Tensions of a Digitally-Connected World in Cricket Wireless’ Holiday Ad Campaign

In the spirit of taking a break over the holidays, this is more of a fun post with some very rough thoughts (though inspired by some of my prior work on paying attention to and critiquing narratives and futures portrayed by tech advertising). The basic version is that the Cricket Wireless 2018 Holiday AdFour the Holidays (made by ad company Psyop), portrays a narrative that makes a slight critique of an always-connected world and suggests that physical face-to-face interaction is a more enjoyable experience for friends than digital sharing. While perhaps a over-simplistic critique of mobile technology use, the twin messages of “buy a wireless phone plan to connect with friends” and “try to disconnect to spend time with friends” highlight important tensions and contradictions present in everyday digital life.

But let’s look at the ad in a little more detail!

Last month, while streaming Canadian curling matches (it’s more fun than you might think, case in point, I’ve blogged about the sport’s own controversy with broom technology) there was a short Cricket ad playing with a holiday jingle. And I’m generally inclined to pay attention to an ad with a good jingle. Looking it up online brought up a 3 minute long short film version expanding upon the 15 second commercial (embedded above), which I’ll describe and analyze below.

It starts with Cricket’s animated characters Ramon (the green blob with hair), Dusty (the orange fuzzy ball), Chip (the blue square), and Rose (the green oblong shape) on a Hollywood set, “filming” the aforementioned commercial, singing their jingle:

The four, the merrier! Cricket keeps us share-ier!

Four lines of unlimited data, for a hundred bucks a month!

After their shoot is over, Dusty wants the group to watch fireworks from the Cricket water tower (which is really the Warner Brothers Studio water tower, though maybe we should call it Chekov’s water tower in this instance) on New Year’s Eve. Alas, the crew has other plans, and everyone flies to their holiday destinations: Ramon to Mexico, Dusty to Canada, Chip to New York, and Rose to Aspen.

The video then shows each character enjoying the holidays in their respective locations with their smartphones. Ramon uses his phone to take pictures of food shared on a family table; Rose uses hers to take selfies on a ski lift.

The first hint that there might be a message critiquing an always-connected world is when the ad shows Dusty in a snowed-in, remote Canadian cabin. Presumably this tells us that he gets a cell signal up there, but in this scene, he is not using his phone. Rather, he’s making cookies with his two (human) nieces (not sure how that works, but I’ll suspend my disbelief), highlighting a face-to-face familial interaction using a traditional holiday group activity.

The second hint that something might not be quite right is the dutch angel establishing shot of New York City in the next scene. The non-horizontal horizon line (which also evokes the off-balance establishing shot of New York from an Avengers: Infinity War trailer) visually puts the scene off balance. But the moment quickly passes, as we see Chip on the streets of New York taking instagram selfies.

2 Dutch angles of New York

Dutch angle of New York from Cricket Wireless’ “Four the Holidays” (left) and Marvel’s Avengers Infinity War (right)

Then comes a rapid montage of photos and smiling selfies that the group is sending and sharing with each other, in a sort of digital self-presentation utopia. But as the short film has been hinting at, this utopia is not reflective of the characters’ lived experience.

The video cuts to Dusty, skating alone on a frozen pond, successfully completing a trick, but then realizes that he has no one to share the moment with. He then sings “The four the merrier, Cricket keeps us share-ier” in a minor key as re-envisions clouds in the sky as the form of the four friends. The minor key and Dusty’s singing show skepticism in the lyrics’ claim that being share-ier is indeed merrier.

The minor key continues, as Ramon sings while envisioning a set of holiday lights as the four friends, and Rose sees a department store window display as the four friends. Chip attends a party where the Cricket commercial (from the start of the video) airs on a TV, but is still lonely. Chip then hails a cab, dramatically stating in a deep voice “Take me home.”

In the last scene, Chip sits atop the Cricket Water Tower (or, Chekov’s Water Tower returns!) at 11:57pm on New Year’s Eve, staring alone at his phone, discontent. This is the clearest signal about the lack of fulfillment he finds from his phone, and by extension, the digitally mediated connection with his friends.

