And now I come to the close — the coda — of this five-part article on our evolving relationship with machines. In part one, I looked at the movie Her, presenting it as a contemporary take on the man-and-machine theme. Back in the 70s, it was “man versus machine.” Today, we are so attached to machines that we fear losing them, like lovers. In part two, I looked at the emerging set of tools that the creators of products and services now have to “design for emotion.” In part three, I looked at how these new tools are being used in the offline world to create meaningful and powerful experiences. Then, in part four, I reflected on the deliberate response of some folks to use technology to bring people back to the world of physical experience.
If there’s a moral to this story, so far, it’s that technology need not be a proxy for human experience. Instead, by design, it can facilitate those experiences.
When I say by design, I am of course using the word in a way that differs from its meaning in most of this article. I mean “by intent,” to make the point that technologists have a choice in shaping the next man-and-machine narrative. But as I have written before, there’s a movement afoot in another world — professional psychology — that is poised to help shape that narrative, and it pays to keep tabs on that movement and its early impact of product development.
In a series of articles, I recently wrote about the emergence of a new category of product that I dubbed happy-tech. From applications like Happify — designed to help people incorporate healthy habits into their personal and professional lives — to portals like ThriveOn, which seeks to match mental-health seekers with experts, the new products focus on the underserved market of psychotherapy aimed at mental wellness (versus mental illness). This is the market that the positive psychology movement — led by the University of Pennsylvania’s Professor Martin Seligman and others — is targeting. And, as I have noted before, the shift in focus is creating a market expansion in tech and other places. Happify openly declares its debt to the movement, and has developed a relationship with researchers at the University of Pennsylvania. The time may have come to formally name the category; happy-tech seems unworthy when you consider the aims of the entrepreneurs behind these ventures. Let’s call it positive tech and hope that others start tracking the category.
And here’s a subset to the category that certainly will be worth tracking: educational technology that’s designed to impart the wisdom embedded in the Happify and ThriveOn experiences. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the launch of a new MOOC (massively open online course) by UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center called “The Science of Happiness.” The course, which starts in early September, is expected to attract more than 100,000 registrations. That’s a lot of people, and the course has been structured to put them all through a weekly regimen of exercises that have been proven to promote mental wellness. And with the MOOC’s emphasis on “training the trainers” (teaching teachers that can bring the science of happiness to their own communities), the GGSC may have found a way to accelerate learning (the ultimate brand proposition of edtech).
But there’s another reason that positive psychology — particularly the brand of positive psychology that the GGSC follows — may be helping to shape the man-and-machine narrative. In a recent interview with UC Berkeley’s Dacher Keltner — co-leader, along with Professor Emiliana Simon-Thomas, of the MOOC — there’s a western school of positive psych that does not compete with but rather complements the eastern school. While the eastern school may tend to emphasize optimism and grit (resilience), the western school tends to emphasize the importance of having a higher-purpose and social connections.
I’m a fairly new follower of the movement, and have not had the time to inquire about this interesting east-west dichotomy. But what I will say is that optimism, grit, purpose, and connection are all part of the positive psychology world view, and an emphasis on a few things can help advance the whole. It’s another example of doing something by design. And the MOOC’s focus on social connection may in fact help write the denouement of the man-and-machine narrative. While MOOCs have a long way to go in the way of social interaction, they can, at least in the early weeks, bring lots of people together, online and offline.
I’m betting that edtech will evolve. Nay, I intend to join others who are making this happen. And the denouement is an encounter with a human being, not a machine, though a machine may be designed to assist.
Follow me at @giorodriguez
[Design for Emotion: a five-part series on the use of emotion in consumer technology product and service development. For a podcast series on the general topic of "design for emotion," go here].