Moving upstream

After one and a half decades devoted to haptics, my work is shifting into a new field. Here’s why.

Having spent more than a third of my time on Earth living and breathing haptic technology, I’ve partially defined myself in terms of that field, from speaking at SXSW about its potential, to founding an industry consortium focused on scaling adoption, to starting a podcast about the tactile internet. That list is not intended to talk myself up — far from it, because even though haptics is not anything close to a failed technology, it has not scaled at the rate that I anticipated back when I began.

No doubt, haptics will continue to foster amazing new interactive experiences. However, I’m sad to say that I don’t plan to continue contributing to that story in a substantial way. I’m starting a new career, accepting all that entails. As someone who has spent a fair amount of time mentoring young designers about why they should consider a career in haptics, I would feel awkward about making this change without an explanation.

Let’s back up and recap what haptics means to me and why it will continue to be inspiring and important.

The promise of togetherness

Back in 2005, my motivation for devoting my time to developing haptic technology was that I saw it as a means of liberation. Touch sensations activate parts of the brain associated with instinct and emotion and have tremendous power over how we make meaning out of our physical existence. At the time, this was lacking in the software and hardware people used every day. I wanted to build a movement in the technology industry to bring those parts of our humanity online.

Haptics would become my obsession, with the goal of liberating people from being ‘trapped behind glass’ when using a touchscreen to interact with digital objects. My mental model was that humankind is trending toward total sensory immersion in digital reality, and haptics would contribute to that result by enabling experiences that are more human, and humane, than they otherwise would be.

I cannot overstate my appreciation for having been a part of the story of haptics. As an innovator, UXer, evangelist, and product designer, I used every chance I had to do my tiny part to build a world where people could connect physically and emotionally over long distances. The promise of togetherness motivated me to keep going when the going got tough. It always seemed clear to me that advanced haptics would allow authentic human connection to become as abundant and unrestricted as data itself. Handshakes, hugs, and high fives would be experienced and shared as easily as a web link. This still remains a goal of haptic developers, and a worthy one.

Another kind of social dilemma

Over the years, it has become clear that XR, the next platform for social interaction, will immerse people like never before. The value of haptics for virtual interaction having been well established for decades, one of my focus areas over the years was to create haptic design frameworks and design tools in preparation for the arrival of XR in the home.

As a part of this research, I attended a virtual reality conference a few years ago where a panelist speaking about VR advertising said that we (that is, those of us working in the tech and media industries) bungled advertising on mobile devices and apps. She said that the current model is too disruptive, too deceptive, too violating of privacy. This person continued: VR is rising to prominence and will become the next content platform, and we have a golden opportunity to do better this time and create ad-supported business models that benefit brands and users alike. Around the room, heads nodded, including mine. What a relief. VR has gifted us a reset button. Let’s learn from our mistakes and use technology to build the bright future that we all want, and that we all know is possible.

I remembered that exchange for years, and eventually, when I began focusing my work on ad tech, realized why. There had been a fly in the ointment of what that panelist said – the word ‘we.’ Who is that, exactly? Just people, trying their best to make a living and contribute to their communities. That same ‘we’ — with open minds and big hearts, nurturing our capacity for empathy and respect — that is the ‘we’ that had conjured the social media nightmare. What is going to be different this time?

If we have learned anything from the past decade, it’s that new technologies will be utilized in ways that have nothing to do with the intentions of its creators. Enter haptics — which can influence your emotions beneath conscious awareness and literally lets other people, companies, and advertisers exert forces on your body in order get you to do what they want. (This is not a vision of the future, but the present. Brain studies show that today’s haptic technology can efficiently imprint marketing messages in your memory and affect your thoughts below conscious awareness.)

Aware of these important issues, I led projects to develop solutions for haptic permissions systems that would empower people to decide for themselves the conditions under which they would allow far away individuals, companies, and governments to physically engage their bodies. Haptic privacy tools continue to be developed today, and they will help mitigate the danger of coercive tech that touches the human body. In addition to building these safeguards, there is work to do to raise awareness about digital coercion and educate one person at a time.

But here’s the rub: As long as good people are rewarded for decisions that diminish the well being of others, the best we can hope to do is swim against the flow of this powerful river, not change its direction. In many cases, technology developers know what lies downriver, and they don’t want to go – but they are astonished to find themselves pulled along that course as if nothing they do makes a difference.

Before moving on, one more anecdote: Many years ago at a conference I met one of the first wave of great social media gurus. That week was particularly hard for him because his father had been gravely ill. Seeing his father in the hospital made him question his career because (paraphrasing), “When the end of life approaches, will anybody look back and say, ‘I wish I had engaged with brands more’?” I did not keep in touch with this person and have no idea if he continued this train of thought to its logical conclusion (which is “no, and I’d better do something about it”).

