our brains tend to be thinking of about the future and we’re so guided by the past that people talk about basically we’re driving forward but looking in the rear view mirror all the time because we’re so behaviorally conditioned by our past experiences which makes a lot of sense.
One of the things I’ve been working on over the last five years on a side project is an offering called Tunes Map. Basically what it does is it brings to life the invisible musical and cultural history that surrounds us. For your example of walking through a city like Boston or say New York, you have no idea what artists have been playing or cultural events or movie was photographed or filmed on this corner back in ’76, or if some event occurred on this building you’re now walking not by 20 years ago, five years, even last year.
I think that is really getting fascinating when you think about bringing that to life. In a world where we have instant search and all this data apparently available to us, obviously the world of curation and curating that data is becoming more and more important so that becomes super subjective, right? Like a historian writing about history who chooses to ignore certain aspects and present other ones to you. That’s his version of history that he’s selected for you.
We’re getting in an environment now that where as you walk to the world to be able to have knowledge come to life for you is another filter in a way of accessing. That’s again a whole different topic, but I think it’s a fascinating one that your comment just queued off.
Yeah. No, I’m sure that we could explore that one in a whole another show. You may have inadvertently forced us to have sequel of this episode.
I know that one of the concerns or one of the sort of stated worries that is sort of bubbling up in our culture is is this idea that we’re connecting less, right? Or then the question follows or are we just connecting in a different way, in a broad but not deep way. I love Sherry Turkle’s quote on this that … I’m just going to read here from, I have this in front of me, that human relationships are rich and they’re messy and they’re demanding and we clean them up with our technology and when we do, one of the things that can happen is that we sacrifice conversation for mere connection. We short change ourselves. Over time, we seem to forget this or we seem to stop caring. What’s your reaction to that?
One of the things that I say to people often, I’m kind of a man with two brains. What I mean by that is I’m both super worried and concerned about the influence of technology on human relationships. Then I’m also extremely excited about what’s happening with technology and how it’s bringing people together. Those that constantly live in this almost this Woody Allen state of roses combined with the Pollyanna kind of complete euphoria like, oh, this is the best thing ever.
What she’s saying, I totally agree. I think this is just a state of things. We are connecting, we have this perception that we’re connecting more, we’re always connecting, we’re always on and that creates a certain anxiety I think in a lot of people. Our communications in result tend to be less deep because the medium you’ve chosen isn’t necessarily meant for deep connection. A text message is not meant for a deep connection while a conversation on a telephone might be a more apt place to have a longer dialog and more connection.
I think what she says about we demand more from our technology and less from one another, I think that’s a constant, that’s a friction that’s always going to be there because in a world where relationship is becoming more and more in demand and a world where connection is happening everyday more and more and I would definite connection as a brief occurrence but it does not lead anywhere. It’s not repeated necessarily. They can be but it doesn’t necessarily craft a deeper relationship.
I’ll just bring it to a personal example, my wife was driving up to a stop sign and on the side of the road was the guy who’s a homeless guy and was looking for some money. She rolled down her window, this guy was really bedraggled, obviously really down on his luck. She said hey and gave him a dollar. He looked at her and he said, “Thank you so much. I’m just beginning to feel invisible.” My wife, out of nowhere, just had this intense reaction. She look at him and said, “You are not invisible.” It shocked the two of them. She couldn’t believe she said this and he was kind of taken aback. He started to tear up in his eyes. Then she drove off, right? It influenced her for the next … she talked to me about it that night. I’m sure influenced this guy as well. That was a momentary brief connection they had.
Now that connection was very deep and it was something that influenced maybe an hour, five minutes, afterwards. Did they develop a relationship? No, they have a place maybe in each other’s lives now, their mental lives but that relationship has to be developed over time and with deeper connection, deeper sharing, not just these momentary sharing so they really get to know each other.
Yeah, that’s interesting. When I think about this, I always think of technology at least sort of the information age technologies, specifically around all these digital do-dads we have as accelerant. We can communicate faster. We can collaborate across distance, all these things but we’re accelerating trends that already existed in human activity, right? You could send me a letter before but now you’re sending me an email, whatever. I guess my question always is what are we accelerating because we are accelerating natural tendencies, right? There is a natural tendency to just send the equivalent of a telegraph message to which now is a text message.