Immediately this is juxtaposed with Ramon singing with his guitar from the other side of the water tower, still in the minor key. Chip hears him and immediately becomes happier, and the music shifts to a major key as Rose and Dusty enter as the tempo picks up, and the drums and orchestra of instruments join in. And the commercial ends with the four of them watching New Year’s fireworks together. It’s worth noting the lyrics at the end:

Ramon: The four the merrier…

Chip [spoken]: Ramon?! You’re here!

Rose: There’s something in the air-ier

All: That helps us connect, all the season through. The four, the merrier

Dusty: One’s a little harrier (So hairy!)

All: The holidays are better, the holidays are better, the holidays are better with your crew.

Nothing here is explicitly about Cricket wireless, or the value of being digitally connected. It’s also worth noting that the phone that Chip was previously staring at is nowhere to be found after he sees Ramon. There is some ambiguous use of the word “connect,” which could refer to both a face-to-face interaction or a digitally mediated one, but the tone of the scene and emotional storyline bringing the four friends physically together seems to suggest that connect refers to the value of face-to-face interaction.

So what might this all mean (beyond the fact that I’ve watched this commercial too many times and have the music stuck in my head)? Perhaps the larger and more important point is that the commercial/short film is emblematic of a series of tensions around connection and disconnection in today’s society. Being digitally connected is seen as a positive that allows for greater opportunity (and greater work output), but at the same time discontent is reflected in culture and media, ranging from articles on tech addiction, to guides on grayscaling iPhones to combat color stimulation, to disconnection camps. There’s also a moralizing force behind these tensions: to be a good employee/student/friend/family member/etc, we are told that we must be digitally connected and always-on, but at the same time, we are told that we must also be dis-connected or interact face-to-face in order to be good subjects.

In many ways, the tensions expressed in this video — an advertisement for a wireless provider trying to encourage customers to sign up for their wireless plans, while presenting a story highlighting the need to digitally disconnect — parallels the tensions that Ellie Harmon and Melissa Mazmanian find in their analysis of media discourse of smartphones: that there is both a push for individuals to integrate the smartphone into everyday life, and to dis-integrate the smartphone from everyday life. What is fascinating to me here is that this video from Cricket exhibits both of those ideas at the same time. As Harmon and Mazmanian write,

The stories that circulate about the smartphone in American culture matter. They matter for how individuals experience the device, the ways that designers envision future technologies, and the ways that researchers frame their questions.

While Four the Holidays doesn’t tell the most complex or nuanced story about connectivity and smartphone use, the narrative that Cricket and Psyop created veers away from a utopian imagining of the world with tech, and instead begins to reflect  some of the inherent tensions and contradictions of smartphone use and mobile connectivity that are experienced as a part of everyday life.

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Eliciting Values Reflections by Engaging Privacy Futures Using Design Workbooks [Talk]

This blog post is a version of a talk I gave at the 2018 ACM Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing (CSCW) Conference based on a paper written with Deirdre Mulligan, Ellen Van Wyk, John Chuang, and James Pierce, entitled Eliciting Values Reflections by Engaging Privacy Futures Using Design Workbooks, which was honored with a best paper award. Find out more on our project page, our summary blog post, or download the paper: [PDF link] [ACM link]

In the work described in our paper, we created a set of conceptual speculative designs to explore privacy issues around emerging biosensing technologies, technologies that sense human bodies. We then used these designs to help elicit discussions about privacy with students training to be technologists. We argue that this approach can be useful for Values in Design and Privacy by Design research and practice.

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Engaging Technologists to Reflect on Privacy Using Design Workbooks

This post summarizes a research paper, Eliciting Values Reflections by Engaging Privacy Futures Using Design Workbooks, co-authored with Deirdre Mulligan, Ellen Van Wyk, John Chuang, and James Pierce. The paper will be presented at the ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing (CSCW) on Monday November 5th (in the afternoon Privacy in Social Media session). Full paper available here.