To describe the state of affairs, it’s tempting to use the trite phrase, “the system is broken.” There are many systems, many are functional, some are not. But it does seem that some part of ‘the system’ by which we incentivize and reward human enterprise, especially having to do with technology development, is to blame for our current social dilemma. Even in the most exciting, innovative areas of technology, it’s hard to put forth a sound argument that any are substantially liberating in nature over the long term. They may remove limits on human activity, but as argued above, something about the way things work right now make it so that the removal of limits occasionally creates a beautiful flash of potential for positive change, followed by a torrential flood that washes away people’s privacy, autonomy, and time.

And so, even though the next logical step for me would be to continue pushing the limits of next-generation interfaces by using more sensors, more feedback channels, and more intelligence about people and their intentions, I’ve made the hard decision to move in a new direction.

Perhaps if we hike upstream a bit we will find the source of all this powerful current.

First you get fix the money

After studying and reading to try to make sense of how we got here, an answer came into focus: the system by which we transmit value has properties that disincentivize the creation of humane technology. These properties are not ambiguous – they are specific, quantifiable, and well known to economists. I know this idea seems to come out of the blue, but stick with me.

Putting aside how it got here or who’s to blame, the ugly truth is that there exists a tight feedback loop between those who directly and indirectly control money creation and distribution, and those who control large, centralized, proprietary databases that contain intimate details about ordinary people. At the risk of oversimplification, the broad concept is this: the money is used to extract more and more data, and the data is used to extract more and more money.

We have now hiked upstream far enough to discover the source of the torrential flow: a colossal, roaring water wheel, masterfully engineered, terrifying in its scale as it towers above even the tallest trees, moving so fast that you can barely track its motion with your eyes. But instead of turning the flow of water into energy like a traditional water wheel, this does the opposite, depleting energy from surroundings and accelerating the water with such force that anything in its path simply gets swept away. 

This is not the first such machine, though its scale dwarfs anything that came before. A deep dive into economic history teaches that societies rise and falter alongside the soundness of money, and that, perhaps unsurprisingly, it is often a broken monetary system that is responsible for the metastasis of other, more tangible problems that seem to come out of nowhere. This article is already too long, so we’ll avoid a discussion about that, but I encourage curious readers to investigate this further to understand what is really going on. Start here and expand out.

Life upstream

Upstream from the Wheel, most of the land is undeveloped. As we walk further, the sound of rushing water fades and is replaced by a clatter of hammers and saws – the sound of a boom town populated by a tribe of builders creating something revolutionary and important. Their hearts are in the right place, but what’s more, their intentions won’t matter in the end, because what they’re building is by its nature distributed, open, and based on rock solid foundations like cryptography and thermodynamics. These are, of course, the Bitcoiners, those insufferable idealists who shill for Magic Internet Money that, they believe, will lead to an era of widespread peace and prosperity. The insane thing is, they might be right. Perhaps, like haptics, the Bitcoin protocol can be viewed as a technology for togetherness, as its soundness propels peaceful cooperation.

When I started my Bitcoin journey many years ago, it was in the spirit of exploring emerging technologies with the hope of learning something that I could bring back to HCI and haptics. But I was soon captivated by the potential for distributed systems along with the vibrant community building them. These were among smartest people I have ever met, with diverse backgrounds hailing from all over the planet.

What I found most exhilarating about this tribe was their stage 5 ethos. Of course there is competition in the industry, but there is also a feeling of being on the cusp of something much bigger than any one person or company; a shared attitude that Bitcoin is for everyone, and that all want to see it succeed; that it’s early days and there’s so much to do and so many different roles to play, so many mind-expanding developments occurring week by week. 

Bitcoin felt like home on a deep, emotional level. But, I thought, I could never participate. After all, I’m fairly advanced in my career at this point, and I didn’t study fintech. Job postings are for highly technical positions. I studied some CS and EE, but I’m no ninja engineer or economist. 

Then, something remarkable began to happen around the time of the halving in 2020. Bitcoin had matured enough that there was an abundance of new opportunities to make products and experiences for regular consumers. These products would need to provide end users with the functionality of the Bitcoin network while hiding its complex inner workings. Nobody needs to understand how credit cards work in order to use them, nor do they need to understand how brokerage accounts work to save for retirement. In Bitcoin, the current era is about bringing a generation of products and services to market that let regular people sidestep the need to understand the details of Bitcoin in order to protect and grow the fruit of their labor.

Making a home

As a newcomer here, I know that making a home won’t be easy, but it will be worth it. For now, I’m just feeling blessed and grateful to have been taken in by the locals. I’m excited to be joining the visionaries at CoinBits where I’ll be helping create technologies and products that bring the Bitcoin Standard into being.

Whether or not Bitcoin ultimately succeeds at starving the Wheel of its energy source and replacing it with a system that is humane and liberating, I will be able to look back and know that I made this choice for the right reasons. To those of you reading this – creators, builders, freethinkers – who feel similarly, come join us. The view is great from up here!