Now, it’s become a lot easier to do these things. I just have this deep seated doubt that human beings changed much in their nature over time. I think teenagers will always be self absorbed and not care about what’s around them no matter what the technology is that’s in front of them. I kind of wonder, we’re accelerating a lot of things and it’s noticeable now because the teenagers who are self absorbed are now crashing each other people on the highway.
I don’t know if we’re … it’s just an interesting question about the nature of relationships and whether or not we’re actually changing the way humans relate to each other as a community or we’re just accelerating our selfishness in some way.
I think that’s a valid point. I think we are, I mean, agreed 100%. This is all about acceleration of communications in instantaneous messaging, right, which has its utility advantages of I got to get the grocery list, I’ve got to try and meet my friends, whatever that is. That’s super, super important in technology has enabled us to do that. I mean, if you think about leaving the home without your phone now, that becomes a nerve wracking proposition. For some of us who some days at 364 days a year, you bring your phone and you have that one day where you don’t, you suddenly feel naked and you have to go back to what is it like not being in connection. There’s a certain, A, loneliness but then, B, fall back and “Wait, I’ve done this before. I remember what it was like not to have that and I know that I can get along without it.”
That brings up a whole other question in my mind is what happens when a teenager to your point who’s never not been in a world armed with their phone, armed with being connected to their peers and their community is alone without that device. That’s a whole other proposition that I personally can only get a glimpse of but I’m sure it’s going to become more fearful as time goes on.
Yeah, that’s a terrific point.
I feel for them. It’s almost like we have responsibility to teach people how to get along in life without technology so they can feel that they the capabilities to exist without it.
Yeah, it’s almost an addictive behavior. I remember being in college and coming back to my apartment and looking at the answering machine to see whether or not the LED light was blinking, like did someone care to get back in touch or give me a call. It’s the same sort of addictive, you’re jouncing for that message, I hope so and so call me back, right? That’s the same behavior but I only did that at the end of the day, right? I wasn’t constantly digging in my pocket for a phone.
That’s right. That’s right. It’s Pavlovian, I mean, how many times do we dig into our pocket every five minutes looking for, oh, I’ve got a free moment, is there an email or a text message or something of value that I should be consuming rather being left momentarily to experience what’s happening around us and that whole complex. An advertising agency came up with a whole campaign to develop a word for people who are not interacting to those around them say when they’re in a line at the grocery store, at the bank and everyone’s turned to their phone and they called it phubbing and seeing if phubbing could actually get some traction in the world. They did it for an Australian dictionary and seeing if they can get a new word out there that will ultimately lead people to want to look it up on the dictionary which would mean they have to go and buy a dictionary.
It’s an interesting phenomenon. Some marketers are taking advantage of this and back to your question about Sherry Turkle. I think she’s super. Her concerns are valid and I think we have to be always concerned about it. It’s about how do we deepen our communications and make it so that generally the next generation who are learning how to communicate through the mediums that they are given. How can we make it so? There are certain environments where it’s demanded off them they have to connect on a deeper level, be more expressive, more communicative, more precise with their communications.
I think that’s a good transition to our next question about tragedy in crisis. What is it about those scenarios that changes how we engage with our technology and with each other?
Great question. Tragedy is a really interesting human phenomenon because it’s something that unites us all. It’s a great connector in terms of what we feel is acceptable to bring up in conversation. Am I going to bring up and talk to you about my bank account or how much I have in there or what I make? Probably not, particularly with strangers. Will I be talking about my sex life with a stranger? Probably not but I can always connect to a somebody over tragedy and you find this when you’re in public environments on a bus, in a public space and someone. We all have stories about somebody who told us some tragedy in their life uninitiated but they were looking to express themselves. Tragedy is something that we can all connect over and often brings us together in ways that normal life doesn’t.
In terms of how tragedy and technology can come together and mix, we had a recent experience in Boulder with the Colorado floods that happened in September 2013 and I so was able to use that as a material for various presentations, public talks that I’ve given about how that tragedy has brought us together as a community both at a street level, when you’re outside and now you’re helping your neighbor who you’ve never spoken with, who lives across the street who you just wave at when you guys are both rolling out your garbage cans in the morning and now you’re actually going over and saying, “Oh my God, can I help you? Let’s move this. Get that furniture to higher ground,” kind of thing.
That was amazing. The tragedy brought people together in that way and you tend to then start using technology to do the same thing. It was using technology to merely connect to make sure other people are okay, to communicate your status to other people but then as the immediate tragedy winds down as you go into the aftermath, for us, we found and I was looking around this at the time, technology was fabulous at allowing people to follow up and give sort of the help wanted, the board, the community board where people would put up notices of lost cats or I need some help this Saturday moving something or does anybody have a chainsaw, those are type of things that are now being posted on virtual community boards around the neighborhood.
We developed a reliance on a product called Next Door that really connects people by neighborhood zip code region. We have a communal understanding and shared culture in that neighborhood which is unique. There’s a whole business that’s been developed around that concept. The founder of that really has been one of the ways he’s promoting that promoting that product is by saying, “Hey, we’re so focused on virtual communities, the next evolution is to take technology into our physical communities.” That was his answer to that is Next Door.
Yeah, that’s a terrific example. Let’s talk a little bit about trust which I think is foundational and highly influential on people’s behavior. How do you see trust playing a role in our evolving communities?
Well, as you said, trust is fundamental to relationship. We walk around the world always looking for connections that breed trust so that we know who we can depend upon, what services we can depend on, products and when that … any company will tell you from a customer service standpoint that everything goes splendidly for a person for a long period of time and they have one moment where there’s violation of that trust and it bring down entirely people’s perception of that company. It might be our data has been compromised. It might be that the product failed in some way that is unexpected. Those. Trust is absolutely paramount to any experience we have with people or companies.
I think that all comes down to, again, that whole concept of connection versus relationship and trust is fundamental to that as well. I’m trying to think, in terms of trust, again, that violation, trust is really critical to our evolving sense of community both online and physically. For instance, I have a situation because of the floods, I’ve been living in an apartment until we can get into some new housing, we had a tragedy kind of occur before the end of the year where a dog came running to the apartment door and grabbed our dog by the neck and shook it around and it was just out of the blue, burst through the door. It was a complete violation of that sort of sanctity space.
My daughter, my three-year old was there. Now, she’s been conditioned every time someone knocks on the door, the front door starts to move, she runs out of the apartment living room and go and hide in the bedroom. She is trying to process this but it all comes down to trust and she no longer trust that sound at the door is going to equal her mother, her father walking through and it’s a happy moment. She’s a three-year old, right? She now is a little bit on the edge about what might occur. She takes the safe route and runs out of the room which is slightly amusing but also slightly sad at the same time that now she’s got this little scar that will of course heal herself over time.
We have the same thing that’s going on in our digital lives. Again, as I said, our data gets compromised by Facebook, they might be selling information. We no longer have trust. I’m sure a lot of people left Facebook as a result of that. Did they come back eventually? Sure. Some people do because of the utilitarian need for communication and as we talked about relationship in that community might be more valuable than the idea of your personal information which as we all know we don’t have a very great sense of how our personal information is being collected.
Yeah, I think there’s this inherent problem that we have with the sort of digital communities and that in some ways, I find it easier to trust you when we’re face to face, right? When you can … I don’t know if it’s a body language thing or if it’s just some ancient evaluation technique that’s been built into our DNA but you still want to shake hands on a business deal. The guy that you find online to, the freelancer or whatever, you may trust him but you always feel better if eventually you meet up at a coffee shop or something like that.
There is this interesting juxtaposition of we’re leading more and more of our lives online but we don’t have that same verification process that our ancestors have passed down to us which is all mitigated physically, right? I don’t know how we replace that. It’s not the same looking at a video as it is being a room with somebody. It may be I am over emphasizing the importance of body language in developing trust and community but it’s a surprisingly potent item. That’s sort of my reaction.
Yeah. No, I agree. I think some of the … I see one of the things you started mentioning about freelance contract you develop with a designer who you in our business we gain more trust by eventually meeting them. I think 37Signals has done a fantastic job. You think about remote work places and people being able to collaborate and effectively create successful products remotely. I think there’s ways we’re definitely over that all the time. I think so many products are geared towards that very issue of trust and the other aspect of trust, or one component of trust is accountability.
Digital is allowing us on two fronts, one hand, it’s allowing us to be less accountable for who we are more and more. People have avatars, they have alter egos online. They’re able to be more insindiary with their comments and lash out possibly in ways they would never do physically when they’re standing in front of somebody because they now have a sense of “oh, I have to be more accountable. I’m in front of the person. They can actually hold me accountable in some way.” Rights?
There’s that aspect of trust where we’re losing some of the accountability because of the virtual nature but then at the same time, now there’s a movement in some ways towards greater accountability. We were doing some testing up at Microsoft last years for our product and that was connected into using Facebook and Facebook data to enable this experience to take place where it pulled down information about you and your friendships and enable to catalog them and utilize them in interesting ways.
What we found out is people’s posting behavior on Facebook has been dramatically evolving from its early days where people posted just about anything they possibly could. We all had, we all can probably point to some of the friends in our network. There were just habitual posters of nonsense. It’s the cat photographs and these sort of useless information that come across. Now, that’s evolving and people understand of the brand of me in the fact that we have to be more accountable to our image online and what we’re communicating out to the world.
As a result, you get people really trying to promote and create a trust with their audience. They’re pushing out the best of themselves. It’s the best vacation images. It’s the best highlights of their career. The best highlights of their family life, right? All of that is this editing and … you don’t really know what’s behind the curtain in that trust environment. Neighborhood watch is creating online a greater amount of trust with communities like Next Door. There’s now greater accountability in neighborhoods and digital tools allow us to do that.
Then ultimately, there is greater accountability and maybe even greater trust about who you really are based on your data, right? Our data is an indicator of our habits, indicator of our behaviors and there is now a very long thread that weaves together a picture of who we are based on our online behavior. Most people are not privy to that. They can’t connect that but advertisers are. That’s why they have retargeting of ads. They know what websites you visited, your browser history and so they can make certain assumptions about who you are and trust with some accuracy that they know they’re serving up the right ad and not serving up the dog food, they’re serving up cat food as you own cats, you don’t have a dog.
That kind of thing is all in its realm of our tools and this idea of trust and the more our tools and utility can more accurately understand who we are in our behavior, we gain greater trust in what they’re telling us. They, meaning, the tools, the technology, what it tells us about ourselves and the world around us so we can hopefully make decisions faster and all of that.
Yeah, I think I will … you mentioned our digital selves sort of reveal our true behaviors. I will now be afraid coming face to face with my true digital selves. That’s what I’m taking away from that. I’m like, “Oh, you’re right about that, ha.” Okay, I don’t know if I want to see that.
Yeah, it’s a great point because everyone is so concerned about my person information. All they think about is that my address, my social security number, my driver’s license, those kind of things, we feel like we’re needing to protect all the time, our credit scores, that stuff. Ultimately, it is really your online kind of wanderings that are being aggregated and are being understood. Truly give a much better sense of who you are. It’s not what you say, it’s actually what you do, right, that defines you.
This is an awful, well, peg me as a GenXer but all I can think is Luke Skywalker going into that cave and he cuts of Darth Vader’s head and it’s his own face. That’s what’s coming to mind now. We talked a little bit at the beginning of this segment about digital and physical interfaces and embedding smarts in analog devises. In a lot of ways, the internet of things is this coming together of the digital and physical, hey, I thought I was just getting used to dealing with the digital and physical separately and I have to deal with them together. Let’s talk about that boundary a little bit. I mean, we’ve been circling around this topic for most of the conversation. Yeah, let’s talk about the digital and physical coming together and what that boundary means and whether that boundary means anything anymore.
Yeah, I would hate to suggest that I have some glimpse into where that boundary is morally good or bad or that it has true meaning when you slip over one side or the other. I do think it’s exciting. Again, that’s sort of the love of digital I have and a digital designer, a designer of experiences. I love the fact that we’re starting to create relationships with objects that we didn’t have before. I think technology has a really great role to play in bringing to life what we sort of looked at as quote, dead objects, before and now allowing us to say, “Oh, my God. I didn’t know that relationship with my bedside table and that example that I gave a little bit before now could Be quite different and actually have a little magic for me. I think that’s what’s getting very exciting again.
We’ve got some great commercial products on the market that are doing well by embedding digital technologies inside the Nest, the smoke detector I think is a great example because we’ve all known the smoke … we’ve all had the frustrating experience of knocking down a smoke alarm with a broom. Apparently I don’t own one but this ability now to communicate it sees who we are and knows I’m waving my hand to say it’s okay. I think it’s small but it’s fundamentally changing my relationship with this pain in the ass technology that was introduced 20 years ago and it’s now finally updating it to make it great. That technology 20 years ago created a behavior that was not like a great behavior, did nothing for my life.
Many could say it actually brought down the quality of my life when you have a beeping going on while you’re asleep and there clearly is no smoke and you knock this thing down in frustration at two in the morning and never reinstall it. Now we can actually have … understands a little more of the context of what’s happening. That’s another conversation right there. Objects having context of what we’re doing at any given moment is really getting interesting. That’s interesting to me.
Yeah, I think there’s … One of my favorite anime films is Spirited Away. One of the important themes in that is the idea that there’s an spirit in everything and an spirit of the place whether it’s a natural spirit of the river or spirit of the place that you’re inhabiting at the moment. In a lot of ways, I feel like the promise of the internet of things is to bring some of that spirit to the forefront of our interactions while we’re there. Maybe we’re no longer passing through but there’s the possibility of understanding the greatness of the space that we’re in at the moment. That example that you talked about passing through the city and kind of having the idea of what’s going on there before. To me, that’s understanding the spirit of that place and we’re enabling that through the digital technologies that are coming to the forefront of things now with internet of things. Like you, I’m very excited about that possibility. I don’t know what it means and I don’t know if there’s really that underlying spiritualism to it but it’s fun to think about.
Yeah, my great hope is we actually, we really do start bringing in spiritualism into our technologies because these are things that the messages, the medium, whatever you’re thinking about technologies are, they shape us. They shape the opinion of the world, our view. It’s really important that we don’t lose sight. We do need a connection with our world and we are connecting with our world through our devices. Our devices have to, they become these totems. They become, it’s like people talk about your cellphone now is this worship device that is in your pocket because it provides so much. It’s a window. It’s a portal into so much of our lives. If we don’t bring in the spiritual there, we’re really going to lose our humanity. I’m not fearful that’s going to happen. There’s always going going to be experimentation and it’s taking things out to their greatest sort of end result. It always brings it back in and builds in. One of the things I talk about with people quite a bit is we now are starting to colonize our own technology. By that I mean that we finally gotten to a point in the last five years where we aren’t just looking at technology as this cool thing that I got to adapt to as a human because there’s so many things there that I’ve got to adapt to. Finally now we’re playing with it. We’re starting to adapt the technology to our needs because this is sort of hacker, maker culture that’s going on that’s super exciting and people are imbuing their humanity into the technology now. That’s where we need to be. I think one of the things you brought up a moment ago about this spirit of place, I give some examples in my talk of that kind of notion as well of how technology can reveal the invisible to us and there’s a great example of that which is an example called Light Reeds
which is by a design firm in New York City called Pensa
. What they did was a very simple installation if you will along the East River where it shows these reeds, imagine a reed that you would see in a pond but now these beautiful ambiently lit long reeds that come up, they’re about six to eight feet high and clustered together and their movement and the light is all controlled by the way the water underneath it is moving. It’s moving more slowly, what are the conditions of the water, the temperature, all of that is now reflected in these mechanical reeds above the surface of the water. If you’re walking by, now you actually have a relationship with that body of water that you’ve never never had before. You get a slight glimpse that’s recontextualizing our world. That kind of sense of place and that ability for our places to come alive and the spirit of those places is taking place when we have executions or technology implementations like that.
Yeah, I love that example, I find it completely fascinating. We’re at the end of our podcast discussion. Charlie, if listeners are interested in continuing the conversations with you, how would they get in touch?
Yeah, I’d very much love to talk to anybody about these topics. Probably the best way to get in touch with me is two ways. One through Twitter at Charles, not Charlie Erdman but Charles and that’s E-R-D-M-A-N, @charleserdman. Or my Web site which is charleserdman.com. Those would probably be the two ways and maybe I’ll even try and open up some conversation on the Web site but then even through Twitter of course is a great way.
Well, it’s been wonderful having you as a guest. We look forward to having you back.
Terrific. Thanks, Jon. I appreciate the time.