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Posted on Fri 5 Feb 2021

Future Themes Blog - Ethno Augmenting Social Realities: How Much is Too Much? Interrogating the evolution of digital facilitation

In the second of our Future Theme Blogs we hear from the creative collective, Across the Room. Last year the Studio funded seven teams of Residents to explore ideas at the intersection of technology and culture.

Image by: Camille Aubry

There’s a scene in the 2005 romcom Hitch where Alex “Hitch” Hitchens is helping Albert secure his “last, first kiss” with Allegra Cole. “The secret to a kiss is to go 90% of the way, and then hold… for as long as it takes for her to come the other 10”. It doesn't really matter if he’s telling the truth, you believe him, or at least you want to. Is that the result of good cinema, or our own projections of romance? Who knows? What is clear is how the film drives the audience's intrigue through classic storytelling techniques, keeping you engaged by only telling you so much of the story as well as only letting the character know parts of the picture. We’re given parts of a character’s back story so we can make sense of their personality. Then we get to watch the characters make ill informed decisions based on assumptions they’ve made about the other person. Sound familiar?

What does this have to do with ‘Ethno Augmenting Social Realities? Everything!  Across the Room (ATR) is a collective of creatives; Imwen Eke, Experience designer and Social games maker, Camille Aubry, Live Illustrator and Cartoonist, Takita Bartlett-Lashley, Creative Technologist and Will Taylor, Creative Producer.  Our goal at Across the Room (ATR) is to build digital communicative facilitation tools and processes informed by intercultural conversations and the differences in how people like to hear and be heard. Somewhat ironically at the expense of the film's narrative, we’re exploring how communication and interaction across characteristics of difference can be respectfully upheld so that those points of difference are seen as positive not negative. But instead of chiming in and telling people how to converse better, we’re asking people how they like to converse. You gotta break the rules. Be expansive. And that's what ATR’s research is about: exploring new approaches and bringing cultural relevance to the development of tech tools. We are the students and the audience is the expert. We are here to find ways to surrender authorship to audiences.

There were a lot of areas we could have focused on but the initial approach we chose was to ask questions like: What happens if we replaced words for conflict with words for collaboration? e.g. “Rules” become “Agreements”, “Restrictions” become “Acceptances”… For the most part humans are respectful of each other, but that seems to change when things move online. So if we’re the participants in this conversation, what ways would we suggest improving our interactions in physical spaces and online? Especially when we’re with people who are fundamentally different to us. ATR are not pretending to have the answers. We have our perspective, yes. As do you. But we’re modelling building a methodology in these areas by asking questions and actively listening. Questions about our audiences, each other and society. Often questions don’t do us the courtesy of a gentle approach, they either go against everything we’ve hoped for in that moment or reinforce an ill informed generalisation, driving us further apart as communities. You’re either ‘not like the others’ or ‘just like the rest of them’.  But back to the film… Hitch has clearly got a character profile for Albert and knows that for someone of his disposition, once he finds himself at Allegra Cole’s door, anything less than 90% just won’t cut it. Anything more is just creepy and it takes the fun out of everything. It doesn’t allow Allegra to act on what she wants.

But let’s position this conversation properly. Sliding along the scale of interference from the position of being the host. We’ve been exploring what really happens when you lean in the full 100% and what happens when you only lean 30%. We’re here to explore this type of relationship building in tech development (not quite the same we know). To do this we’ve got to be real about the traditional ways research & development and user experience feedback occurs in tech. Black African and Black Caribbean voices are missing from the discovery, creation, development and delivery of tech products and when they are included It’s colonialist and extractive. The participants enter a space, have their thoughts and experiences mined and leave with a pat on the back. This is the classic 100/0 model with the host over facilitating the conversation and making it look like there is a lot more space for authenticity than there actually is. Yes, we know you’ve got to find answers and only have a limited period of time due to budget… So effectively your work will only speak to those who are privileged enough to be able to engage on your timescale… The range of compatible participants narrows very quickly as the requirements grow. Then what happens when you introduce new perspectives into that conversation… people have to learn what each other “mean” all over again. BUT your potential audience widens exponentially. It’s kind of self explanatory. So why is the extra time and effort needed, not valued or scheduled as much as it should be? AND as the developer how do you manage that space where things are being misunderstood whilst still trying to answer the questions you have? How far can you lean in before the conversation becomes about you and what you want as opposed to what the people want? 40%? 50%? How much does the extent of your ‘lean’ depend on the people in the room? How useful would it be to have the ability to alter this dependent on information participants provide you through conversation?  ATR believes leaning in differently is critical to our intention to aid the evolution of the design of digital facilitation tools to include new intercultural frames of reference.

What the last year has shown us through moving so much of our communication online, is that there is sooooo much work to do in bringing people of varying ethnicities into conversations involving tech development. The importance of conversational cues are being explored in a way they haven’t been explored before on a massive scale. From how much our phones invade our physical social and emotional time now as we assimilate to spending so much time on screen due to limited outside time.  Looking for shopping options online despite walking around the store (if you haven’t done that yet… HOW?). Learning to try and smile with your eyes as the people you meet in town can't read your facial expression. The air hug is now replacing the air kiss… Feeling like you’re wearing a mask the entire time you’re outside, then getting home and swapping PPE for a video call with a masked background. Making sure people can hear your laugh so they don’t think you’re being rude. Whether or not you can eat when you’re on a video call. Silences… before they were deemed as awkward… but now they’re polite too? Offline interactions when you’re on a video call. LYING online… Once upon a time people were accountable for lies, now people can lie to millions of people at a time, and drown out the accountability through cookies. How do people approach accountability?

At ATR we’ve only just begun to really unpack the real depths of these situational questions. The challenge is clear, what’s more surprising is how much there is to unlearn and decolonise when exploring expansive facilitation and we have stretched our timelines to match. The breakthroughs have been great. But the lessons have proven very unorthodox.

Next time you’re out and about, try something different. Try something new. Hit em with some smiling eyes. Maybe spend the next week of video calls with your camera off. Next time you’re talking to someone try texting them at the same time… Next time you get the chance to introduce people when you’re out for drinks… don’t. Then ask your friends if they thought that was weird and why. Try to look at what parts of conversations make you uncomfortable or make you feel safe as opposed to what content makes you feel uncomfortable or safe. You might learn something. We certainly did.

What is clear more than ever now, is that everyone is learning a new conversational dance with so many interactions occurring solely online and parts of our physical selves being hidden from others when we meet. How much do you lean in? How much CAN you lean in? What purpose is that lean supposed to serve? What happens when culture and ethnicity are huge factors in the space? How do you make room for them in the conversational dance? What the heck do you do if you’re the person who brought everyone together? As in Alex Hitchens’ case, would Albert ever get to kiss Allegra Cole?...