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Digital technologies have knit themselves into our lives — and, increasingly, into our bodies. How can we reap the potential benefits of these technologies without turning ourselves into cyborgs?
From the beginning, the MIT Mobile Experience Lab has focused on using digital technology to maintain human interaction and human connections at the community level. The lab’s goal is truly to design technology around people, not the other way around — from smart personal devices to smart cities. Let’s look at some examples.
The city of Brescia, in northern Italy, was facing a dramatic increase in the number of automobile accidents involving young drunk drivers. The city wanted to be perceived not just as an enforcer of laws, but as a component of a social circle that could help young drivers achieve better outcomes. Ride.Link, a system designed for the city by the Mobile Experience Lab, combines wearable technology, mobile phones, and a Web infrastructure to establish a peer-to-peer trust network in which Brescian youth address the social issue of drunk driving themselves, but aided by government institutions.
The UNICEF country office in Brazil trains young people to gather stories and data about their communities using a smartphone application based on the Mobile Experience Lab’s Open Locast technology. With it, youth can map their neighborhoods, identify where governmental and nongovernmental services exist or are missing, address issues of accessibility for young people, and locate public social spaces where the community is coming together.
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In Paris, the Mobile Experience Lab worked with the Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens to create a bus stop designed not just to help people use the bus system itself but also to serve as a local information kiosk. The Electronic Guimard, as it is known, keeps alive the key notion of an interactive urban artifact that reinforces social interaction.
What might a home look like with digital technologies that encourage social interaction between the house and its inhabitants, other dwellings and residents, and the larger community and the world? The Connected Sustainable Home, a Mobile Experience Lab project in Trentino, Italy, is a non-technocentric smart home. The house’s efficiency-related technologies function as a kind of personal trainer to encourage efficiency and thus sustainability — and the technology relationship between the house and its inhabitants can be extended to a wider world. Human connections are foundational to both the smart city and its smart inhabitants, uniting with technology to enable coordinated, efficient, and sustainable urban policies across neighborhoods, institutions, and indeed the entire social fabric of an urban area.
Many technologists seem not to care whether their designs and inventions are pulling people apart. Sitting alone at a computer, seemingly connected to an entire world but lacking any physical contact with others in a real physical space, is isolating. Instead of sitting down with someone to talk over a cup of coffee, we text, e-mail, or Skype them. The problem is real, and as our devices grow more and more capable, we had better do something about reversing this trend. We can begin correcting our course by recognizing the problem and pledging to make sure our technological progress is driven by what people need as human beings, and not simply by what the next technological development makes possible.
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Federico Casalegno is Director of the MIT Mobile Experience Lab and Associate Director of the MIT Design Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology