Some people claim that Americans, as a society, have lost the ability to hold a conversation. While this argument definitely has some credibility, the question then becomes can we use the same computers that “stole” the art of face to face interaction in order for it to be rediscovered. Lauren McCarthy and Kyle McDonald built a software to help explore this idea called US+, and it may very well be a peek into the next movement in social programming.

US+ is designed to be used by everyone, not just the tech heads who love to mod their own personal version of Linux. It’s integrated directly into Google Hangouts, and is available for anyone to use for free. It sits unobtrusively off to the side of the videostream most of the time where it gives users real time feedback on aspects of the conversation such as positivity, self absorption, femininity, aggression, and honesty. These statistics are shown on meters which are designed to fit into the aesthetic feel of Google with bright, friendly colors and curved corners. However, if any of the values that the program tracks get too high or too low, indicating a lapse in good conversation, the software will throw an alert on the screen. These signal the user that they are doing things like talking about themselves too much or not being positive enough. It does this using a combination of facial analysis, to read expressions, and linguistic analysis. It uses these to evaluate the emotions of the users as well as the flow and tone of the conversation.

As amazing as it is to think that this is not just a conceptual piece but an actual piece of working software, it introduces this fledgling technology in order to start a conversation around social hacking. At this point, the software is still quite basic and only in the beginning stages of what it could become. The sort of feedback it gives currently is that which any person with an iota of self awareness should be able to ascertain for themselves, but it questions what a world would look like wherein the technology has progressed to the point where it does more than just simple analysis. What if the prompts provided by an algorithm become the only way future humans learn to interact with each other.

The tongue in cheek portion is the idea that maybe we won’t have the option to ignore these suggestions at some point. Either the system will be so accurate that we can’t afford to ignore it, or it’s so ingrained in the way we interact that we feel uncomfortable living without it.
— Kyle McDonald via Wired Magazine

Even looking at the current arguments for how much face to face interaction has degraded since the advent of the internet, it is only a small hop of logic to see how this could drastically increase the rate of degradation. In a way, it is part of the natural order of biology that would lead to the downfall in this case. Social interaction is like a muscle: it has to be exercised and trained. However, if technology like this starts to become prevalent, those regions of the brain would never be developed, and they could very easily atrophy. As the old adage goes, use it or lose it.

Presenting itself as an ironic tool for optimization, productivity and generating success in online conversations, US+ probably aims at exasperating an ordinary mechanism: the total reliance on proprietary software for our everyday communication. We could potentially change or turn them off at any time, but we allow their presence in our continuous communication flow even in this intrusive and paradoxical way.
— Chiara Ciociola via Neural

While this focus may make socially driven technology such as US+ seem like an all around bad idea, when contrasted with the work of people like Steve Mann, it puts it into a very different light. Steve Mann is most often known for his work with Eyetap, a wearable computer that is used to augment memory, storing and displaying information from day to day interactions. Mann developed Eyetap from a concept he calls humanistic intelligence. This concept boils down to the idea that in order to effectively use artificial intelligence, we have to balance it with human intelligence to create a third type wherein both systems benefit each other: humanistic intelligence. From this point of view, it could be argued that projects such as US+ are actually acting more as a humanistic intelligence device because while they do perform a task that would normally be done by simple perception, it is acting in concordance with social interaction and simply providing another lense through which to view these conversations.


Moving past US+, Kyle and Lauren also began to see the somewhat less destructive ways in which we can incorporate technology into our social lives and put into practice humanistic intelligence. They again collaborated on a interaction based technology in 2015 called Pplkpr. Pronounced “People keeper,” this is an app that integrates with any smartwatch that gives real time heartbeat data in order to keep track of how individuals can affect your mood. It can then give you suggestions on how to interact with that person based on how you react to your time with them emotionally. It may give you a message letting you know that particular person is toxic, or if you instead have a beneficial time with them, it will set reminders in your calendar to call that person and set up another time to get together This is again an example of a technology that could potentially replace the organic ways in which we relate to people now, but in interviews, the artists were much more optimistic about this project. They got to test it out on 8 students from Carnegie Mellon, and the students had mostly positive reactions to it. Part of this comes from our propensity to just accept the people that we see on a day to day basis without sitting down and seriously considering how they make you feel. While the app does so much more, that was one of the biggest benefits; getting people to actually consider which relationships were healthy, and how an individual affected them.

However, going back to US+, something to keep in mind is that it not only introduces this idea as a very real vision of the future, but it allows a discussion to start about how to adapt to it in order to thrive. Should limits be put in place in order to preserve some sense of humanity? Should these sorts of software be banned entirely? Is it something that requires an age limit so as to let children develop unimpeded? Is it even useful? Questions that must be considered before we jump head first into this potentially world changing technology. To leave you with a thought from one of the artists:

With the current pace of tech development and startup culture, there’s not a lot of time for contemplation in the process.I think as artists we can contribute to the conversation by provoking people to engage with questions about what kind of social future we’re building.
— Lauren McCarthy via Wired Magazine
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