Taylor Davidson · Ambient Intimacy: Creating Archetypes from Avatars

by Taylor Davidson · 19 May 2009
Atmosphere, Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Expanding on a couple short notes about ambient intimacy; learning to take the good with the bad.

Intimacy without being Intimate.

Intermittent, one-way, more of a “crush” than love; the feeling of a shared relationship without it being shared, a benevolent form of stalking; ambient intimacy is what happens when we strengthen our loose ties, by keeping in touch with people by following, reading and caring about another person without telling them you care.

Intimacy contains the assumption of risk, of putting a part of yourself “out there”; but it’s not the same as merely sharing ideas, or sharing criticism: remember that intimacy is less about revealing facts and more about revealing feelings, sharing a part of ourselves that we’re not sure we even want to admit to ourselves.

That’s a hard thing to scale; even if the web is increasing the number of ties we can create and sustain, even if we’re no longer tied to Dunbar’s Number, true intimacy doesn’t scale: personality can’t be automated, technology can’t replace our soul or change the human limits of our time, energy and passion. Even big hearts can only pump so large, so wide, for so long.

Observing without Understanding.

Knowledge isn’t wisdom; observing isn’t knowing, watching is only half of interacting; information is useless without knowing what to do with it; observing crowds out the mental and emotional space necessary to create true understanding, yet most of our tools, time and attention are dedicated to observing: aggregating and filtering the noise rather than understanding and leveraging the signals to initiate actions.

Creating stereotypes from limited information is a fundamental way the human mind deals with incomplete information to simplify decision-making; we rely on our minds to fill in the gaps, to create archetypes from avatars.

But stereotypes don’t give us the full picture; even worse, stereotypes help us classify and file people and ideas, but they don’t help us interact, use or truly leverage the value behind the avatar: that takes a level of understanding that ambient intimacy can’t create.

This is why I talk about a “personal API”, about a way for people to understand how to access and tap into my skills, knowledge and “value” in a scalable way that reduces the transaction costs of our interactions, with a structured datastream behind it that allows me to understand, track and reach out to people in their time of need before they even know it themselves.

The Awkwardness of Unknown Conversations.

Remember everything, forget nothing; the static cling of the web captures far more than our slippery minds and our awkward offline exchanges without hyperlinks and search-friendly context. But the problem of unknown conversations reaches across both mediums; hazy rememberances about what you told people, what they happened to glance, or what someone else forwarded them about you; unsure if the bits of yourself you shared ended up grabbing their attention or fading into the noise; we’re ambiently intimate with versions of people through our intermittent intersections, but we’re unaware of the complete versions that we miss, misinterpret or ignore.

And we can choose how to converse: we can ignore, turn away from a conversation with a flip of a finger; archive an email without a response; read, ignore, love or hate a message without caring enough to respond.

The Paradox.

But here’s the paradox: as much as I want to decry our expanding loose networks, fracturing attention and fake friendships sustained through our ambient connections, maximizing the power of loose networks and loose ties is the real opportunity; it’s where I’ve met the most interesting people, learned the most interesting things, connected to new opportunities; it’s where we find growth and create new value, it’s where we find new edges; it’s the source of innovation and insights we would not have seen otherwise. It’s why we care about serendipity and discovery; we’re hooked by the positive variable intermittent reinforcement baked into all successful, widely-adopted tools; an insight, an opportunity, a confirmation, a life-changing connection behind every click.

Adding to the Cacophony.

Pointing you to other aspects of the topic so you don’t have to search for them: