Sunday, 17 May 2015

Wearing my Head on my Sleeve

Wearing My Head on My Sleeve
Who Watches the Watch-Watchers?

For the last six months I’ve been wearing a smartwatch every day and I can honestly say that it’s changed my life. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s made me a better person.

Hyperbole? That’s easy for you to say from your ivory Mind Palaces.

On the 3rd of November 2014 I breathlessly unboxed yet another parcel that had been wearily schlepped up the steps to my front door by the postman. To be fair, I get pretty excited about any parcel that arrives (see below), but this one was different because this one, I knew, would change everything. Since that day, my phone has been on silent, but I haven’t missed a call or text yet. That, however, is pretty much beside the point.

What’s in the box?

Seriously, what's in the Box?

I have a bad memory. And I mean Memento bad. Well, no, I don’t really mean Memento bad, but I have a pretty apocalyptically bad short to medium-term memory. You know when you walk into a room and can’t remember why you went in? That. Every day. Do you know why I get so excited about every parcel that drops through the door or that, even better, I sign for? Because most of the time I have literally no idea what it is. Every unboxing is my birthday (although these days it generally turns out to be nappies or something with which to repair something around the house, now that I’m suddenly a grown-up and all).

Now please understand that as far as I know this isn’t a medical condition. I have no problem with long-term memory or the acquisition of any amount of pointless trivia. I have been to see a doctor about it, but was told in no uncertain terms that “You don’t remember because you don’t really care.” Which I did not find terribly reassuring (although I was later told that the doctor in question was a locum (temp), out of retirement because they were short-staffed that day and that I should “probably take anything he said with a pinch of salt”.).

The thing is that I do care. About from being impractical, constantly forgetting things can be deeply socially awkward. I once sat in a pub with some friends for three hours before my friend’s wife remarked “So did you notice that fact that I’ve become heavily pregnant since the last time we all met or did you just think I’d got fat?”. I’d just sort of assumed that we’d already talked about it. I also missed a friend’s wedding by exactly 24 hours (the venue was lovely though) because I’d forgotten the date and then forgotten to check the invitation. I didn’t want to get into it there and then, but the fact is that I’ve had to train myself not to ask people too many questions, because the chances are that I’ve already asked them, or that they’ve already told me before. And I have discovered when while seeming obtuse or unobservant is slightly annoying to other people, asking them the same thing over and over (or introducing yourself to them four times as I did with one now-friend) just makes you come over as slightly mad.

Now, one of these things I know we’ve talked about...

But outside of social situations there are just a lot of things to remember and so, day to day, this means that I have tended to spend a lot of time chanting reminder to myself like one-sided catechisms. Forgetting a friend’s (well, all your friends’) birthdays is embarrassing, but forgetting to get the washing out of the machine, or deadlines for work, or to go to work at all (I forgot which day my holiday ended on. Twice.) can be more of a practical problem. It gets me into trouble and annoys other people (especially when you miss their weddings), which then makes me feel bad and it takes up an inordinate amount of my time. Showers in the morning are meant to be relaxing, or at least invigorating, but are less so when spent constantly chanting:

Post that letter and say happy birthday to Dave post that letter and say happy birthday to Dave post that letter and say happy birthday to Dave post that letter and say happy birthday to Dave post that letter and say happy birthday to Dave”.


As a morning person, my morning shower is sometimes where I do my best thinking, or remember important tasks for the day as my brain comes back online, but the stress of trying to keep it all in mind until I can do something about it often means that I might as well be bathing in cortisol. And that’s just to remind me to find a piece of paper and write it down when I get out of the shower. Remembering to look at the paper later on is another thing entirely (I get through a lot of post-its). In fact, in an ironic aside, while writing this piece I had to change trains at the point of writing down the previous chant and found myself having to chant it from platforms 12 to 14 at Clapham Junction so that I could remember to write it down here when I got on the next train. When I try to think about how much of my life (in days, weeks or even months) I must have spent continuously repeating simple tasks to myself, accompanied by the agonising dread of feeling them slip away as I get distracted by something as simple as getting my door key from my pocket or saying hello to somebody, it genuinely scares and depresses me. It’s got to be in the top 10 of my daily activities pie chart.

Life before my watch was full of chants and agonising dread of what I'd already forgotten

Or at least it was. With my little personal reminder service I’ve been getting my life back one chant (and several minutes a day) at a time.

Freed from my chants, I have more time to inflict my various enthusiasms on people and am free to bask in the dread of other things

I'd forget my own head if it wasn't constantly monitored by a head-locating app

Enter the smartwatch. In many ways it doesn’t do anything that my phone couldn’t do already and, before that, my thousands of post-its and notes written on my hand (and up my wrist, during particularly busy times in the past). The difference is that, apart from the case of the notes taken on my wrist at busy times, it’s right there on my wrist. I could have any number of notes written on paper, or even on my phone, but I’d only forget to look at them, or look at them and then forget them as soon as I put them away, unless I held them in my hand so that I was reminded to look: “Oh! Why am I still holding my phone? Wait! I had a thing to remember!”. Now, even if I do forget the reminder seconds after I receive it (and that does still happen), I can see the tell-tale notification in the corner of the screen every time I look at my watch. Or I discover that Past Me (you know, that guy from five minutes ago) thoughtfully dismissed the reminder, but snoozed it, knowing that I was about to get on a train and would probably forget, but would have time to look as soon as Present Me had found a seat and… Wait, what’s buzzing? Oh! Right! Yeah! Thanks Past Me!

