Co-Presence Technologies (part 1): How “Heads Up” prevents awkward silence

By Elad Ben Elul • MSc Digital Anthropology (alumnus)

Smartphones are predominantly studied as technologies that bridge geographical distance

What role do technological tools play in our lives? from the spears, wheels and fire torches of ancient civilisations, and up until the iPhones, tablets, and laptops of today, technology aims to enhance our physical and mental abilities, solve our most pressing problems, and add pleasure and play to our human experience. In today’s global economy, some of those problems relate to the dislocation and movement of millions of travellers, immigrants, refugees, digital nomads, students, and international businessmen. People live in a much wider geographical radius than their ancestors did, and the need to stay in touch across vast distances is more present than ever before. Transnational families are dispersed across several continents, virtual communities are built around universal interests, and people often find themselves distant from their friends, colleagues, and loved ones.

Digital communication tools and geographical isolation became so intertwined that we do not even consider them as separate domains.

In this context, most technological tools are designed and developed to facilitate and enable communication across time and space. Yes, homing pigeons, morse codes, and talking drums aimed to fulfil the same function. So did landline telephones, fax machines, and postal services. But as the need became even stronger, technological evolutions tapped on those needs and perfected our abilities to communicate visually, orally, and textually across time and space. Mobile phones, social media platforms, webcams, digital audio messages, emails, chats, and social media profiles are all designed to help people who are not co-present, who do not share the same physical space, to communicate.

Whenever I teach my students about the anthropology of mobile phones and mention this point they do agree that digital communication tools are designed to bridge people from afar but wonder: “why would someone who share the same space even need technology?” You see, digital communication tools and geographical isolation became so intertwined that we do not even consider them as separate domains. These are exactly the points where culture pretends to be nature, and the social properties of technology become almost invisible. In other words, the fact that designers and developers offer us ever-improving and exciting ways to communicate across distances made us forget that they could have taken a different path.

This “natural” bond between technology and communicating with people and ideas who are not physically present was described by Benedict Anderson as the creation of “imagined communities” (1983). In his analysis of nationalism, Benedict argued that broadcast media helps us feel deeply connected to people who we never actually meet, through “imagined” social links.

Language, body gestures, rituals, dancing, live music, alcohol, and cigarettes could all be seen as technologies of co-presence and as cultural mediations that facilitate human interaction. 

The historical and functional bond between technology and non-presence is also the reason that technology is often associated with anti-social behaviour, isolation, loneliness, and detachment from the “real world” – if what digital tools do is make us communicate with whatever and whoever is not here right now, then surely it damages our ability to communicate with the people who are actually around us, sharing our domestic, urban, and public spaces.

Designing technologies for Co-Presence

Co-presence is ‘the simultaneous presence of individuals in the same physical location” (Oxford dictionary) and therefore a central object of anthropological analysis. As Miller & Horst explain in their introduction to Digital Anthropology, all communication is mediated and anthropologists work to uncover this mediation. Language, body gestures, rituals, dancing, live music, alcohol, and cigarettes could all be seen as technologies of co-presence and as cultural mediations that facilitate human interaction. Even architecture and geography could mediate face-to-face interaction. For instance, in her article about “dark tourism”, Carol Kidron (2013) claims that by creating co-presence among holocaust survivors and their grandchildren in holocaust memorial sites, they are able to express emotions that they struggle to reveal at home and thereby evoke ‘descendant empathy and identification’.

Alcohol could be framed as a technology that enhances co-present communication

Although we often assume that the primary goal of digital communication tools is to bridge the non-present, there are some interesting examples whereby technologies are used to facilitate co-presence. For instance, the popular game “Heads Up” (Developed by The Ellen Degeneres show) aims to enhance and facilitate face-to-face interaction by offering a playful and casual framework of interaction. Designed especially for social gathering and house parties, this “ice-breaker” is not an obvious choice in the world of digital games as most of them gather multiple players from different locations in a virtual space.  Second Life, World of Warcraft, and Fortnite are the most popular examples for the latter.

“Heads Up”, however, is inspired by Euro-American analogue card games such as “blind man’s bluff” (a version of Poker whereby each player sees his opponents’ cards), and the classic party game that invites people to “be” any person, object, or place and guess who he or she is by asking the other players guiding questions. “Heads Up” combines trivia (in a variety of categories such as pop icons, animals, and accents) and charades – a game that requires cooperation and communication between team members as one has to “act out” the answer to the other. The “blindness” of the player is assured as he holds his iPhone over his forehead. As an extra feature, the app gains access to the smartphone’s camera and records each session.

In Sofia Coppola’s film “Marie Antoinette”, an analogue version of “Heads Up” is depicted as an 18th century entertainment form

As a technology of co-presence, “Heads Up” answers a very deep and alarming need of many Westerners to avoid awkward silences, boring social gatherings, and “dead” conversations. Imagine a house party or a double date in a middle-class American home: the hosts are polite and held back, the guests are uncomfortable and hesitant, and the conversation simply does not “flow”. “Do you know the game Heads Up?”, one of the guests asks to break the unbearable silence. “Yes, we love it!” says the host. They each pull out their smartphones, choose a category, play, laugh, argue, and learn new things about each other. Furthermore, they create a collective experience and a shared memory that pours meaning into their gathering. In “Heads Up”, the phone is not a portal to an inaccessible virtual world but a physical object, held up and passed around, replacing and enhancing traditional party games without giving up the element of co-presence.  

In a lecture titled “Being Human in a Digital World”, Genevieve Bell, known as Intel’s most influential anthropologist, says: “While the technology is changing really quickly, the things we care about and the things we worry about haven’t changed in hundreds of years.” One of those things is the need to create meaningful, coherent, and efficacious face-to-face interaction and the fear of being isolated, embarrassed, or alienated in any social situation. Going back to the convention that communication tools are aimed to bridge people who are distant from each other, this example makes it clear that there is room for cultural analysis of co-presence technologies. In the next post I will describe how co-presence technologies were used to facilitate a social gathering of orthodox Jews in Israel. 

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