The Perils of Social Automation

InteractionMatrix
Photo by Brandon Jackson.

My first invitation to participate in an automated social life appeared in my inbox on Sept. 12, 2012. “Hey Brandon — want to grab a meal?” it began. “To making scheduling easier, you can check out my free times on Google Calendar at https://www.google.com/calendar/selfsched?sstoken=UUt0VWcybC14dktHfGRlZmF1bHR8.” I started to get a sinking feeling. “Just click on the time, put in your favorite dining hall, and click ‘Save.’ It will go right into my calendar and yours too. Best, Paul.”

I reread it, searching for any traces of personalization, any signs of humanity. Nothing. The message must have been generated by some system. Still, Paul was a classmate I wanted to get to know better, so I clicked the link.

A visual representation of Paul’s social life filled the screen, with a familiar interface: a weekly Google Calendar. Integrating my request into the system, the machine promptly notified me: “There are no appointment slots available until October 3rd, 2012.” Paul was booked solid for the next three weeks.  I scrolled ahead to find a few slender gray boxes, each of which represented an hour of Paul’s free time. I selected one labeled “Lunch,” typed in “Berkeley” and clicked “Save.”

A dark grin swept across my face as I realized I had just glimpsed the future of human interaction. I imagined a world without the back and forth of text messages, and without the hassle of typing appointments into calendars. Sure, I felt objectified and a bit violated. But what the system lacked in human interaction, it made up for in efficiency. And Yale has taught me that for most people, that’s what matters. Yes, I thought. Paul is on to something.

 

Paul invited dozens of friends and acquaintances to arrange meals with him using the Google Calendar Appointment Slots app. He used a variety of email templates to ensure an appropriate tone for each recipient. One of his friends, David Lilienfeld ’15, found the experience revolting.  “I hated it,” he recalls. “Setting up a lunch date with Paul felt like going to University Career Services.”

Paul grew concerned when many recipients ignored his invitation. To tackle the problem, he decided to employ a more intelligent tool: a human being. He used a web service called Fancy Hands to quickly hire a temporary personal assistant to set up the lunch appointments for him. Paul gave the assistant a list of five people to contact and simple instructions: “These people haven’t replied, please direct them to my Google Calendar.” Three ignored the assistant’s call, one was upset and one threw the system for a loop.

The aide began, “Hello, I’m calling on behalf of Paul, I wanted to follow up on scheduling a lunch date?”

“Oh, that’s fine, but I don’t schedule my lunches either,” the friend said calmly. “You’ll have to contact my assistant.”

Paul’s assistant chirped, “Oh, OK. I’m looking at your file, and it doesn’t look like I have their contact information. May I have their phone number?”

“Paul should already have it.” The friend hung up and immediately called Paul.

“Hey, someone claiming to be your ‘assistant’ just called me,” he said, laughing.

“Oh, great,” Paul replied. “Did you get things set up?”

The friend was shocked. He had thought the whole thing was a joke. “Why didn’t you just text me?” he finally asked.

 

Until recently, my lunchtime social life was suboptimal. On a typical day, I would get hungry at around 11, remember I had forgotten to make plans, text a friend, wait 15 minutes for a reply, try someone else, and before I knew it, I’d be sitting alone in a dining hall, eating as fast as possible. I often dreamt of building a system that could help me organize my social life. I imagined a tool that would keep track of everyone I hung out with and remind me to catch up with friends I hadn’t seen in a while. My ideal social automaton could do more than track my interactions. It could also simulate spontaneity by secretly making plans with friends and surprising me with a text message a few minutes in advance. As my lunch date with Paul approached, I wondered if his system would hold the key to optimizing my own social life.

The morning of our appointment, Paul’s system sent me a reminder. I got to Berkeley early, and joined the others waiting for their friends beneath the college’s taxidermied antelopes. As my peers stared at their screens, I scanned the courtyard for the archetypal busy person: a slim figure, walking quickly, typing furiously on an iPhone. But when I finally spotted Paul, he walked at a normal pace, surveying his surroundings with a calm smile. When we sat down, I was struck by his perfect posture. He listened attentively. He never checked his phone. I looked neurotic by comparison.

