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Published onApr 27, 2020

Why the Title “The Social Machine: Designs for Living Online”?

Why did I choose “The Social Machine: Designs for Living Online” as the title of this book? The “machine” in the title is the computer. In its incarnation as a “social machine,” its abstract binary digits are programmed to transform it into a communication medium and a setting for interactions, an electronic place to see and be seen.

There is a long history of naming computers as machines for various functions, a tradition that reveals the changing scope of the computer’s domain.1 Herman Hollerith’s nineteenth-century “Tabulating Machine,” built to help with the US Census, became IBM’s twentieth-century general-purpose “Business Machine.” Alan Turing, in his 1950 essay “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” predicted that future computers would be “thinking machines,” their responses indistinguishable from those of a human. Today they are “social machines”; people use computers to meet friends, play games, collaborate on projects, commiserate, and argue.

This book’s title also refers to “The Architecture Machine Group” (ArcMac), the MIT research laboratory founded in 1967 by Nicholas Negroponte that was the precursor of the Media Lab.2 I began my graduate studies in ArcMac, and was there (and subsequently at the Media Lab) immersed in a culture devoted to inventing technologies to transform how people think, learn, and communicate. It was also a culture—very different from most computer science departments at the time—that emphasized the sensory experience of the computer interface, that it should not be a cramped readout, but a fully inhabitable environment. Many of the ideas in this book stem from my time there.

Other “Machines” also resonate with this book’s title. Dream Machines is Ted Nelson’s visionary tract about the computer as source of an infinite variety of new media. He wrote, “What matters is the design and workability of the media we create and choose. This is an enormous responsibility and an excitement.” The title also echoes architect Le Corbusier’s famous saying, “The house is a machine for living in.” A machine, he said, is something we build to solve a problem; for example, the airplane is a machine that solves the problem of flying. As for the house, he said, “The problem of the house has not yet been stated.” Le Corbusier’s Toward a New Architecture (Le Corbusier 1986 [1931]) is about distilling what problems the house should solve and how it should do so.

What is the problem of the social machine? To decide what we should build, we need to understand what makes society function, what people want to know about each other, and the way this knowledge changes our behavior. This book looks at these fundamental questions about how we want to live online and reviews experimental designs that explore new ways of being and communicating with each other.

The word “machine” also has harsher overtones. “Thinking machine,” “dream machine,” “social machine”—these phrases are provocative because they sound self-contradictory. A machine is inherently sterile, inanimate, automated, unthinking. The “social machine” under its sinister interpretation processes people for their data; it automates relationships, atrophying the human dimension. As designers and users of these technologies, we need to recognize this darker side to ensure we are instead creating tools for the benefit of those who use them.

Structure of the Book

The Social Machine consists of an introduction and twelve linked design and theory chapters. Each chapter in a pair addresses a common topic, approached from a different perspective.

Chapter 1, “Introduction: Design Shapes Society,” lays out the premise of the book and outlines three design goals for online spaces:

  • Be innovative: Go “beyond being there” to create new ways of interacting, seeing others, and presenting oneself.

  • Be legible: Interfaces should provide meaning and structure to the abstract online world.

  • Be beneficial: The interface design has a profound effect on the user’s experience and on the evolution of online culture.

Chapter 2, “Visualizing Social Landscapes,” introduces the goal of creating informative and intuitive interfaces by visualizing social patterns; the fundamental design problems are identifying the socially meaningful data and depicting it legibly and intriguingly. These social visualizations can map the overall structure of a community or communities (“long shots,” discussed in this chapter and in “Mapping Social Networks”), show the interactions among a group of people (“medium shots,” discussed in “Visualizing Conversations”), or depict an individual (“close-ups,” discussed in “Data Portraits”).

Chapter 3, “Interfaces Make Meaning,” delves deeper into the problem of creating a legible, interesting depiction. It explains how people use metaphors to understand abstract concepts—and because the online world is inherently abstract, we rely on interface metaphors to understand it. Other topics include the expressive elements of interactivity and the problem of making the affordances of a new medium intuitively understandable.

Chapter 4, “Mapping Social Networks,” returns to visualizing the structure of a community (the “long shot”) while focusing on mapping the network of relationships among a large number of people. It discusses what we can learn from these maps, how we can depict what flows through the connections, and how network maps can help us track changes in social connectivity—a particularly relevant issue as social media accelerate these changes.

Chapter 5, “Our Evolving Super-Networks,” addresses the question of what social network structure makes sense in our mobile, information-centric world. Our networks grow as we meet more people and have the means to stay in touch with them more easily; yet at the same time, our need for these networks diminishes as markets increasingly provide the support and services for which we once relied on family and friends.

Chapter 6, “Visible Conversations,” looks at the design of the “medium shot”—depicting interactions among people. Such visualizations help establish social mores, provide context for the conversation, and illuminate the complex history of online group interaction. To design them, one needs to understand the many social functions of conversation, beyond the mere exchange of information.

Chapter 7: Any conversation or interaction is a bounded situation with some barriers, whether physical or purely social and conventional, limiting who joins in and how the situation is defined. “Contested Boundaries” examines the challenge of creating these boundaries online, where there are no walls and identity is fluid.

Chapter 8, “Data Portraits,” is about the close-up: the depiction of an individual through data by and about him or her. Framing this visualization design problem as “portraiture” highlights how such works answer to the often competing desires of artist, audience, and subject—including when, as is often the case online, the “artist” is the machine.

Chapter 9, “Constructing Identity,” looks closely at how we form impressions of each other. Online identity is malleable, and it is easy to fake many of the familiar external signals of identity, such as race, gender, and age. Can we—and do we want to—design interfaces that replace these physically based cornerstones of identity with other signals such as knowledge markers, history of reactions, and so on?

Chapter 10, “Embodied Interaction,” discusses the design of new interaction interfaces. It traces the tension between recreating the experience of face-to-face interaction versus creating new types of experiences, that is, “going beyond being there.” Its focus is on the representation of the participants and the translation of physical actions into online behaviors.

Chapter 11, “Privacy and Public Space,” focuses on the control of personal data, that is, the tension between subject and viewer. It is often difficult to gauge whether an online space is private or public—whether one’s remarks will be recorded, searchable, and liable to appear in unintended contexts. Making this legible is essential for helping people decide how they wish to act and maintain control of their self-presentation.

Chapter 12, “Social Catalysts,” looks at projects that move social interaction from the individual screen and into public space. Its focus is on how these works act as “social catalysts”—transforming the dynamics of a space and bringing some of the online world’s open sociability to public space by bringing physically distant people into contact or by providing people with new knowledge about or new means to interact with each other.

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