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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DQ: “Un-Black Boxing” the Humanity of Devices

Reading the New York Times’ iEconomy series (Part 2, Part 3, Part 4) helped “un-black box” several things, including domestic and international labor involved in making and selling Apple products and their business practices.  While I had heard of Foxconn through the news, this was the first time I read about Apple’s corporate tax rate strategy, larger structural issues in the market that cause labor pressures, and the retail working conditions.

A Foxconn factory line. When we think about the labor and practices behind devices, this is probably what we think of, because of the focus of the news media. (Photo from the New York Times)

Labor in retail helps get devices into consumers’ hands (image from the New York Times)

I think there’s an interesting imbalance in general between what we consume related to new media, especially in the device market, and what we know about the processes and choices behind the devices, which the New York Times seems to be emphasizing in this series. I would ask how come we don’t know about these practices – the labor, the business strategies, the working conditions, etc.?  Does it need to take investigative journalism pieces like this one to expose it? Is it a lack of interest or care by consumers? Or do businesses intentionally suppress or make this information harder to find?  What is the role of the news media, or watchdog groups, if any, in un-black boxing the human stories within our technological devices? Is there a way to promote worker standards, greater public information about the manufacturing of devices, without harming competition in the marketplace? These may not necessarily be questions we need to grapple with – we can continue buying new technological devices blissfully unaware of the work that went into getting them into our hands – but they are questions we should be asking.

RB: The Paradox of UX Designers

As a relatively new entrant into the world of user experience (UX), and UX Design, the labor that they provide is something that is generally hidden when using information and communication technologies, especially those of new media. It is a common position, team, or even department at most internet companies, and I had never heard of such a job until I began taking human-computer interaction courses at Cornell.

As an example, I looked at Google’s UX & Design job page, where they list the following description:

“Focus on the user and all else will follow.” The job of our User Experience professionals is to make sure that our products are useful, usable and desirable to millions of users worldwide.

The old YouTube video player interface

The human labor exerted within this group includes creating designs, mock-ups and prototypes, doing research, user testing, and creating features that affect how users view and experience a service from Google, such as how the interactions needed to upload or watch a YouTube video, or how the Gmail interface looks. They don’t create content that end users produce or obtain, but they play a vital role in shaping how users experience the actual content of the media.

The new YouTube video player interface – human labor behind the design changes how people experience, receive, and interact with information


Downey often discusses in historical examples about how different labor helps information jump contexts, as his sources of labor are directly in the “path of transit” of information – the information has to pass through labor, which helps it “jump” contexts. I am not sure how much that applies in new media – much of the “path of transit” is sustained through technological links; the human labor helps create the platform where this takes place, but the information doesn’t pass directly through the laborers. In other words, UX Designers at Google don’t use their labor to directly format and deliver information, but rather use labor to create and decide how a platform will format and deliver information.

Ironically, much of the labor that UX Designers do is invisible, even though the end product is obviously visible, causing me to call this the paradox of UX Designers. Because the focus of their labor is on creating user experiences, the work that they do emphasizes the relationship between the end users and the technology (such as how does the user interact with Gmail, how do they experience working on Google Docs with other users?), which obscures the very real acts of labor that the UX designers themselves perform, rendering them invisible. Most people don’t think about why webpages are designed a certain way, or the research, iterations, and work behind it – the way it looks and feels is just the way it looks and feels.

An old design of Google Search

Given this, however, it is very important to recognize the labor that UX Designers do, because they are human too. They have their own beliefs, follow various social norms, and operate within a cultural context – and inevitably, some of these beliefs affect their labor, which can affect how users experience, send, and receive information. They are not impervious to creating biases; perhaps an interface for a Google service does not adequately serve someone with a vision disability, or a design may encourage users subconsciously to look at certain search results over others.

The current Google experience, such as instant results without pressing “enter,” and the current design, was created by human labor. This labor, and the cultural context in which it is performed, in turn are hidden, but still affect how users experience information.

Recognizing the role of UX Designers in the network is very important, because the way that we experience the not work is not necessarily the only way or even the best way to experience the network. The ways in which we experience how information is formatted and delivered is the consequence of human choices and actions, and explicitly recognizing the labor that creates our experience can help us be more critical and aware of possible biases in design, and maybe even more imaginative and creative in recognizing that the interactions that we have with information and technology are not the only way to do so.

DQ: Our Free Labor

Ross’ chapter is an excerpt from this book

Ross’ chapter, “In Search of the Lost Paycheck” describes shifting ideals regarding labor, and while these changes are not new, new media helps facilitate these changes. These could include the regular economic forces of pressuring workers to produce more at the same price (be more productive), but also the opportunities for new types of “free” labor. Some examples that Ross provides include data mining off of social network sites where people spend “social capital,” the increase of unpaid internships, and the perceived freedom and flexibility of mobile working.  Ross argues that it is the employers and companies, not the users or employees who benefit, by having user data to sell as a product, free interns to do work that used to be done by a paid worker, or be able to have employees work 24/7. In regards to the internet, Ross says

The real spoils, in other words, do not go to the aspiring stars, ranked and rated by the battery of metrics that measure Internet sentiment and opinion, but to behind-the-scenes content hosts and data miners, who utilize these and other metrics to guarantee their profits. (page 19)

This brought up an interesting viewpoint for me. Does our perception of how we use of social media, Google, or other new media change when we realize that these companies are profiting off information that we are giving up freely? Or do we value their services enough to provide our information “labor” free of charge (in exchange for social capital, or other services)?  And to what extent are we aware of these profits, and business models, and what power do we have to change them? Are we willing participants or cogs in a machine we don’t know even exists? Do we even have the choice of whether or not we want to provide the “labor” to these new media companies?