Augmenting Real World Interactions


I’m very excited to learn about your efforts, but frankly, I’m amazed that augmenting real world interactions (as opposed to making online interactions more “humane”) isn’t explicitly noted as one of your core aims.

In other words, why not advocate for online technology that better facilitates face-to-face (f-t-f) interactions? My view is that f-t-f should always be viewed as primary, and that we should consider online tech as supplementing, but not replacing f-t-f. At the very least, I would think that you would at least advocate for tech that augments f-t-f. Examples are neighborhood social networks (e.g. Nextdoor) and online tools for encouraging f-t-f gatherings (e.g.

Have you just not thought about this, or did you reject it?

If you’d like to think about this more, I’d be happy to be a sounding board. I’ve written a book about children and neighborhoods (Playborhood -, and am now involved in neighborhood social networking.

  • Mike Lanza

Another example of applications I think you should advocate is location-based games like Pokemon Go. This game could be amended to encourage more f-t-f interaction, but it’s already much better for people than non-location-based games like Fortnite.

Pokémon Go is a f-t-b interaction, that is face to business. Local business like coffee bar, restaurants pay to have Pokémons in their location, so kids will go there and consume.

Well, yes, there is a commercial aspect to it that can be exploitative, but on balance, it’s more pro-social than most other games that keep players glued down to their seats.

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As far as I can imagine playing at Pokemon Go, I actually don’t see any social interaction in it; which is the relation between players in such games? The only good aspect should be that they are walking/running instead of being seated? There are better games for that…

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Players walking around close to each other often notice each other and start chatting, because they’re encountering similar things on their screens.

Yes, as I said in my first comment on this game, it could be changed to improve f-t-f interactions.

My larger point was that all location-based games are an improvement over sedentary games with regard to encouraging interaction with the real world. I pointed out Pokemon Go as an example because it’s the biggest location-based game.


BTW, Michele (anch’io mi chiamo Michele in Italiano!), what do you think about the other app categories I mentioned in my original post - neighborhood social networks and apps for organizing in-person events?

I’ll repeat that your organization has really missed a hugely important topic, very relevant to combatting the ills of surveillance and AI - technology that augments real world and face-to-face interactions - don’t you agree?

Mike, I’m not so sure that it’s a case of being missed, so much as a case that in a lot of ways we aren’t quite there yet. One of the systemic issues that got us where we are with harmful tech is “move fast and break things,” the approach that radical innovation is kind of a panacea, rather than a useful but sometimes risky approach to problem-solving. The most obvious alternative is to slow down (a bit) and look not for the immediate solution but for the right solution.

One of my main focus areas in the last couple of years has been to try to figure out not just what’s going wrong, but why our tech doesn’t align with our human interests the way it was expected to. It turns out a lot of the issues can be tracked to, of all things, our abstract models of how we work and how the world works. The problem, then, is coming up with new models so we stop asking the wrong questions and trying to solve the wrong problems with the wrong solutions.

For example, the best way to augment real-world face to face interactions with tech is probably to make tech that a) helps put people in the same place, b) optionally with some idea of what to start talking about if they aren’t sure yet, and then c) gets out of the way for the duration.

The reason is that our brains and bodies have been developed over geological timespans to work a certain way, and that way is pretty comprehensive. It’s genuinely hard to add anything that doesn’t end up being more trouble than it’s worth, because this is such a fine-tuned system and so universal to us that we almost can’t tell that it is constantly working.

For example, when two people have a conversation, our speech and body language start to harmonize, we adhere to a nearly universal back-and-forth timing, and our brain waves start to synchronize. Our brains also treat the words as only one very limited part of a whole multi-channel communication system that factors in facial expression, tone of voice, body language, and pacing, and it seems to believe the nonverbal cues over the text on a regular basis. Moreover, when you cut off some of those channels, our brains seem to want to fill in the gaps by guessing. (This is why sarcasm in text conversations can be hit or miss, since it relies on the reader to guess correctly.) There’s good reason to believe that most readers “hear” a voice when they read text, which implies that they’re also “hearing” tone of voice—imagine someone reading a text message while in a bad mood and interpreting it as being written in an aggressive “tone” because they’re already primed to feel bad, rather than because of the author’s intent or feelings.

What tech can meaningfully intrude into that system and make it better, instead of causing disruptions to a finely tuned engine that basically produces telepathy over short distances? What will introduce signal but no noise? I’m really not sure.

At some point we may have some good ideas! But for now, anyone who thinks they can outdo the human brain and body for communicating between two people probably doesn’t actually understand how ridiculously complex the IRL version really is, or how hard the problem is going to end up being.

