How to get comfortable in a stranger's skin
New empathy-building app lets you swap lives with people you don’t know.
Wed, Jul 23, 2014 at 08:16 AM
The 20 Day Stranger website is recruiting people to test new software that lets users get a feel for a stranger's daily life. (Photo: Screencapture from video)
Kevin Slavin, director of MIT Media Lab’s Playful Systems research group, is a fan of Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. But he’s also the first to admit there’s a dark side to social media — and not one you’ve probably considered.
“Technology does an excellent job of better connecting us to everyone we already interact with, which is amazing and beautiful,” he says. “But the more visible everybody we’re connected to becomes, the more invisible the rest of the world seems to be.”
In other words, as we bond more deeply with those in our small social circle, our empathy for strangers slips further away. But what should we do about it?
That’s precisely the question Slavin’s colleague Tinsley Galyean, director of MIT’s Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values, posed awhile back. Galyean suggested collaborating on a project to expand awareness of our not-so-obvious connections to strangers — people like the farmhand who picked that orange you just peeled or the factory workers who made your new car. All of them have stories and families and dreams, yet most of us never consider how our lives intersect with theirs.
For Slavin (pictured right) and his team, who spend their days designing technologies that enhance real life and make it more fun, the answer was clear: create an electronic tool that counteracts the rise of "us versus everybody else" thinking and makes it possible to walk in a stranger’s shoes. The result is a phone app that lets you spend 20 days anonymously with a random individual — remotely dining where they dine, driving where they drive and generally experiencing day-to-day life exactly as they do.
20 Day Stranger collects all the data available about you through your phone (which, as the NSA scandal recently revealed, is extensive) — things like precisely where you are day and night; whether you’re walking, sitting or sleeping; and what the world around you looks like.
“The software only uses information already collected by sites like Facebook and Foursquare,” Slavin says. “We don’t do anything with the data and erase it as soon as we can. We’re only using it to address the problem of connecting with people you’ll never meet.”
If this all sounds a little creepy, rest assured participation is entirely voluntary. No one can peer into your life unless you’ve agreed to let them. Plus, the software maintains participants’ anonymity; no names or contact information is shared. Rather the app provides just enough data via text and generic photos — transmitted roughly hourly — to give an intimate sense of someone’s life without revealing who they are, where they live or who they’re with.
“It’s just enough to feed the imagination,” says Slavin, a popular TED-talk speaker.
So, for instance, if you’re walking through Brooklyn, your stranger sees a Google Maps Street View of that general neighborhood. They might recognize it as Brooklyn if they’ve been there but won’t know your exact location. If you duck into your favorite deli, up pops the message “at a deli” and someone’s Foursquare photo of it. Your personal photos are never used and the deli’s name isn’t revealed. Later when you’re home, your stranger receives an overhead view of your neighborhood.
“Another feature of the app is you can see what somebody else sees about you,” Slavin says. “When you know what your life appears like it helps you imagine those parts of someone else’s life.”
In other words, it builds empathy.
Slavin knows this first-hand after participating in an early test run. From the data he received about his stranger — photos of a tapas bar, university signs in Spanish, and the individual’s 7 p.m. (EST) bedtime — he surmised he was paired with a student in Spain. In return, the student glimpsed Slavin’s life: Boston street scenes, the MIT campus and his two hospital admissions during the test period.
“I started wondering what it’s like to be at a Spanish university with unemployment among young people over 70 percent, and I was curious whether [the student] worried if I was OK,” Slavin says.
He never got to ask because the software crashed before 20 days were up. Normally participants get one chance at the end to send a message to their stranger, either to ask a question, exchange contact information or just say goodbye. However, Slavin saw enough to believe the app really does spark compassion and understanding beyond one’s own inner circle.
In fact, he’s currently recruiting a global network of volunteers to continue testing the software before its official launch later this year. If interested, you can sign up here. And not to worry if your life doesn’t seem compelling enough to share. Participants will be paired with somebody as geographically distant — and different — as possible to diminish the familiarity factor.
“When you go to Paris, you’re not enchanted by other tourists; you’re enchanted by the French people who are essentially living dull lives,” Slavin says. “They just happen to be very different from your own. We’re betting that what’s ordinary to you is extraordinary to somebody else.”
A short video illustrates the app's concept:
Note to readers: The first version is an iPhone app. If you’re interested in fast-tracking an Android version, Slavin and his small team (who have limited resources and don’t make a profit) are calling on volunteers to help develop it.
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Photos: Kevin Slavin