Technology

How to cope when the world can watch everything you do

Pop art by Andy Warhol
Image caption Warhol's prediction about fame my prove troubling for many

In 1968, pop artist Andy Warhol declared that in the future everyone will be world famous for 15 minutes.

As with many other predictions, it has not quite turned out like that. Some fear that given what technology is about to do to us, 15 minutes might feel like a blessed relief.

Social networks such as Facebook and micro-blogging services such as Twitter have begun a trend which could see more and more of the information about us viewable more of the time.

Add to that wider use of video cameras, sensors, RFID tags, geotags and other smart systems and we face a future in which we are under scrutiny all the time.

Hi-tech help

Not everyone is going to be happy with that constant attention. Researchers are investigating ways to help people cope and combat the feelings of incompetence, shyness and sheer embarrassment many people feel when trapped in the spotlight of technology. That will become especially acute with new technology that people do not know how to use.

"It's about looking to the future and the pervasive computing vision and at that point control becomes important because there could be an awful lot of information out there about you," said Dr Dan Chalmers, a senior lecturer in the School of Informatics at the University of Sussex.

Image caption Anna Dumitriu's virtual face will be morphed to reflect her mood

Dr Chalmers is heading a research project into ways to combat the epidemic of shyness that technology might evoke.

"One of the things that does give rise to feelings of shyness is the feeling of incompetence," said Dr Chalmers. The pace of technological change could leave many of us floundering to keep up, doing a poor job of controlling personal information and too embarrassed to do anything about it for fear of looking foolish.

"There's so much expectation that people will be technologically literate these days, especially young people; that's taken for granted," said Dr Susie Scott, a senior lecturer in sociology and member of the research team.

The work builds on Dr Scott's research into shyness and its causes.

"A lot of people assume that shyness is a problem that only some individuals have, and we should help them overcome their 'terrible' affliction," said Dr Scott.

Far better, she said, to realise that shyness can hit anyone.

"Shyness is a normal reaction evoked by social situations rather than individual psychology," she said. "It is not innate or in-built, and there's nothing wrong with it."

"It's the idea of feeling relatively incompetent in social interaction," she said. "It's very common in contemporary Western society, because of the pressure to perform and achieve."

Network map

For her part of the project, visual artist Anna Dumitriu is planning works of art that will initially explore when and how shyness, embarrassment and reticence come about.

One will involve her sitting at a table fitted with sensors that monitor her physiological condition. Visitors to the gallery where the artwork will be site will be invited to sit down and chat to Ms Dumitriu.

"They can sit opposite and talk to me about the ideas we are working on or they can make me feel awkward," she said.

If she feels awkward or shy while she chats to visitors, the sensors will spot the change and then trigger digitally rendered animations of her face which morph to reflect her internal emotional state however much she tries to appear calm and collected.

"We want a better idea of how shyness occurs and how it can be managed," said Dr Chalmers.

As well as interactive artworks, the research project will also study how people present themselves when they communicate with others either face-to-face or via the web on social sites such as Facebook.

Image caption Some forms of scrutiny are more obvious than others

The face-to-face interaction will be tracked using smartphones and with smart conference badges that can map where people go and plot who they talk to.

"We want to find out if a computer can recognise these situations," he said.

This might involve describing the signs of shyness to a computer or putting sensors on a phone to spot sweaty hands or blushing.

"Can we catch the situation before the manifestation?" he asked.

Once the researchers have gathered information about the situations that evoke shyness, they will start to put together tools that can recognise its signs and help people cope.

This could involve sensor networks that rally friends to offer support either virtually or face-to-face. It might also be as simple as advice to help people learn about the technology or situation they find themselves in.

Systems might also adapt to a user's preferences by, for instance, not using video with people they are not familiar with or only showing personal information sensed about them to close friends and family.

"We are interested in trying to find ways of providing tools for people to either manage their way around situations that would cause them to feel shy or to present themselves in a way that they do not feel under pressure to interact," said Dr Chalmers.

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