That more or less leaves room only for tech to bring people who are distant closer together, then gracefully duck out for a nap. I think there’s enormous opportunity in that zone, at least. You mentioned Meetup, which is in that space, but I’m certain that there are specific approaches that haven’t been tried yet and that might actually do some good.

Nextdoor is, I think, a step in the right direction but it also shows how doing that without building in other improvements is potentially a problem. Lots of people I know who use Nextdoor find it a combination of “useful” and “some of the worst parts of Facebook’s comments, but I know these people are my neighbors and it’s upsetting.” That can be attributed at least in part to some of the ways that current tech paradigms are inhumane, and work to make those models better for Facebook or Twitter or YouTube should also help services like Nextdoor to be better about it.


Hey, Jose

Thanks for your thoughtful reply. Honestly, I had to read it over a couple of times because, well, I’ve concluded that your answer starts to address my core question, but doesn’t ultimately do it.

My core question is, “why don’t you guys address how technology can facilitate real-world/face-to-face interactions?” You make some interesting points in your reply about how one would address this solution path, and how important it is. I like a lot of what you say here, and I’d love discuss this more with you (e.g. on how Nextdoor can better facilitate non-hostile neighborly dialog and face-to-face interactions). However, what you say in this semi-private message to me is the only real statement I’ve seen from anyone at your Center about this.

So, to go back to my question, why doesn’t the Center for Humane Technology address this issue as one of its core issues? I’m sure it’s a huge key to the central problem that your Center is trying to address.

In other words, I see your Center as wholly focused on how to make machines better (i.e. more helpful, less manipulative) at facilitating online human interactions. However, I would submit that another solution path worth investigating is to have machines assist humans at getting together in person, so they can put the machines off to the side and engage face-to-face.

Don’t you think that the latter is worthy of some deep focus by the Center for Humane Technology?

I certainly do.

BTW, I’m in Menlo Park and would be happy to grab chat over coffee or lunch. I have a lot of depth in this face-to-face tech stuff - I’m not just an online commenter…

  • Mike

Mike, I think I maybe ought to clarify a couple things. :slight_smile:

One, my name’s John, the “j” in my username is just my first initial.

Two, I’m in Seattle, so I can’t take you up on that in-person chat, sorry; I would if I were local!

Three, I’m not sure you’ll get an answer on these forums. They exist more as an area for people outside the Center to self-organize and network. I’m not sure this is sufficiently clearly stated for most users, but the Humane Tech Community is a different, grass-roots organization working to try and support the CHT’s efforts. There are Center personnel with accounts here, but not everyone in these discussions is such. For example, I’m a designer working in public health communications, and I manage the Seattle Meetup group for the community, but I’m not a Center staffer.

I don’t think I can really address your concern the way you’d like, given that. I’m happy to discuss things further, but I don’t want to waste your time if I’m not the person you’re trying to reach.



There is a list of Meetup Chapters in this forum. Feel free to use the search tool.
There is a PDF doc on the CHT website which explicitly addressed the importance of in person interaction. It also encourages “real world free play” for children, which I think might resonate with you.

This forum supports the CHT efforts so far and I don’t think anyone here would argue with you about augmenting f-t-f.

Hey, John

Thanks for the clarification, and thank you for your messages. Seattle’s wonderful this time of year. Enjoy the Indian summer before the wet stuff starts coming down.

  • Mike

Hey, Echo -

You’re familiar with Echo and the Bunnymen, right?

There are no meetups upcoming in the SF Bay Area, as far as I can tell. Thanks for the pointer on the PDF and its mention of in-person interaction and real world free play. That’s better than nothing, I guess, but I would argue that a “Center for Humane Technology” that is trying to counteract the dominance of modern social networking apps and AI on people should make encouraging face-to-face interactions one of it’s primary foci. There’s actually a lot of activity in this area, much of which I alluded to in my first two messages in this thread.

It’s pretty clear from scouring all CHT materials (web site, press, videos, etc.) that no one there has spent any serious time thinking about this. I have ideas on how to make this happen.


  • Mike

I had the same thought. I was wondering why there aren’t any digital games that use the “escape room” model of collaborative puzzle solving, where multiple people must be in close proximity and collaborate to solve a puzzle or a problem. Even Pokemon Go doesn’t (I think) actively encourage you to interact with other people (has been quite a while since I played it), just places. The best example I can think of is TikTok which does seem to get people to collaborate on a dance/song/project.