The more lunches I had with Paul, the more I realized that his social calendar was one small part of an elaborate system of apps and devices.

In the middle of one November lunch date, Paul said, “Wait! You have to see my newest device!” He whipped out his iPhone. On the screen was a stick figure, sitting down on a chair. “Watch this,” he instructed. Paul leaned forward. So did the stick figure. Paul leaned back. So did the stick figure. “The app is connected to a sensor on my back that monitors my posture,” he said, beaming. When he slouches, the sensor vibrates. “The first few times it vibrated, I thought my back was getting emails,” he laughed. Now he sits up straight automatically.

Paul keeps records on everything: daily stress levels, the weather, sleep duration, happiness, caffeine consumption, time on Facebook, distances traveled and the amount of time spent hanging out with each of his friends. He once tried tracking what he ate, but he couldn’t get into it, he says. “People thought it was weird that I was taking pictures with my phone,” he recalls. Paul’s newest idea is to record the electromagnetic signals emanating from his brain using an inexpensive EEG sensor. “I would love to use the data to keep track of my optimal working times,” he says.

Paul’s ultimate dataset is his calendar. His time is booked solid for at least two weeks into the future and four years into the past, although Paul informed me that, regrettably, there are a few hourlong gaps during a brief period in 2010. He uses the calendar as both a planner and a memory bank. “I feel much more free with these systems in place,” he says, without a hint of irony.

Paul’s obsession with organization is not born out of a desire to be as busy as possible. Rather, he insists, he is deeply aware of his limitations. “I have learned to identify what it is that my human brain is good at,” he says. “And then I try to outsource everything else to technology.” After all, human decision-making is a messy process that is influenced by millions of factors. Paul hopes that with enough data he will be able to better  “understand behavior at a global level,” he says, including why he does irrational or meaningless things.

“We all spend more time than we realize doing things that we don’t actually value,” Paul says. That is what motivated him to implement the appointment slot system in the first place. “I was wasting time replying to emails … time that I could have been spending with people,” he says.

By keeping detailed to-do lists and budgeting time for both work and play, Paul accomplishes more of his personal goals — like getting to know people better — and still manages to get an average of 7.80155 hours of sleep per night. “I think it is the best system,” he says. “I don’t miss anything. Ever.”

 

When I first signed up for a lunch date with Paul, the thought of being crammed into his busy schedule made me uncomfortable. But by our third lunch, I had come to admire his attitude. Paul carefully considers what he values and then he pursues it. Instead of giving up hope when unrealized goals accumulate on his to-do list, Paul builds machines to help him stay on track. The potential I saw in these systems to strengthen my real-life friendships began to overshadow my initial discomfort.

One night, I impulsively decided to implement Paul’s system of social automation. I put on my favorite electronic music, made a list of 30 friends I wanted to see more often and created daily “Breakfast,” “Lunch,” “Tea” and “Unstructured Free Time” appointment slots.

Suddenly it hit me: automating things is fun. It’s the satisfaction you feel after cleaning your room, plus the excitement of knowing that the next time around, you will have a robot to help you do it. I copied and pasted a slightly modified version of Paul’s message as fast as possible, getting more excited every time I hit “Send.”

And then I started to freak out. On the fifth or sixth email, I realized I had accidentally forgotten to change the name of the person the letter was addressed to. And then I spotted a typo. And then I reread the email and panicked that my friends would think I’m an obnoxious tool who sends impersonal mass emails in order to fill his schedule.

I needed to find a way to convince my friends that I actually wanted to spend time with them, so I decided to write one personalized sentence per message. This took a lot longer than I anticipated. I found myself longing for the simple days, when a text with the words “lunch tmrw?” was enough to make my friends feel valued.