Recent wearable and sensing devices, such as Google GlassStrava, and internet-connected toys have raised questions about ways in which privacy and other social values might be implicated by their development, use, and adoption. At the same time, legal, policy, and technical advocates for “privacy by design” have suggested that privacy should embedded into all aspects of the design process, rather than being addressed after a product is released, or rather than being addressed as just a legal issue. By advocating that privacy be addressed through technical design processes, the ability for technology professionals to surface, discuss, and address privacy and other social values becomes vital.

Companies and technologists already use a range of tools and practices to help address privacy, including privacy engineering practices, or making privacy policies more readable and usable. But many existing privacy mitigation tools are either deductive, or assume that privacy problems already known and well-defined in advance. However we often don’t have privacy concerns well-conceptualized in advance when creating systems. Our research shows that design approaches (drawing on a set of techniques called speculative design and design fiction) can help better explore, define, perhaps even anticipate, the what we mean by “privacy” in a given situation. Rather than trying to look at a single, abstract, universal definition of privacy, these methods help us think about privacy as relations among people, technologies, and institutions in different types of contexts and situations.

Creating Design Workbooks

We created a set of design workbooks — collections of design proposals or conceptual designs, drawn together to allow designers to investigate, explore, reflect on, and expand a design space. We drew on speculative design practices: in brief, our goal was to create a set of slightly provocative conceptual designs to help engage people in reflections or discussions about privacy (rather than propose specific solutions to problems posed by privacy).

A set of sketches that comprise the design workbook

Inspired by science fiction, technology research, and trends from the technology industry, we created a couple dozen fictional products, interfaces, and webpages of biosensing technologies, or technologies that sense people. These included smart camera enabled neighborhood watch systems, advanced surveillance systems, implantable tracking devices, and non-contact remote sensors that detect people’s heartrates. In earlier design work, we reflected on how putting the same technologies in different types of situations, scenarios, and social contexts, would vary the types of privacy concerns that emerged (such as the different types of privacy concerns that would emerge if advanced miniatures cameras were used by the police, by political advocates, or by the general public). However, we wanted to see how non-researchers might react to and discuss the conceptual designs.

How Did Technologists-In-Training View the Designs?

Through a series of interviews, we shared our workbook of designs with masters students in an information technology program who were training to go into the tech industry. We found several ways in which they brought up privacy-related issues while interacting with the workbooks, and highlight three of those ways here.

TruWork — A product webpage for a fictional system that uses an implanted chip allowing employers to keep track of employees’ location, activities, and health, 24/7.

First, our interviewees discussed privacy by taking on multiple user subject positions in relation to the designs. For instance, one participant looked at the fictional TruWork workplace implant design by imagining herself in the positions of an employer using the system and an employee using the system, noting how the product’s claim of creating a “happier, more efficient workplace,” was a value proposition aimed at the employer rather than the employee. While the system promises to tell employers whether or not their employees are lying about why they need a sick day, the participant noted that there might be many reasons why an employee might need to take a sick day, and those reasons should be private from their employer. These reflections are valuable, as prior work has documented how considering the viewpoints of direct and indirect stakeholders is important for considering social values in design practices.

CoupleTrack — an advertising graphic for a fictional system that uses an implanted chip for people in a relationship wear in order to keep track of each other’s location and activities.

A second way privacy reflections emerged was when participants discussed the designs in relation to their professional technical practices. One participant compared the fictional CoupleTrack implant to a wearable device for couples that he was building, in order to discuss different ways in which consent to data collection can be obtained and revoked. CoupleTrack’s embedded nature makes it much more difficult to revoke consent, while a wearable device can be more easily removed. This is useful because we’re looking for ways workbooks of speculative designs can help technologists discuss privacy in ways that they can relate back to their own technical practices.

Airport Tracking System — a sketch of an interface for a fictional system that automatically detects and flags “suspicious people” by color-coding people in surveillance camera footage.

A third theme that we found was that participants discussed and compared multiple ways in which a design could be configured or implemented. Our designs tend to describe products’ functions but do not specify technical implementation details, allowing participants to imagine multiple implementations. For example, a participant looking at the fictional automatic airport tracking and flagging system discussed the privacy implication of two possible implementations: one where the system only identifies and flags people with a prior criminal history (which might create extra burdens for people who have already served their time for a crime and have been released from prison); and one where the system uses behavioral predictors to try to identify “suspicious” behavior (which might go against a notion of “innocent until proven guilty”). The designs were useful at provoking conversations about the privacy and values implications of different design decisions.

