There are countless people who make a living as global trend hunters. Jan Chipchase puts them all to shame. Formerly Nokia’s chief researcher and now Frog’s Executive Director of Global Insights, he is one of the world’s most well-traveled people. He does it all in the name of understanding technology and design more deeply. A typical month might take him from Tokyo to Nigeria to India, and at every point along the way he gathers hundreds of tiny observations about people, objects, products, services, systems, and interactions.
At this year’s PopTech conference in Camden, ME, Co.Design sat down with Chipchase. We talked about the blurry line between creepy and acceptable, the ability of technology to amplify and disrupt, the implications of embedded data, and opting in versus switching off.
Technological progress is happening faster and faster. Chipchase sees that trend, but with an added scope: Even as tech rollouts of new products are complicating our own holiday shopping lists, they are also reaching what used to be the farthest markets with remarkable speed. A lower-middle-class, 21-year-old woman in Nigeria now has a BlackBerry as her first phone. What used to be strictly the domain of the "Wall Street Warrior," is now an accessible accessory.
Even Chipchase is awed by the speed of the rollouts: "This thing, this object, keeps on ratcheting up. I keep on seeing it, it shouldn’t surprise me really, but in parts of Africa they’re talking about a 4G rollout next year. The speed at which that just becomes part of the landscape still manages to surprise me. It’s progress. Whether it’s good or bad, it’s progress. It just is."
What will it mean when our smartphones are as easy to borrow and throw away as a Bic pen? "You might think that that’s a stupid assumption, or that [mobile phones are] so highly personalized that it’s not going to happen," says Chipchase. "But for a segment of the market, a big segment, that is definitely going to happen. Its not just, 'Will it be tolerated.' It will be pushed, because it will make people money." Chipchase points out that all of the contracts and red tape place a huge barrier to accessing the network. So it’s only a matter of time that a new business model catering to strangers arises—much as it has with disposable mobile phones. But perhaps our identity can still be carried over from device to device. What will that future look like?
Remember when you used to have to really make an effort to connect to the Internet? Remember the sound of the modem connecting? The time it took for a simple image to load, top to bottom, seemingly one pixel at a time? The question was who could afford to switch on, who could afford to plug in. In an incredibly short amount of time, that question has made an about-face. Now the question has become who can afford to switch off.
We have all felt the massive pressure that comes with no connectivity, the search for full-bar coverage, any sliver of Wi-Fi, and the inability to check in with our email, our bosses, our text messages, in real time. And this is happening all over the world, under pressures that most of us cannot even imagine.
"We did a study in China, and in China, it’s really common, if you work in a factory, for a factory boss to take your ID card, and keep it. If you want to leave the factory you have to ask permission," says Chipchase. "What happens when, in principle, the ID is embedded, with the assumption that of course it’s with you 24/7, in the same way that underwear is with you 24/7, or an earring is with you 24/7? And I don’t know when that’s going to happen, but it is going to happen. What does it mean for a factory worker whose boss says, 'You need to come in and work on Sunday, and I know you can hear this message?' I think it’s a wonderful example, if you’re asking where it goes, it’s technology amplifying existing behaviors and assumptions. Technology disrupts, but it also amplifies."
So much more of what designers are designing and producers are producing, and what we consumers are consuming, is inherently connected. Virtually everything has an element of social connectivity to it, and we willingly put more and more of ourselves out into the ether—from the obvious and innocuous pictures of our cats on Facebook, to the less intuitive list of our credit card purchases on Blippy. What we are opting in and out of is no longer simply about trying the newest product on the market; it is about deciding whether or not to be part of society.
"That line between socially acceptable, and creepy is constantly changing," says Chipchase. "Do you remember Gmail contextual ads? The first time they came out? How long did that furor last for? Five days?"
We are embedding parts of our lives that used to be strictly private into the irretrievably public arena, constantly. As a result, more of our information is already embedded and retrievable in near or real time. "So if we were in South Korea, and we were having coffee, I would be self-documenting, and then we would post online, and you would be doing the same thing. Well, why is it that, here, in Maine, we don’t do that? Never assume that something you find utterly creepy today will not be the norm tomorrow."