Social badges

The Human Dynamics lab at MIT has developed some interesting “surveillance badges”.  This has been brought to my attention by Andrew MitchellNew Scientist Technology blog reported this January that these badges “recognise each other using infrared, then record your speech, note your distance from other people, and track your movement.”  With these badges, researchers can “monitor people going about their day – working, meeting, eating, going out and sleeping.  The devices record where the wearers go and how fast, their tone of voice, and subtle details about their body language.”

These badges have been apparently been used for some interesting investigations into free will.  By tracking individual movements and personal interactions, MIT researchers found that “we are more instinctual and a lot more like other creatures than we care to think…  a good 90 per cent of what most people do in any day follows routines.”  Interesting…

In a more recent application, as New Scientist reports, “… one of the researchers, Ben Waber, has blogged about handing out the badges to delegates meeting with their corporate sponsors.”  This application was used to develop and display a social network map, visible to the participants.  “… over the course of the day, more people became connected within the network as they met more people.”

As this was all done in near-real time, the display had an impact on the behaviour of the participants.  People could see who they had interacted with, and were then inspired to network more to modify the display.  A classic case of a measurement tool changing the subject of the measurement.  (Think of a standard tyre pressure gauge – each time you use it, you change the pressure in the tyre.)

However, this is also potentially a networking tool because of its impact on the people involved.  It was seen to be encouraging people to network more widely, and to compete with one another to be the “most connected”.  It should be noted that only code numbers were shown on the display, not individual names, but the participants were keen to identify themselves in comparisons with others. 

The event organiser saw this as a way of highlighting the benefits of MIT sponsorship – the people and organisations you can network with more effectively.  This then implies that there is a direct benefit from networking with other people.  (Intuitively true, but can it be quantified to give a Return on Investment?)

Certainly a very interesting experiment, and potentially very interesting and useful applications.  I do wonder what damage it could do in the wrong hands, though…

Another alternative view from an MSN conversation I am having as I write this: “Why do people spend so much money on useless things?  That money to make those things could have saved a few lives in Africa.”  To which I countered: “More effective use of high-tech tools to improve networking of clever people may save even more lives.”  Who knows?  (My correspondent shall remain nameless.)

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