The entire process took under an hour. By sunrise, I had plans for every meal for the next week. (To my disappointment, no one signed up for an Unstructured Free Time slot.)

Even though I knew my social life was soon to be vibrant, going out in public the next morning was nerve-wracking. I prayed that I wouldn’t run into the people who had ignored my email, since they clearly didn’t want to spend time with me. Or they thought I was a manipulative automaton. Or both. When I saw one of the recipients in a hallway, I pivoted and ran away.

There were many people who didn’t take too kindly to becoming part of the machine of my social life. As I returned to Calhoun, a friend yelled my name across Cross Campus to confront me. “It’s just so sad,” she said. “Why?” I asked. “So sad. It’s like you can’t handle the chaoticness of a real relationship, and you have to reduce everyone to a one-sentence personalization.” Another friend refused to sign up for a slot and told me to be on the lookout for a carrier pigeon with her response.

At 6 p.m. that night, my automated social life began. Unfortunately, my first appointment stumbled into the dining hall 35 minutes late. And then the next day, my tea appointment arrived 50 minutes late. Just like that, I descended into disillusionment.

 

“How’s the system going?” Paul asked me via email. When I called to vent, he didn’t seem surprised by my friends’ reactions. He ran into trouble of his own not too long ago when he invited others into his calendared world.

The appointment slots made people think that he didn’t have time for them. He recalls, “Sometimes people would say, ‘Wow, Paul, you’re really busy. …You only have an hour for me?’ Which of course is not true.” At the end of last semester, Paul solicited feedback on his appointment slots system from his users. “People just really didn’t like it, as great as it was,” he admits. “Everyone said, ‘Let’s just email.’” He eventually decided to abandon the system.

 

So what is it about social automation that so many people — including myself — find unsettling?

My first hypothesis was the lack of human interaction. Many of my friends complained that the scheduling email felt impersonal, even with my personalized sentences. Paul agrees. Recipients of automated emails “treat you like you’re a different person,” he says. “It’s as though you exist as a person when you send a text, but if you send an email, you’re a robot or something.” According to Paul, herein lies “the duality of the system”: the appointment slots system makes us feel like we’re interacting with a machine, even though we’re using it to organize real-life friendships.

But when I thought about it more, I realized that the real reason the Google Appointment Slots interface feels so viscerally negative has more to do with our own minds than with machines.

Let’s face it. We don’t like to admit we have limitations, and so far technology has done a magnificent job of indulging us. Google Calendar lets us keep track of thousands of events, and Facebook, thousands of people — far more than we could possibly manage (or even remember) on our own without the technology. No computer interface would dare tell us we’re trying to do too much. Without any negative feedback from our devices, we applaud each other’s packed schedules while growing increasingly anxious about our own.

But the appointment system is different, because it directly corresponds to real life in a way that many online technologies don’t. There are a finite number of available time slots which each reflects an hour of time spent with an actual person. We can’t trick ourselves into thinking we can do everything because there are simply not enough time slots available.

The calendar interface transports the user to a realm where everyone is cramming in as much as possible, where time is a scarce resource, where we have to make choices about whom we spend time with. We don’t like the system because, for better or for worse, it forces us to acknowledge our limitations. Some say the appointment slots system turns men into machines. I think it reminds us that we’re human.

By using technology to make his social life as efficient as possible, Paul has accepted his human limitations. His use of a simple machine to efficiently schedule social interactions evoked deep feelings of anxiety among his friends, including me. Yet at the same time, his system enabled me to quickly plan over a dozen wonderful meals and tea dates with my friends that probably wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

Before we can judge the way Paul uses technology to optimize his schedule, we need to examine the way we spend our own time. While he is perfecting his to-do lists and spending prescheduled time relaxing with his friends, the rest of us are wasting precious hours interacting with machines.  True, these machines resemble humans and provide a steady stream of positive feedback. But they ultimately deny us the satisfaction of genuine human interaction. Why don’t we have such negative reactions to these systems?

At first, I thought Paul was the crazy one. But now I’m not so sure.

 

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