Should I need these crutches, or a fancy watch to replace them? No. But do I? Absolutely.

Reactions from friends and relatives on the subject of my latest shiny toy have been mixed to say the least. Some have ooh-ed and ahh-ed (or sighed), but some have registered genuine sadness, concern or even a whiff of techno-contempt.

Surely, they say, I should try just remembering things anyway and ask me what's wrong with just concentrating on remembering them. In many ways I absolutely agree, but they (ironically) forget that until I had digital reminders I just used to miss stuff. Constantly. I'd miss birthdays, events, dinners. I missed the first day of school that time (as a teacher, not a pupil) and that wedding (in an earlier draft of this piece I went on to explain about both of these in detail again, because I’d forgotten that I’d already done that), and any number of birthdays and missed bin-days and wet-washing days, etc., etc. I know I shouldn't have forgotten. I'm sure I could have consulted the relevant piece of paper to check the dates and times of these various important (or just necessary) events. But I forgot to, so I missed them. The thing is that our brains are wired to fixate on when things go wrong, not when they go right. We don’t tend notice when people remember things and do things on time, it just bothers us when they don’t.

Hey, are you cheating at your life again?

So what do we care about more? The knowledge, the action, the sentiment or the ability to coordinate all three? Is relying on Facebook to remind me about birthdays in time to send a message somehow cheating because I haven't remembered it with my brain? Does my sentiment not count if the reminder was outsourced or a message popped up to remind me? In that way does it mean less when our parents, partners or friends remind us about a birthday, wedding or event? Or does it only count as cheating if a computer does it? Is life a big memory test that we should be allowed to fail in order to somehow teach us something (that some of us would forget anyway)? Should we be remembering things “properly” because it’s character-forming?

Of course there is plenty of evidence that keeping an active mind can help to stave off the decline of old age. There are activities we can perform (such as chess, studying trivia and possibly “brain-training”) and tricks we can learn (such as the Mind Palace) to train and develop our capacity to remember, but the science behind it is currently inconclusive at best. Even the well-documented enlarged hippocampus (the brain’s main centre for long-term, short-term and spatial memory) of London cabbies is something that can't yet be proved to be more a matter of "nurture" through training over the nature of having had a good memory in the first place (and then deciding to become a cabbie). It is, however, pretty firmly established fact that the mind is a “muscle” that we must keep active if we want it to last well into our old age, but does it need to be dates and chores that need to provide this stimulation? I feel that my mind is free to work much harder and push further now that it’s not being shackled and demeaned by the drudgery of endlessly trying to retain short-term trivialities. My memory per se, as evidenced by my absorption (and, sadly for friends and loved-ones, regurgitation) of trivia and subject-knowledge, was never the problem; rather it is the memory for procedural and ephemeral things that seems to be the weaker element. And besides, it’s equally well-established science that a constant bath of cortisol, brought on by anxiety and stress, is bad for our physical and mental health and indeed might actually stunt the growth of the hippocampus. Conversely, being freed from such worries can actually boost our general health.

“‘Connection lost?!’ Well how am I meant to remember the shopping now?”
[image: Warner Bros]

We accept that people have differing abilities in all areas physical and mental. We don't blame people for being tall or short or colourblind. We are thankfully long past the days of curing short sight by telling children to squint harder. In teaching, we now accept that there are different sorts of learners, including visual, auditory and “kinaesthetic” (hands-on). Am I outsourcing my mind to my device or am I simply provided with a new way to have visual reminders and remember better? Earlier today I set a reminder to insert a quote, that I thought of even earlier, into this blog. Predicting that I'd probably be on the train at 4:45 and would have settled down enough to write (having inevitably had to run for the 4:26) I set the reminder for 4:45 but ended up remembering to write it anyway, seeing the note on my watch screen in my mind's eye. At 4:43.

Most of friends and family haven’t particularly noticed, of course. But I have. I’ve noticed how much less I’m annoying people by forgetting things. I remember birthdays and social engagements. I reply to messages and emails and even remember to water the plants or hang up the washing rather than leaving it in the machine. People rarely notice the absence of a problem, but I can tell you that my far-lower resting heart rate sure does (thanks to my watch tracking its gradual fall over the last few months). In an episode of Futurama that struck me deeply (and which I am sure I have often quoted, although I can’t remember), Bender the robot finds himself face to “face” with God. When asked how it’s possible to change anything without making things worse, God replies: “If you do things just right, nobody will notice you did anything at all.” They just won’t get pissed off about you forgetting to do it.

At least Donald Pleasance could remember where he'd left the pin. I'd probably step on it a week later.

Take a Letter

Of course I’m not alone in outsourcing my working memory and reminders so that I can concentrate on more important things. Those people in positions of sufficient power and wealth can use (and always have used) the services of a secretary or PA to take notes, remind them of important things and generally take the micromanagement out of processes that don't necessarily need it. The fact that we don't all have one is down to the economics of employment, not because it wouldn't be useful now and then. It's not like I'm abrogating responsibility for remembering things, in fact I'm taking active steps to make sure that I do.

