This all started with some uninteresting and unoriginal pondering on how we are all getting angrier with each other and how social media is taking much of the blame.
I know our underlying political and social schisms have a lot to do with it, along with social media’s power to orchestrate and manipulate opinion.
I think many recognise that it’s also partly because the written word is a pretty useless medium for holding a conversation compared with old-fashioned face to face talking.
This isn’t new thinking. I’ve been around long enough to remember when email became a mainstream business tool, and the painful lesson I learned when I tried using a group email to dodge a difficult conversation with my team. Needless to say, it made the situation much worse than if I had just buckled down and gone and talked with them.
It’s hard to put non-factual, emotive stuff in writing without the risk of someone getting offended or grabbing the wrong end of the stick.
They react, you react to their reaction, and you end up in another escalating, interminable and pointless game of ping pong where you’re both sure your next stinging email, comment or tweet will be the unanswerable put down which it never is.
Then, when we start calling people snowflakes or begin spouting fridge magnet philosophy like ‘Your offence is not my problem’, it just fans the flames.
That’s one reason emojis evolved; to help us communicate nuances of emotion without the intellectual hassle of actually having to think of the right words.
It’s understandable; we can’t be expected always to think of the perfect phrase to avoid misunderstanding or offence amidst the whirring thumbs of an online chat.
Even our greatest poets and songwriters sometimes get it wrong under much less time pressure. For example, when he wrote the fine song ‘Duncan’, I doubt that Paul Simon foresaw how his UK fans would react to the lyric “My father was a fisherman, my mother was a fisherman’s friend.”
Emojis can help up to a point, but ultimately they’re just proxies for words and thus open to the same misunderstanding and misuse.
If you respond to something offensive online with something equally offensive, but you add a winky face to show you haven’t sunk to the other guys level, then not only have you sunk to the other guy’s level, you’ve stuck out your tongue out and gone ‘ner ner ne ner ner!’ while you’re down there.
This led me on naturally to the idea of smart emojis (and I don’t mean smiley faces with horn-rimmed glasses or soft keyboards for people who have completely lost touch with written language).
As I write, Facebook is celebrating its 15th birthday. The UK Guardian newspaper heralded this event with a headline ‘The Death of The Private Self,’ presumably referring to the sinister repercussions of the petabytes of personal data which Facebook and their ilk now hold on us all.
But what if we took all that information about our private selves which social media has sucked out through our fingertips, stuck some hefty data mining and algorithmic functionality on the front, and channelled it into improving our online conversations, instead of influencing the outcome of the next big election?
A smart emoji could use all that data to work out what everyone in an online conversation is actually thinking and feeling, then present itself in a shape which recognises this, to head off any misunderstanding or offence.
We could have a smart emoji to convey messages like ‘Look, based on your tweets, cookies and Amazon buying history, I know you’re sensitive about chinchilla welfare. This guy didn’t know that, and the toilet brush gag just used the word ‘chinchilla’ because it’s one of those words which can shore up a weak gag because it sounds funny just saying it. Maybe you could cut him some slack?’
I recognise it would be a bit tricky getting this kind of message across using a set of symbols which started as a colon and right bracket, so the smart emoji would need to be more like an avatar, sitting on the end of your social media messages and passing comment.
While we merrily keep firing off our coruscating tweets and posts, our emoji avatar is hard at work following up, using all that mined personal data and a bit of psycho-social artificial intelligence to smooth ruffled feathers and head off law suits.
And there’s the rub, because we would almost certainly want to know everything our avatar knows.
At best, it might be difficult to sustain relationships when you have full, unvarnished knowledge of what everyone you interact with is thinking and feeling.
At worst, it could be like Douglas Adams’ Total Perspective Vortex from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It was a device designed to improve our knowledge by providing a complete perspective on infinity, which instead ended up as a tool of torture because, faced with that complete perspective, the average human mind generally tries to escape through the ears.
Or we could deliberately detach ourselves and leave the avatars to it. It’s an appealing thought; switch on the smart emojis and sneak away from all the inane and caustic social media chat, quietly closing the door behind us. Realistically I can’t see that happening either.
But maybe there’s a more practical application for smart emojis.
Think of all the time we spend dancing round the handbags in commercial and political negotiations. If we had a couple of impartial, all-knowing smart emojis in the room I reckon we could slash that time to virtually nothing and give the negotiators time to go off and do something useful instead, like plant a tree.
Imagine the conversation :
Negotiator : “That’s my red line. I can’t possibly offer any more than that.”
Smart Emoji: “Actually it’s not my red line, it’s my extreme opener. I’ve analysed all the data objectively and the deal which gives the optimum outcome for all stakeholders is x. Anyone want to give their reasons why they wouldn’t want to sign up to the best deal for everyone? ”
We must be close to having the technical capability to do this, if we don’t already, but having the will to do it is a different matter.
I believe we have too much of a vested interest in doing deals for us to give it up easily. From the market square to the boardroom and the corridors of power, people build careers, reputations and fortunes on doing deals which best serve their own interests or the interests of those they represent.
The drive to beat the other guy, the testosterone and the competitive streak would need to be surgically removed from our basic business models.
Many would find this so intolerably painful that they would never accept the change, in spite of the exponential improvement in efficiency in doing deals. .
Maybe I’m a freak, maybe I’m missing something, but I’ve been involved in negotiating some fairly substantial contracts, and I found the hours and days spent round the negotiating table were the most frustratingly pointless of my career.
The process seemed inherently inefficient, and the whole mechanism of negotiating plans, extreme openers and lists of negotiating points tended to militate against building and maintaining the trust that we would need in the ongoing working relationship once the deal was signed.
But then, it seems a lot of people love it, and I guess some of those people tend to make the decisions on where the IT R&D spend goes.
I hope that AI will start to infiltrate our procurement and political processes (or maybe it has and I just haven’t noticed) and that the art of the deal will one day be consigned to history like the art of the manuscript illuminator. Realistically, though, I think we’ll see a lot of robots building cars and flipping burgers before that day comes.