Last Tuesday night I was fortunate enough to hear Genevieve Bell, anthropologist, future-thinker, and director of Intel Corporation’s Interaction and Experience Research, speak. It was a really compelling talk with lots of big thoughts. There was a small one I wanted to pick up on, though: in a discussion about seamless technology integration, Bell told an anecdote to illustrate how people always think they want seamless technology when in actual fact they usually don’t. In this story, someone took a photo of some company-sensitive information on their smartphone in order to email it to other employees as follow-up to a meeting. So far, so good. But this smartphone was set to sync all photos to an account shared with that person’s partner…who happened to work at one of their company’s biggest competitors.
Bell’s point was that there is this illusion that we want this seamless integration of all of our devices (or all of our data), when in fact quite a lot of it we’d rather preserve behind a barrier. What we actually want is something that knows the difference, which isn’t currently what is being designed.
But my interest in this was more the language Bell used to describe this desire for a non-seamless world. Often this compartmentalisation is couched in the language of consent: do you consent to give your details to a service provider, when and how often do you need to authenticate your account, what levels of consent have you provided to do with your data?
I don’t know about you, but in the world we’re in now, I sometimes think the word ‘consent’ has become reduced to its function in discussions about sexuality. There are all kinds of consent, but discussion and debate around this word crops up most frequently in discussions about sex, the body, personal agency, personal responsibility, public and private, gender… the weightiest, most fraught topics in our lives.
In many ways consent about personal data and information (in which I include anything that could be used to identify you: photos, purchase histories, your geolocation, etc) falls squarely in the category of weighty, fraught topics. These artifacts pervade people’s identities; they are expressions of self in a very intimate way.
I wonder, though, if this focus on consent as a fraught terminology of power makes it a little scary. In a way that means maybe people aren’t really considering in practical terms its significance with reference to technology, because they think such a fraught term can only apply in a crisis.
This is why I found Bell’s use of the word ‘seams’ instead of ‘consent’ useful. ‘Seams’ provides a sense of physical boundary located outside the self. It’s pragmatic and down to earth, not tucked away in the shadowy corners of the mind. (Not that I am saying discussions about consent or public debates about the meaning of consent should be like this. But regardless of what they should be like, I think they often are caught in a very fraught discourse.) It’s a much less loaded physical metaphor for the transfer of digital artifacts.
I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts: are seams a better metaphor for boundaries in our digital lives, or are existing discourses around consent still a useful framework?