Many might point out at this stage (if you weren’t already shouting it at your screen several paragraphs ago) that for some time I have been in possession of a mobile phone that was also “smart” and perfectly capable of taking and giving reminders It’s just that it was in my pocket (or sometimes another room) and sometimes even the distance between pocket and arm is a little too far (or too antisocial) to be acted upon quickly in a memory-requiring pinch. And of course once that moment has passed, it’s dust in the wind, taking the memory of the task with it. Although few remember it now, the original tablet and palm computers, now replaced by our smartphones, were called PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants). Of course the problem was that at the time they were more or less just digital Filofaxes, still consigned to a bag or coat pocket. Now, however, the day of the PDA has arrived (or is at least at hand, so to speak). And indeed, since acquiring my new wrist-mounted PA, the number of mundane things for which I have set Reminders has shot up.

The future’s been around for ages
But so has the number of things I've actually got done. More importantly it has also massively cut down on the stress of missing things or constantly re-reminding myself about them so that I don’t forget. I hate worrying about what I need to remember, when what I should be worrying about is the things themselves (and then getting them done and having a cup of tea and a biscuit to congratulate myself). I’ve even started using it for planning well ahead, and yesterday set myself a reminder for the end of next March to give me enough time to set up for some sort of hilarious April Fools scheme that I thought up (and no, I have no idea what it was now and only remembered to write about it here because I also set myself a reminder to remind me to write about it here today).

Bearable Wearables

My smartwatch and this generation of smartwatches in general, is far from the first. Back in 2008 I bought myself a “video watch” on import from China, which enabled me to watch half an episode of Family Guy (look, it was 2008), which I’d downloaded on to it using a cable, before the battery died. Permanently. Back in the mists of time, fictional comic-book detective Dick Tracy famously had a clever video watch (debuting in 1946) that he could talk into to summon back-up at the climax of one of his capers. What’s different about the rise of Android Wear watches such as my catchily-named LG G-Watch R, or the recently-released Apple Watch is that the smartwatch has finally become of practical utility rather than pure novelty. When I first started wearing my watch I didn’t see another soul sporting one for more than three months. Since then I tend to see about one person a fortnight, with whom I share the conspiratorial (and slightly shamed) nod that is the secret handshake of the Early Adopter. Sure, the battery only lasts a couple of days between charges (and I charge it every day anyway, just to be sure), but seeing as I took my old watch off every night to put it by my bed, dropping it on to its charging pad by my bed is no sacrifice.

"Hold everything!"

The main barrier, to come back to our fictional detective, is that no matter how practical it is, and to an extent no matter how ubiquitous it becomes, everybody looks like a Dick when they talk into their wrist on a quiet train or at a supermarket checkout. Even with my new companion on my wrist I have managed to forget a few things because I have felt too socially awkward to start talking to my watch in order to set a reminder (although to be fair in most such situations I can use my phone to silently (and achingly slowly, it now seems) take a note. But as the next generation of Apple Watch and Android Wear devices begins to roll out, with better batteries and software, lower prices for the previous models and ultimately possibly the capability to ditch the actual phone, I think that the trend for wearables (whether watch, bracelet, necklace or some such) will continue to grow and develop. Already, with the Apple Watch and recently-updated Android Wear watches now being able to connect via Wifi to their host phone even if it’s miles away, the smartphone is on the road to becoming more of a hub & processing centre for hefty jobs. Unlike ambitious projects such as Google Glass and Microsoft’s augmented reality specs, which more obviously change our personal experience at the expense of our appearance, the point (and likely success) of wearables is their relative invisibility. Sure, I’ve got into quite a few conversations with curious people when they see the screen flash (or hear me talking to it), but that’s only until the novelty wears off. To me it’s already just a (life-changing) tool. Or, in fact, an item of clothing.

"Um, remind me to follow Pinkie the Stabber back to his hideout when I get to Clapham Junction."

Life Triage

Part of the appeal of wearable devices, beyond their functional role as a portable PA, is their relative unnoticeability. Just as keyboards, after their 200 year run, may ultimately turn out to be an historical stepping stone, as more of our devices are controlled by voice, gesture and ultimately by thought, the modern disdain for “iPhone zombies”, as they were known a few years ago, walking along with a phone permanently in hand or in front of face, might soon seem as quaint as people sending and receiving telegrams via a physical messenger carrying a message from the local office. A glance at the wrist, while a distraction of sorts, is a grand step up from the antisocial journey of phone from pocket/bag to hand to face and back, very often with nothing to show for it, given how often that vibration or message tone reveals yet more spam or some sort of hilarious but not reply-necessitating emoji. With the ability to receive, assess and (usually) dismiss the barrage of alerts that we now receive on a daily basis, this is our PA screening our visitors before we need to get out from behind the big desk to greet them. I haven’t looked at a spam email on my phone in months.

An exciting opportunity, you say. I’ll be sure to let him know.

But perhaps for me one of the most important things about it, and why such devices attract such scorn from others, is that it represents another step towards integrating the above technologies ever more seamlessly into our lives. Recently going back to re-read The Player of Games, a novel by Iain M. Banks published in 1988 but set many thousands of years in the future, I was struck by a particular passage that had slipped by me a decade or two ago as general sci-fi chat, but which is now becoming very recognisable in our daily lives.

‘Stories set in the Culture in which Things Went Wrong tended to start with humans losing or forgetting or deliberately leaving behind their terminal. It was a conventional opening, the equivalent of straying off the path in the wild woods in one age, or a car breaking down at night on a lonely road in another. A terminal, in the shape of a ring, button, bracelet or pen or whatever, was your link with everybody and everything else in the Culture. With a terminal, you were never more than a question or a shout away from almost anything you wanted to know, or almost any help you could possibly need.’

Safe and sound
[image: Drew Struzan / Universal Pictures]

That is already how most of us feel about our mobile phones. It worries us if friends or loved ones are uncontactable for more than a few hours at a time and schools that ban pupils from keeping phones with them in class (not even something that people might have considered fifteen years ago) regularly receive complaints from parents that this represents a breach of their rights and could even be dangerous. And indeed, as in Banks’ story, our stories have had to find ways to separate their protagonists or victims from their mobile devices in the first act, whether through its loss, destruction or technological fudge (loss of signal, global power loss, EMP blast etc.). Because with a mobile device we truly are “never more than a question or a shout away”.

In fact, the only thing that we haven’t yet arrived at in that sentence is the part about “a ring, button, bracelet or pen or whatever.” I also recently rediscovered the Usborne World of the Future (1979), which helped to shape my optimistic, technophile worldview in so many ways. It predicted, in 1979, that by the year 2000, along with holding the Olympics on the Moon (complete with a long-overdue 14m high-jump), we would be communicating with one another using our “risto” devices, through which we could call loved-ones and summon help in emergencies. Of course it still thought that we’d work from home by “Xeroxing” hand-written notes to video-fax to one another, but the “risto”, only fifteen years too late, is finally a reality.

What about the ability to 'Like' Facebook posts?
[image: Usborne Book of the Future - A Trip In Time to the Year 200 and Beyond, by Kenneth Gatland & David Jefferis]

So perhaps one day, once we’ve had these devices plumbed directly into our optic nerves (and devil take the awkwardness of the upgrades) and powered by our heartbeats, we’ll be able to look back, with perfect and condescending recall on the days when our forebears grubbed around with their puny biological memories (although I’d imagine that our technology would look a lot less obvious than a headphone jack in the back of the neck) and dreamed of the technological leaps that I espouse that might help them to remember and organise the daily struggles of their hopelessly disorganised lives. We’ll smile at the youthful naiveté of Iain M. Banks' vision of a world in which we could be separated from our embracing digital bubble, which protects, enriches and coddles us into a safe and carefree life, from which we might have no escape, having gleefully sold our inner lives to The Man. Or perhaps The Machine. Or perhaps our robot overlords will chortle (for surely this is a sign of intelligence) about how we voluntarily surrendered even our inner experiences and personal narratives to the Google, Apple and Microsoft server-farms that were their forebears, even as they crush the last unaugmented biological life under their digital jackboots.

But the next time I manage to remember (by hook or digital crook) to buy some salad on my way home, rather than wandering obliviously past the shops in my usual, stargazing daze, it’ll all be worth it. The machines won’t appreciate salad anyway.

The “risto”, as imagined in the Usborne World of the Future, 1979
[image: Usborne Book of the Future - A Trip In Time to the Year 200 and Beyond, by Kenneth Gatland & David Jefferis]

Android Wear example features, 2015
[image: Google]

Saturday, 6 September 2014

The Good Morning Project

The Good Morning Project

Waving at strangers and the gamification of social contact

"A stranger is shot in the street, you hardly move to help. But if, half an hour before, you spent just ten minutes with the fellow and knew a little about him and his family, you might just jump in front of his killer and try to stop it. Really knowing is good. Not knowing, or refusing to know, is bad, or amoral, at least."
- Something Wicked This Way Comes (Ray Bradbury)

A little over a month ago I started a little social experiment. I decided to see if I could slowly and insidiously reprogram a group of strangers and gradually mould them to my will. As it happens I'm pretty sure I've created a revolution that will ultimately change the world and lead to world peace.

You're welcome.

The Background

As with many great scientific breakthroughs, and crimes, the idea for my experiment began with a conjunction of motive and opportunity. About two months ago my wife and I moved to a small town on the outskirts of London (surfing the inflation wave out from the centre, caused by the Hurry-Up Monster). As lifetime Londoners, used to the studied anonymity, we were initially taken aback by how quickly our neighbours sought us out to introduce themselves and make conversation. Within days of moving in I knew more of my neighbours by name than I've consciously known at any of my addresses since living in halls at university.

The town itself has a sort of village-y feel, with everything in pottering distance (although not village-y enough to have an actual pottery), but our overwhelmed London nerves were initially somewhat soothed to find that, once out and about, most of the locals didn't habitually stroll around waving and declaring the fine-ness of the day, and in fact, reassuringly, mostly just ignored each other with that distinctive, if somewhat diluted, within-the-M25 hunched scowl that reaches its zenith somewhere around London Bridge tube station at 8am.

Your Village
[Image: The Prisoner - ATV/ITV]

Safe in the knowledge that we weren't entirely strangers in a strange land, we got about getting to know the area and getting on with the usual wave of home-move DIY. With the start of the school summer holidays in July, however, as a teacher I was free! Free as a bird (with a very long To Do list gripped in its beak). As such, and with the fresh summer breeze in my metaphorical wings, I began a diligent program of gentle gardening, light DIY, moderate procrastination and heavy computer gaming. However, my wife, being a normal human with a normal human job, remained tied to the working week, so with literally nothing better to do (apart from the various important bits of admin that I'd been delaying all year) and in the spirit of camaraderie and moral support (and sparing her the further insult of sleepily waving her off to work while I went back to bed) I started walking down to the train station with her in the mornings. This ten minutes, denied to us the rest of the year, when we get different trains at different times, afforded us the opportunity to walk and talk together in the mornings (or at least run for trains in company) and also, it turned out, gave me the opportunity to meet my experimental subjects.

Walking back up the hill from the station on the first morning, with birdsong in my ears and the warm July sun on my face, I saw a man in a suit striding down towards me and presumably the station. "Here is another neighbour," I thought, "separated from our other recent neighbourly introductions by his awkward commuting schedule. I too can be friendly! Look!"

"Good... morning?" I ventured with an awkward smile/grimace; the words feeling complicated in my socially numbed London-commuter lips.

“What am I working on? Uhh... I'm working on something that will change the world, and human life as we know it.”
[Image: The Fly, 20th Century Fox]

In absolute silence, and with a look of stunned horror, as if a wet turd had just reared up from the pavement and declared in a loud voice that it was coming to give him a kiss, the man strode straight past me and away. In an instant I was flung back to a time when, as a child of perhaps eight years old, I had decided to start greeting people in the street like they seemed to do in Dad's Army or other such shows filled with jolly past-os. My youthful enthusiasm, open smile and desire to warm the hearts of a cold world had shattered within minutes when, of the first three people I greeted, two ignored me and the third, a lady of very senior years, had regarded me with the same horrified expression returned to me by this besuited man all these decades later. I hadn't bothered asking a fourth, reasoning that these things probably just didn't work in the present day (or at least only worked in the countryside, which is a bit like the past anyway). From that day, long ago, I'd continued to maintain a policy of issuing a cheery hello to strangers when surrounded by the timeless wilderness, but keeping a respectful silence amidst the anonymous bustle of modern city life. As for me, so for most of us.

Don't talk, just walk.
[Image: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images, via]

But now, standing at the bottom of my road, watching the dust literally settle in the wake of the Dour Man, I was struck by the motive to go with an increasingly obvious opportunity. Looking up the road at the sleep-addled, work-stressed faces walking down to meet me in ones and twos, I realised that here was the perfect chance to begin a little experiment in behaviour modification, and in so doing begin to make reparations to the disappointed boy who still huddled in the corner of my mind asking when a cheery greeting had become an attack to be repulsed. And with a daily 10-minute walk along a single road at the same time each morning, I had as close as I could hope to get to a controlled population on which to experiment.

One at a time please
[image: Lemmings, DMA design]

The Experiment

Coming home that first morning I passed a total of sixteen people and greeted each with the most cheery (although restrained and non-threatening) "Good morning" I could muster. Of that sixteen, only two replied. Of those who didn't, three looked disgusted (including the Dour Man), three looked frightened and eight simply strode straight past me as though I wasn't there. My ten year-old self would have felt crushed (although possibly vindicated in having been perceptive enough to give up after only asking three), but I was now fuelled by my growing vision for the experiment forming in my mind.

A twelve percent success rate wasn't a failure... it was a baseline.

Not the best start, but a start nonetheless.
[The Good Morning Project - Day 1 - Lez Laig]

Thanks to one of the little computers that we all now have in our pockets, I was able to knock together a quick table during that first walk home and use it to take notes on the journey back and those that followed. For a month and a half I made my daily return walk to the station and updated the results in my increasingly detailed spreadsheet; mining my interactions for valuable data between the smiles and greetings. It's strange to think that while mobile phones are often blamed for turning people into oblivious "iPhone zombies", the ubiquity of people tapping away at tiny mobile phone screens made it easy for me to collect these detailed statistics on the people I passed in the street every day in a way that scribbling in a notepad as they passed most certainly would not have. 

The Perfect Disguise
[Images: Lez Laig /  Dan Kitwood/Getty Images, via]

[image: lab-coated scientist keeping a low profile (sketch)]

On the second day of the experiment my past self would have wilted still further at the identical pair of greetings reciprocated, but the social scientist in me instead chose to focus on the fact that I'd received one fewer of each of the snarls, recoils and blankings than on the first day (although the mathematicians among you may have decided that it was just that I simply saw fewer people on the Tuesday and may have just lost a couple of grumpy ones, who were probably so grumpy or afraid at the thought of being greeted again that they chose to stay at home fuming or attempting to avoid me). Most importantly, however, on that second day I saw a smile! From a previous recoiler!

The first sparkle of gold glittered at me from the gravel in my social sieve.

[There’s gold in them thar interpersonal interactions.

 Over the rest of the week the numbers gradually began to ramp up; perhaps as familiarity allowed the flightier commuters to deem me relatively safe to interact with, in the same way that elephants get used to a camera disguised as a log or dolphins were able to cope with the psychological onslaught of being filmed by an auton. Whatever the cause, by Thursday I was up to eleven good mornings, three smiles and one good morning accompanied by a smile and wave (I had to create a new column for that!). And best of all, this last and most emphatic display of greeting had come from the lady who had withdrawn as if stung on Monday, smiled on Tuesday and muttered a reply on the Wednesday. Even the Dour Man had begun to reply!

Sure, it’s creepy, but we can get used to it.
[Images from BBC]

But on Friday I suddenly found myself back where I started. The suits, dresses and jeans were all walking towards me were the same, but the faces were different and the smiles were gone; the looks of fear and alarm sliding into place like Greek tragic masks. My familiar street had become a foreign land or, worse, some grim parallel reality with the same physical features but populated by a completely different cast of characters. Had Hitler won the war in this reality? Were these people secretly lizards? Or psychic robots?

And suddenly we’re strangers
[Image: Social Paranoiac / The Drowned Man - Punchdrunk Theatre Company]

While I couldn't rule these the worries out, I swiftly (although really not swiftly enough when you consider the alternatives) worked out that my quick trip to the shops before I had begun my return journey had led me to return against the flow of commuters for the next train. My goodwill, it seems, had begun to convert my old friends on my usual walk, but had not had the effect of psychic social osmosis that I might have hoped for. Realising that choosing a different set of commuters would introduce unnecessary variation into my data, I resolved to try to stick to the same time and set of commuters where possible, with a gradual and pleasing improvement in results (although with more individual walks down to the shops to make up for it, for which I'm sure my heart was also grateful).

Here are some of the notes that I took to flesh out my stats during my leisurely experimental walks:

Monday 14th July:
What if one of them wants to be my friend? I don't have time for a commuter friend. Oh, well now I sound like a monster. My mum has a "bus friend", who she met because they both get the bus from the same stop and gradually moved up from the odd hello to being vague friends. They talk pretty much every day, all the way to work and have met up for the odd tea or shopping trip. While this is lovely, I cherish my train journeys as time to read, write or think (and occasionally work) and while I'll happily chat to somebody from time to time on the way to or from work, I fear the "positive spiral" that leads to talking to each other all the way to work every day, so then you can't then do reading, or work without being rude, or having to make an apologetic excuse, and it' all so awkward, and I don't talk to my existing friends enough as it is… So ultimately I want to get to know people just enough to make me feel good by smiling and waving, but not enough to stop and actually become acquainted. I am a monster, aren't I? I should probably spend less time thinking alone on the train.

Friday 18th July:
What happens when I go back to my usual time/direction at the end of the experiment? Going "against the flow" means meeting people head on but what about when I'm walking towards the station as well? Is it weird to greet someone as you overtake them?

Monday 21st July:
It takes a few repeats to establish you're not a crazy (or at least not bad crazy). Some people have progressed from fear to wave/smile/hello gradually over the week!

Tuesday 22nd July:
Middle-aged Scooter Lady is in the Zone. Stoically ignoring me as she zooms by, headphones in and eyes glazed. She is the wind.

Friday 25th July:
Hardly any people today. Do they know something I don't?

Monday 28th July:
Scooter Lady waved back! Waving seemed to catch her peripheral vision. One to try with joggers? Do desperate-looking sprinting people count? Should I just let them get on with it?

Tuesday 29th July:
What will they do when I go back to work? Will they wonder what happened to that weird guy, or feel relieved or just slip back into the bubble without a thought? I seem to think about this a lot. Must remember that they’ll be fine without me.

Tuesday 12th Aug:
Pace vs politeness? Are old people polite because their generation? Physical age? Lower speed? Fewer commuter worries? Are slow people/animals just more friendly? Tortoises are lovely, which probably makes the whole theory sound. Snails are neutral.

Wednesday 13th Aug:
Dour man and Waver talking to each other! Both said morning, then laughed about it as they continued walking. Wonder if they discussed it? "Hey, you know that guy too? The weird 'Good Morning' guy? Yeah, he's completely changed my outlook on life too! Let's get married or something and raise some polite, slightly dour-looking children!"

I didn't see them talk again.

Wednesday 20th Aug:
Dead fox trauma! Poor thing is lying right in the middle of the pavement for everyone to pass in their own individual horror-bubble.

Oddly it seems that people don't seem that concerned, although I just had my first conversation, in trying to warn Waver just before she got to it. Must try to avoid interacting with the lab rats, lest they become Friends. Curse you, fox!

Thursday 28th Aug:
Exchange of pleasantries with a cabbie watching a video of his mate doing the Ice Bucket Challenge. Maybe I should launch the Say Hello To Some People Challenge.

The Results

A lot of good mornings, but have we grown out of waving?
[The Good Morning Project - Detailed Totals - Lez Laig]

Over the course of my six week experiment I saw the numbers steadily grow and improve and the ratio of positive to negative responses gradually change to the point that the others dwindled to insignificance (see the Appendices at the end for more detailed stats if you can face them). Looking at it in a graph as I am now for the first time it’s hard not to feel that any negative responses were a trifling blip. So why did they loom so much larger than that in my mind, both in the past and more recently? Why do we dwell on the little negatives that we encounter rather than taking more encouragement from the positives? Maybe for the same reason that a few falls can end a childhood love of climbing trees or rollerskating. And perhaps, as we grow older, it’s not even the falls themselves so much as the fear of falling that keeps us from trying.

Put like this, the negatives don’t look so scary. So why do they throw such a shadow?
[The Good Morning Project - Positive vs. Negative - Lez Laig]

The Conclusions

So what do I feel that I discovered, informally, as a result of my experiment (for more detailed statistics and some of the stranger facts that I noted, please see the appendices at the end)?

·         That people travel in a bubble, but sometimes they like to be knocked out of it. We travel in a bubble to have a bit of “me-time”, but sometimes that time isn't really “me-time” or even “nothing-time” but NON-time. We don't even remember the journey.
·         That we can't judge people by their armour. The besuited Dour Man scowled along the road and managed somehow to arch his entire face in horror when I greeted him the first time, but by a week or two in he had become, and then remained, one of the most enthusiastic greeting-returners (and easily the best on average) for the remainder of the study. In fact, his "Mo-or-ning!" took on a sort of musical quality which slid (somewhat oleaginously if one were to nitpick) up and over the top of a scale before drifting back down an entire octave (impressive in a single word), all topped off with a beaming smile.
·         That we can change our behaviour with just a little nudge, then pass that nudge on. Dour Man and Waver were both deeply alarmed by my greeting on the first day but not only became enthusiastic greeters but seemed generally smilier (or less frowny) in their walks along the road as time went by. The fact that they ended up chatting amicably to each other at one point, even if it was the only occasion that I noticed (and I hope that as time goes by there will be more), gives me hope that stepping out of their bubble and experimenting with social interaction on their individual commutes may have contributed to this in some way. Even if they were just talking about the possibility of me being a possibly-dangerous weirdo.
·         That I may have some Messianic delusions that I need to get under control. I'm sure my people will be fine without me.

The Impact

Looking back to myself of more than twenty years ago, I'd like to think that he would be reassured. Although I wouldn't really expect or want my past self, armed with this knowledge, to launch himself into a society-galvanising quest to make strangers communicate, I hope he'd at least feel justified in his original hope that most people were actually pretty friendly underneath their armour, even if it emerges that some armour can take some breaking into. Do I really think that I've made any real impact on the lives of any of the people I counted as my experimental subjects (yes, and "road friends", if I'm honest) over the last two months? No, probably not in any significant way. But I reckon there's a good chance (possibly even demonstrated mid-experiment by Dour Man and Waver), that sometimes making a little gap in that social armour can allow the occasional bit of risk-taking that might be the difference between waving or walking by. If just one person who I've passed on my walk went on to say hi to a fellow traveller, whether walking by or even on a train, I'll be content that the whole thing was worth it and the experiment a success. Well, actually if it's just one I'd probably be a bit grumpy, but two or three would be great. My wife has also begun to get into the habit of saying good morning to the people we see together on our walk down to the station, even when I'm not there, having inevitably had to run back home to retrieve something important that I've forgotten. Over the course of the experiment I found that I was more inclined to risk the odd random greeting myself, even when not "on the clock" with my experiment. Interestingly I've noticed that this gregariousness is gradually squeezed out of me the closer I get in to London or just large populations. What might start as a cheery greeting in the suburbs gradually slides down through muttered greetings and nods down to good old blank-faced-ignoring-everybody.

Could this socially poisonous effect of cities be purely down to population? Does the knowledge that most of the people who pass us are strangers who we will never see again dilute or drain our social and emotional resources with the fear that any social effort extended to them is wasted, as it will never be returned; disappearing like a piece of bread dropped into a torrent of rushing mountain water, possibly to nourish some distant fish in a river we will never see. No, it's obviously much more complicated than that, as things in the real world inevitably are. But could there one day be something we could do about it?

Social tracking and the gamification of good manners

I was recently given a FitBit by my wife (who knows I'm a sucker for anything with little lights that does stuff) and have been using it to track my activity and sleep patterns for the last few weeks. What I love about it (and loved about the mobile phone app I use to track actual exercise on the too-rare occasions that I do enough to merit it) is that it uses all of the information it collects to put together live statistics and daily reports on all the steps taken, miles travelled, calories burned (which must be a very wide ballpark guess), restful sleep taken etc. and presents them on little graphs and progress bars with targets. There are also numerous "achievements" (which even come with little virtual badges) and little messages that accompany these, which pop up to (somewhat patronisingly) praise success and ask gentle, nurturing questions to help get on top of failures. My phone app will occasionally send me a (slightly passive-aggressive) email asking me if I've done any cycling or other activities that I might have forgotten to log and offering tips for quick little activities that one can do to keep active even during a busy day; reminding me of how well I've done at certain points in the recent past and encouraging me to do so again. Essentially these apps and activity trackers turn being healthy into a game. A game that you play every day, with a gentle learning curve, no end point, but the tantalising prospect of "winning" each day by reaching personalised goals.

Virtual badges are like stickers, but for grown-ups or medals, but for peaceniks. Yay me!
[image: Fitbit]

What I realised one morning though, as I looked down at my phone to check my progress towards my daily "step goal", was that there seems to be little in the way of "social activity" tracking. Of course there are doubtless any number of apps that one can document one's social life in, and as was recently revealed to no great surprise, it's very easy for Facebook to keep very detailed statistics on, and even influence [link], our friendships and interactions, but this isn't what I'm talking about. We are at a stage now at which it is suddenly becoming feasible to track and "gamify" our social interactions. With cameras recognising faces and smiles, phones becoming increasingly able to recognise natural language, devices such as the Kinect or Leap Motion identifying physical gestures and finally devices such as smart watches and Google Glass making such tech wearable, we are now in a position to start bringing these things together in the field of "social gamification".

Imagine being able to fire up an app that connects to your various devices and tracks your daily steps and various vital signs, rewarding you for going on that bike ride before gently saying "Hey there!" (keeping it light as apps do, much as Douglas Adams predicted so well with his smarmy lifts, doors and other assorted technologies) "Did you know you've only said hello to three people today? Only four more to go to hit your daily target! Go get 'em, tiger! (cutesy emoji)".

Ford Prefect: I wouldn't trust that computer to speak my weight.
Eddie the Computer: I can do that for you, sure.
Ford Prefect: No, thank you.
Eddie the Computer: I can even work out your personality problems to ten decimal places if it'll help.
[The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams / BBC]

It's a horrific image, I know.

But for all the millions of people who struggle with social interaction, are depressed into isolation or simply get through life without smiling enough, this could be the equivalent of my Fitbit. Many people are quite capable of being active for the sake of it, but people like me really benefit from having little targets (with bars that go from red to green and are accompanied by a smiley face on completion) and the odd nudge to turn it into a game. I've lost count of the number of times I've jogged on the spot for several minutes just to hit my steps goal before going to bed. Social isolation can become a spiral, with people, whether through old age, mental health issues, bad experiences or just bad luck, becoming housebound or just alone in a crowded room simply because making social contact seems like such a barrier and a risk. Obvious and patronising as it sounds, positive social contact can usually help with these problems, with smiles even physically boosting our mood but, like drawing from an empty well, lack of contact can make attempting it seem difficult and unrewarding. As my infant experiment showed me, it's difficult to get started when you get nothing back. And empty bucket is harder work and more upsetting than not trying in the first place. But the thirst is the real danger and all it takes is a little bit in the bucket to make all the effort worth it.

A social tracker that can monitor our interactions can give that little bit of encouragement that might sometimes make all the difference. Of course it matters if the people we greet slide on past us like we'd never spoken, but what if our app could give us a little bleep and say "Well done! You just set a personal best! Here's your 'Meeter & Greeter' badge! Keep it up!"? Might that be enough to tide someone over for the day or two it took to have that smile reciprocated or that greeting returned? What if a gentle reminder to smile at somebody today is the thing that gets somebody to leave the house for a walk to the shops. Each point on that slowly-greening graph is a sip in the bucket that would otherwise be empty.

Alright! You're right on track buddy!
[A Musement Arcade Social Tracker (Patent Pending) - Lez Laig]

Of course for many of us the prospect of this makes the mind recoil like the Dour Man did from my friendly greeting on that first day. We're already monitored enough without a server in the basement of some Palo Alto tech start-up analysing our mental health and giving us intrusive pointers from across the sea. What if we want to be alone sometimes? Of course it won't be for everyone. But if it helped one person to make a connection that they might otherwise never have made, or put a smile on someone's face for the first time in days, it would all be worth it (again, possibly not financially). But if it caught on and people actually started smiling at each other, even if just because the app in their pocket told them to, how long would it be before they started doing it all by themselves, just because they felt like it? To return to a familiar analogy, like Dumbo's feather, or that weird sword-thing in Krull, the power was within us all along, but sometimes we need a little device to give us the confidence to try.

A magical Frisbee thing is a powerful motivator for the socially-awkward conqueror of evil
This metaphor just keeps on giving.
[Image: / Columbia Pictures]

And if you’re still reading, here are some other bits…

Appendix 1: The Stats

The Good Morning Project:
  • Experiment length: 24 days
  • 317 greetings proffered
  • Passed a mean of 13 people per day.
    • Very few of them were actually mean.
  • Was ignored a total of 59 times.
  • People recoiled in fear or disgust 15 times.
  • In total, 243 people responded positively, with 214 of those being returned greetings.
  • That said, only 3 ever actually initiated the greeting (pre-emptively, rather than as a response or at the same time).
  • On a single route, on a single road, between largely set times there was still a variation of 24 in how many people actually passed me on a given walk.
    • I would have given this as a percentage, but given that on one occasion I passed literally nobody on my way home, which rather messed with my calculations.

Appendix 2 – Trends identified

  • Mondays and Fridays seemed to be the least friendly days in any given week (and the least populous too, for reasons that one is free to speculate on).
  • Parents with children, couples or in fact any groups were far less likely to reply to a friendly greeting (and far more likely to regard friendliness with suspicion). Whether this was because they were unsure which of them I was talking to, that their companions would think them odd for replying or because being part of a group of any size ringfences our desire to act as social individuals is moot. It was probably all three.
  •  Joggers and people listening to headphones, and to a surprisingly lesser extent people using phones (possibly due to the need to be vaguely alert to peripheral danger) really do tend to be "in the zone", although it's really more like a tunnel.
  • Politeness isn’t really a generational thing. All ages seemed equally capable of friendliness or mistrust (although I decided at an early stage that it would be creepy to approach children, or even young-looking teens to be on the safe side, with greetings, so they were out of this experiment).
  • That said, slightly more elderly people tended to reply, although that might be to do with being slow, as discussed.
  • Weather is a tipping point. Sunshine in the morning can put a smile on nearly any face whereas cold rain can carve a scowl into just as many.
  • Passing large dead mammals (possibly barring humans) doesn't seem to have the negative impact that I'd expected.
  • In fact, it led to more social contact than expected, although that was probably an outlier.
  • People are very unpredictable, with their individual lives and other inconveniences. Sociable rats (naked mole rats? Or are they already too sociable?) would definitely have made more reliable experimental participants, but it would have made greeting them all in passing every day (perhaps on some sort of conveyor with a randomising cage-selection arm) much weirder. Although I have to say that the idea sounds quite interesting, now that I think about it...