Post-PC success comes from embracing humanity's darker side

Post-PC success comes from embracing humanity's darker side

Summary: Smartphones and tablets cover the whole gamut of human experience, not just the nice stuff about unicorns and rainbows. Accepting that fact lets us all have better tools to support our lives.

TOPICS: Smartphones, Tablets

Every year, I'm lucky enough to be asked to one of the local universities in the UK to help students on an IT-related degree program. The students have to group together in teams of four, each team putting together a business plan for a commercially defensible smartphone apps.

How would you like your smartphone to lie about the weather, telling you that it was always sunny? Into every life a little rain must fall, etc.

One part of this process involves the initial brainstorming of ideas before the teams go away and produce their final presentation.

In the morning, I give a little lecture about building mobile apps. In the hotel that morning as I was tweaking (aka, "writing") the slides, I started a slide titled "Don't assume everyone is nice to one another". Running out of time, I deleted it.

I wish I'd finished it.

Out of the 10 groups that day, something really interesting happened. Seven of the groups suggested the same sub-feature of their main idea — specifically, that open crime data could be incorporated into the app to provide a feature that would help people out for the evening find a route home that took them through safer neighbourhoods.

So seven times that day, their tutor and I had to point out that if they produced such a thing, all that would happen would be that would-be muggers would use the same app to identify places where people thought they would be safe, and then go and mug them.

You see, not everyone is nice to one another.


The fact that seven of the 10 groups came up with the same idea tells us something — often, people thinking about building post-PC apps base their thinking on an overly simplified view of human relationships.

This is an important point, because post-PC is all about "relationship-centric" computing. Smartphones, tablets, and the services we run through them are all about connecting us into relationships with others and our relationships with ourselves.

As a result, anything you use your smartphone or tablet for covers the whole gamut of the human experience, and by definition that can't just be all the nice stuff.

It's easy enough to assume that everyone is happily married, the kids are all A-grade students in school, and crappy things happen to other people, but human society is not like this. Husbands and wives cheat. People abuse and are often horrible to each other.

The point is that when we're looking at software solutions that are about the whole human experience, you can't just choose the nice, light, and jolly parts of life and focus on that. This isn't like building enterprise software for tracking invoices and managing cash flow — it's about people's lives.

Here's an example. A husband and wife are not getting on and they are fast approaching the end of their marriage. He goes on a business trip to Amsterdam. He has an app on his phone that sends back his location. There's nothing sinister in it, it's just something they both use to coordinate picking the kids up from after-school clubs, etc.

She asks him not to go to any strip clubs whilst he's away. He agrees.

He leaves his phone in a cab and the next person in picks it up. Perhaps that person intends to keep it, or intends to return it. Either way, its new quasi-owner is on his way to a strip club with the phone. The wife has a look at where the husband is, quick look on Street View — perhaps she's suspicious, perhaps she's interested — and assumes it's him that's gone to a strip club, not just his phone.

That's them done — the husband's "lie" causes their story to end in divorce.

The point of that story is that as an app designer, if you're thinking about the darker side of human relationships — ie, that things can go very badly wrong and it's not all unicorns and rainbows — you might design that app a bit differently.

In unicorns and rainbows world, spouses always get on, and the "hey, do you remember the time your phone went to a strip club on its own?!" is just a fun story. In the normal world, it depends on just what state their relationship is in — it could be a fun story, or could be their last story.


Another thing that's always interesting about the university work is that none of the groups ever come in with an app that's morally unjustifiable.

Why have none of the university groups ever come in and said "we're going to build an app that helps muggers find victims"?

For the record, there's nothing in the module marking guide that says a proposed app has to be wholesome and lovely. They'd have an equal shot of success as all the others.

This point illustrates the bias toward thinking that everyone is nice to one another throughout the whole creative process of building post-PC apps. Although I'm not defending the idea of an app to help muggers find victims, perhaps imbuing the creative process from inception from an angle that's about the darker side of humanity helps build a final, morally defensible end product that's more in tune with the realities of human relationships?

Perhaps. But I do know this...

People aren't nice to each other. Plan accordingly.

Topics: Smartphones, Tablets

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  • So, if I am to accept your premise...

    ...then security conferences are a bad idea, since the non-ethical hacker community will take the information presented to develop new security threats.

    So are open security conferences a good or bad thing?

    A few decades ago, on the eve of the Internet becoming "open" to the world, I recall debates amongst the evangelicals about how wonderful it all was going to be; Billions of people being able to directly communicate and exchange brilliant ideas. Instead, we had the porn explosion.

    You are right; The reality is that when something is open to everyone, you're going to get the bad as well as the good. But does that mean that we should deny people access to the good because there is always the possibility that the bad might find a way to make use of it as well? If that was the case, we'd still be living in caves.
    • open = safer

      Hi :)
      I think Matt has some good points in there. If planners think about how their design might be subverted by both "evil people" and by accidental misuse then perhaps security problems might not arise so often.

