Digital Companions in Therapeutic Settings
A post-phenomenological approach to voice assistants Mar 21, 2021
After two and a half coaching, a project club, and lots of discussions with my peers; Here’s where I’m at.
I reached an end with the path I walked before. My interest layed in the application of animism in the design of our relationship to technology, in order to strengthen bonds, and thus to lessen the ecological impact on the planet (through production and electronic waste).
After a brief look at smartphones as well as cordless headphones I then decided to invest research mainly into voice assistants, like Amazon’s Alexa. How I went about that can be read in the Researchplan 2020. Parallel I invested a lot of energy into literature review as well as deep readings, since the topic of animism was quite hard to grasp and even harder to convey.
Those two threads culminated into a blockade of sorts after the expert workshop. I couldn’t move forward in the way I planned. That moment was captured in Crossroads and Conjunctions and Post-Animism Phase.
After what I saw in the field, I’m having a hard time to work with the two main user-segments of voice assistants; home automation enthusiasts and consumer electronics casuals. The problem here is not that there is a unhealthy user-machine relationship; It is that this technology is completely unnecessary in the first place. Nonetheless the technology has a rapid and high adoption rate, so there must be something behind it. I then need to ask myself the question, where does it make sense and where do I want to invest my energy.
On the side of animism I reconciled that it is not something that can be designed into product, but that I emerges out of lived practices. Animism is a shared and learned way of seeing the world. Through the work of Betti Marenko it also becomes a great tool for the analysis of technology, as seen in When toys come to life: Considering the internet of toys from an animistic design. This point should probably be expanded as a finding.
Next to these elaborated points, there are also the following issues with the current application of voice assistant technology
- Sexism and colonial practices; As layed out in Preparing for smart voice assistants: Cultural histories and media innovations, VAs became popular by conciously designing submissive female personas into them. The VAs then becomes a trojan horse to invade and colonize our most private and sacred spaces.
- Trust and Closed Sources; GAFA are interested in our data, and only secondly in our lifes. Everything that touches us this intimately should be designed with a different perspective on privacy to begin with.
- Ungenerous and Inefficient Interfaces; Everything you can do with a voice assistant you can do quicker with an app on a smartphone. The voice interface is also completely intransparently in what you can and can’t do with it, further clouding it’s inner workings of collecting data.
I finally decided to continue working with the technology, but with and through a user-segment that seems meaningful to me and with an approach that steps away from the classical command-response paradigm. Voice user interfaces have a very low threshold of acceptance and technical skills. They further have the advantage of being hands-free, which is supportive of people with mobility or visibility impairments. I want to take up that part, technology as being supportive of being in the world. The approach of voice assistants as digital companions can be further developed to apply to people in forced isolation or in therapy. Seen through a post-phenomenological approach, artificial companions have the ability to preserve dignity while enabling autonomy. This point needs clarification from my side; But for now it’s important to stress, that I don’t see voice assistants as replacements for human to human relations, especially within therapeutic settings. I do believe that this technology holds supportive potential if integrated in therapeutic programs.