Thinking About Privacy and Social Values Implications of Technologies

This work provides a case study showing how design workbooks and speculative design can be useful for thinking about the social values implications of technology, particularly privacy. In the time since we’ve made these designs, some (sometimes eerily) similar technologies have been developed or released, such as workers at a Swedish company embedding RFID chips in their hands, or Logitech’s Circle Camera.

But our design work isn’t meant to predict the future. Instead, what we tried to do is take some technologies that are emerging or on the near horizon, and think seriously about ways in which they might get adopted, or used and misused, or interact with existing social systems — such as the workplace, or government surveillance, or school systems. How might privacy and other values be at stake in those contexts and situations? We aim for for these designs to help shed light on the space of possibilities, in an effort to help technologists make more socially informed design decisions in the present.

We find it compelling that our design workbooks helped technologists-in-training discuss emerging technologies in relation to everyday, situated contexts. These workbooks don’t depict far off speculative science fiction with flying cars and spaceships. Rather they imagine future uses of technologies by having someone look at a product website, or a amazon.com page or an interface and thinking about the real and diverse ways in which people might experience those technology products. Using these techniques that focus on the potential adoptions and uses of emerging technologies in everyday contexts helps raise issues which might not be immediately obvious if we only think about positive social implications of technologies, and they also help surface issues that we might not see if we only think about social implications of technologies in terms of “worst case scenarios” or dystopias.

Paper Citation:

Richmond Y. Wong, Deirdre K. Mulligan, Ellen Van Wyk, James Pierce, and John Chuang. 2017. Eliciting Values Reflections by Engaging Privacy Futures Using Design Workbooks. Proc. ACM Hum.-Comput. Interact. 1, CSCW, Article 111 (December 2017), 26 pages. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1145/3134746


This post is crossposted with the ACM CSCW Blog

Exploring Implications of Everyday Brain-Computer Interface Adoption through Design Fiction

This blog post is a version of a talk I gave at the 2018 ACM Designing Interactive Systems (DIS) Conference based on a paper written with Nick Merrill and John Chuang, entitled When BCIs have APIs: Design Fictions of Everyday Brain-Computer Interface Adoption. Find out more on our project page, or download the paper: [PDF link] [ACM link]

In recent years, brain computer interfaces, or BCIs, have shifted from far-off science fiction, to medical research, to the realm of consumer-grade devices that can sense brainwaves and EEG signals. Brain computer interfaces have also featured more prominently in corporate and public imaginations, such as Elon Musk’s project that has been said to create a global shared brain, or fears that BCIs will result in thought control.

Most of these narratives and imaginings about BCIs tend to be utopian, or dystopian, imagining radical technological or social change. However, we instead aim to imagine futures that are not radically different from our own. In our project, we use design fiction to ask: how can we graft brain computer interfaces onto the everyday and mundane worlds we already live in? How can we explore how BCI uses, benefits, and labor practices may not be evenly distributed when they get adopted?

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Assembling Critical Practices Reading List Posted

At the Berkeley School of Information, a group of researchers interested in the areas of critically-oriented design practices, critical social theory, and STS have hosted a reading group called “Assembling Critical Practices,” bringing together literature from these fields, in part to track their historical continuities and discontinuities, as well as to see new opportunities for design and research when putting them in conversation together.
I’ve posted our reading list from our first iterations of this group. Sections 1-3 focus on critically-oriented HCI, early critiques of AI, and an introduction to critical theory through the Frankfurt School. This list comes from an I School reading group put together in collaboration with Anne Jonas and Jenna Burrell.

Section 4 covers a broader range of social theories. This comes from a reading group sponsored by the Berkeley Social Science Matrix organized by myself and Anne Jonas with topic contributions from Nick Merrill, Noura Howell, Anna Lauren Hoffman, Paul Duguid, and Morgan Ames (Feedback and suggestions are welcome! Send an email to richmond@ischool.berkeley.edu).

Table of Contents:

See the whole reading list on this page.

Interrogating Biosensing Privacy Futures with Design Fiction (video)

 

I presented this talk in November 2017, at the Berkeley I School PhD Research Reception. The talk discusses findings from 2 of our papers:

Richmond Y. Wong, Ellen Van Wyk and James Pierce. (2017). Real-Fictional Entanglements: Using Science Fiction and Design Fiction to Interrogate Sensing Technologies. In Proceedings of the ACM Conference on Designing Interactive Systems (DIS ’17). https://escholarship.org/uc/item/7r229796

Richmond Y. Wong, Deirdre K. Mulligan, Ellen Van Wyk, James Pierce and John Chuang. (2017). Eliciting Values Reflections by Engaging Privacy Futures Using Design Workbooks. Proceedings of the ACM Human Computer Interaction (CSCW 2018 Online First). 1, 2, Article 111 (November 2017), 27 pages. https://escholarship.org/uc/item/78c2802k

More about this project and some of the designs can be found here: biosense.berkeley.edu/projects/sci-fi-design-fiction/

Glass Enterprise Edition Doesn’t Seem So Creepy

Google Glass has returned — as Glass Enterprise Edition. The company’s website suggests that it can be used in professional settings–such as manufacturing, logistics, and healthcare — for specific work applications, such as accessing training videos, annotated images, handsfree checklists, or sharing your viewpoint with an expert collaborator. This is a very different imagined future with Glass than in the 2012 “One Day” concept video where a dude walks around New York City taking pictures and petting dogs. In fact, the idea of using this type of product in a professional working space, collaborating with experts from your point of view sounds a lot like the original Microsoft HoloLens concept video (mirror).

This is not to say one company followed or copied another (and in fact Hololens’ more augmented-reality-like interface and Glass’ more heads-up-display-like interface will likely be used for different types of applications. It is, however, a great example of how a product’s creepiness is partly related to whether it’s envisioned as a device to be used in constrained contexts or not.  In a great opening line which I think sums this well,  Levi Sumagaysay at Silicon Beat says:

Now Google Glass is productive, not creepy.

As I’ve previously written with Deirdre Mulligan [open access version] about the future worlds imagined by the original video presentations of Glass and HoloLens, Glass’ original portrayal of being always-on (and potentially always recording), invisible to others, taking information from one social context and using it in another, used in public spaces, made it easier to see it as a creepy and privacy-infringing device. (It didn’t help that the first Glass video also only showed the viewpoint of a single imagined user, a 20-something-year-old white man). Its goal seemed to be to capture information about a person’s entire life — from riding the subway to getting coffee with friends, to shopping, to going on dates. And a lot of people reacted negatively to Glass’ initial explorer edition, with Glass bans in some bars and restaurants, campaigns against it, and the rise of the colloquial term “glasshole.” In contrast, HoloLens was depicted as a very visible and very bulky device that can be easily seen, and its use was limited to a few familiar, specific places and contexts — at work or at home, so it’s not portrayed as a device that could record anything at any time. Notably, the HoloLens video also avoided showing the device in public spaces. HoloLens was also presented as a productivity tool to help complete specific tasks in new ways (such as CAD, helping someone complete a task by sharing their point of view, and the ever exciting file sharing), rather than a device that could capture everything about a user’s life. And there were few public displays of concern over privacy. (If you’re interested in more, I have another blog entry with more detail). 

Whether explicit or implicit, the presentation of Glass Enterprise Edition seems to recognize some of the lessons about constraining the use of such an expansive set of capabilities to particular contexts and roles. Using Glass’ sensing, recording, sharing, and display capabilities within the confines of professionals doing manufacturing, healthcare, or other work on the whole helps position the device as something that will not violate people’s privacy in public spaces. (Though it is perhaps still to be seen what types of privacy problems related to Glass will emerge in workplaces, and how those might be addressed through design, use rules, training, an so forth). What is perhaps more broadly interesting is how the same technology can take on different meanings with regards to privacy based on how it’s situated, used, and imagined within particular contexts and assemblages.