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“Always On” is for Extroverts

In one of the early presentations at the Interactive Technology Summit last fall, Sensor Platforms’ Kevin Shaw gave a compelling presentation that wove together the concepts of always-on technology, context, and the disappearance of the interface: it should all happen transparently.

He painted a compelling picture of intelligent, benevolent always-on electronic eyes that watch us and learn who we are, what we want, and, critically, anticipate our next moves, practically laying out our suits for us before we even realize that we need one for an upcoming engagement.

I’ve heard this sort of thing before, so it wasn’t completely new. I didn’t have to zero in on every word, and so I was able to pay attention to other things. Like the fact that I was getting more and more stressed out as this idyllic scene unfolded. It was incongruous, and I started paying attention to why I was feeling increasingly unsatisfied with this utopian vision.

And then it hit me: I’m an introvert. I’m not built for “always on.” At the risk of gross over-simplification, extroverts are always on and appear to enjoy being on. So much so that it’s hard even to call it “on” if there is no “off.” Or at least that’s how it looks to us introverts.

By contrast, we introverts need down time. We turn on when required, but we need an occasional retreat, a breather, where we can be ourselves rather than being the public personae that the world demands, which can be a lot of work.

And we have secrets. Not necessarily dark ones, but we reserve portions of ourselves for ourselves and perhaps for a few others. It’s a little private carve-out we allocate. And for some machine to attempt to plumb that space is an affront, a violation.

Part of it is a desire to maintain some control over some aspects of our lives. Not necessarily to the extent of being a control freak, but simply reserving decisions to ourselves that our computers might aspire to take over. Predictability is anathema.

I remember in high school, during those years when I wanted to be invisible, ordering food from the café. One day the woman said, “Of course… you order the same thing every day.” I hated that. First, she had noticed me – I wasn’t invisible. Second, I was predictable. It made me want to occasionally shake things up just to keep others guessing a bit. Maintain some mystery, perhaps.

Replace that woman with a computer, and, well, you have an always-on context-aware machine that notices that I order the same thing for lunch every day. That doesn’t make me happy. As I’ve noted before, I am somewhat skeptical that context systems can really acquire the nuance necessary to avoid blundering about. I have yet to be convinced that they will realize that all individuals are individual, that what “most people do” isn’t what you or I may want to do, and that “what I usually do” may not be what I want to do right now.

And there’s the suspicion that, all of the promised benefits aside, the real money and motivation are in one field: advertising. In getting information about me to help advertisers drive me to constant consumption. That kind of system doesn’t really need to be as accurate as the kind of predictive system painted by context folks; close is ok for that. So I’ve got all of these eyes watching me for… what, so I can receive better ads?

But even backing out of these details, I think a lot of us would simply like to temper the concept of “always on.” How about “often on”? Or, better yet, “on when I say so”? Don’t “make my decisions for me”; how about “suggesting something and I’ll decide whether that’s what I want”? I would welcome systems like that. Unfortunately, current trends are in the opposite direction.

In the end, when we introverts have had enough of all of this, we can shut it all down, get away into a private place or the desert or the mountains, just us, no one watching, no decisions, taking control just enough to relinquish control to Nature, the final arbiter, both the creator and, ultimately, the destroyer of all we presume to create.

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