      I'm the only person of my gender and race that i know of in my town that hasn't been attacked at any point. Even when i was in the "highest risk" category. Most people i see walk around trying to ignore the world around them or even with headphones on to tune-out the world. Thus they are more likely to bump into things or people or walk into potentially dangerous situations without any awareness of it. By contrast i always find so many interesting things to look at that i just seem to avoid dodginess just because i see ahead a tiny bit and think ahead as a result. I'm not 100% aware all the time and of course i drift off in my own thoughts too sometimes but i don't live there. I live in the world around me. It's really not that tough.
      Regards from
      Tom :)
  • i will fear no evil

    Eunice Branca
  • Technology is an amplifier of human behaviour

    A very efficient lever. Oystercard records are used more to prove alibis than as evidence in divorce cases (although I could easily give my Oystercard to someone to take to a distant location if there isn't photographic evidence to back it up), but I'm not sure how different it really is from the professional co-respondents one could hire in the 1940s to accompany you to a Brighton hotel if you wished to provide the court with proof of 'infidelity' in what we we'd call an amicable divorce today - there had to be grounds. In your strip club example, it's not that the technology broke any trust; it's that the trust was already gone and the proximal cause for proceeding to a divorce was just a matter of time. Assuming bad actors and vulnerabilities should be common sense by now...
  • Did I just read this entire article to learn this?

    People are bad?

    Wow, call the President.
    • Not so much 'people are bad'

      I think this article is meant more to point out that good things can sometimes be distorted to serve bad ends, and that the makers of programs should be mindful of such scenarios rather than assuming that everyone will necessarily do the right thing.

      With that in mind, 'good thing used to do bad things' is not a particularly novel concept either; look at Socrates for an example of that.
      Third of Five
  • If Criminals Really Were This Rational...

    ...then crime waves would end up being pretty much randomly-distributed around ALL neighbourhoods: as soon as one neighbourhood got a bad reputation, the crims would immediately move elsewhere, most likely to the ones considered the safest.

    But they don't do that.

    In short, if crims acted as rationally as you claim, then they wouldn't be crims.
  • smart mugging app

    "So seven times that day, their tutor and I had to point out that if they produced such a thing, all that would happen would be that would-be muggers would use the same app to identify places where people thought they would be safe, and then go and mug them."

    I think this was probably 7 times too many. You are postulating that would be muggers will start hanging out in well lighted, well policed neighborhoods crawling with good citizens who will readily call the emergency services if anything untoward is happening, on the off chance that they will run into a victim who has been lulled into a false sense of security by the fact that his cell phone told him it was a safer neighborhood than the one where the muggers live.

    Mugging, unlike art theft, is a crime of opportunity. Few muggers spend days casing out the layout. To the extent that they do, it is to find a place where they are comfortable with a short run to a safe place to hide among people who do not make a major effort to confront them or assist in their prosecution. Many muggers feel that anyone stupid enough to stray into their typically easily identified high crime neighborhood deserves the lesson a mugging will provide. An app that will warn a stranger in their city to avoid their crime-ridden haunts is not likely to cause a flood of crime in currently safe neighborhoods.
  • Just goes ta show ya...

    Contained in every solution...
    are the seeds of a new problem...

    But at least we can choose our problems, right?
  • Post-PC success???

    Try "Age of Mobile success", because no matter how much the mobile pundits wish to claim it, the PC is not going away. Mobile is a new market. While there are some great benefits to mobile, and it fills a niche that the PC simply cannot, mobile devices also do not fill the niche at home and in business that the PC does. Even if the idea of carrying your processor around in your pocket and plugging it into a dock at home or work comes to fruition, the larger monitor, the dedicated graphics card, the mechanical keyboard and mouse will all still be in use. Likely there will be several other legacy components that I'm not mentioning sticking around as well to either perform a function, or expand the functionality of your "pocket processor". Post-PC? What I take away from this articles' title is that the darker side of humanity will push any line of malarkey if they think it will make them a buck.
  • Post-PC

    The term Post-PC refers to the time when the PC (desktop/laptop/notebook) is no longer dominate. PC sales have continued to decline for the past few years, while sales for mobile devices continues to enjoy nearly exponential increases. This trend will continue to a point, then level off. PCs will change from mainstream to a somewhat niche group. Several movements are working together now to establish the mobile device dominance. We are already entering the Post-PC Era.
  • Good Idea


    I like the idea of creating programs for the Darker Side users, then finding a way to make them "wholesome." There are people in other fields that do just that. They use their Darker Side tendencies to improve society.

    I think it would be a great experiment for the next time you are invited to the university.
  • Pretty much anything can be used for either good or evil

    It's really up to how the end user decides to use the tool or information. None of these things are bad in themselves. The design of the app needs to take the foibles of the human condition into account when making the design and allow the user the flexibility to determine their own acceptable risk levels. The conscientious designer is also going to advise the client about the possible negative impact of the user decisions.