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You have heard that phrase uttered by your friends, family, schools and the media for decades. It's a norm. It's a social norm. But it's a special kind of social norm, because it's a social norm that wants to tell us who we can relate to and who we shouldn't relate to. "Don't talk to strangers" says, "Stay from anyone who's not familiar to you. Stick with the people you know. Stick with people like you."
How appealing is that? It's not really what we do, is it, when we're at our best? When we're at our best, we reach out to people who are not like us, because when we do that, we learn from people who are not like us.
My phrase for this value of being with "not like us" is "strangeness," and my point is that in today's digitally intensive world, strangers are quite frankly not the point. The point that we should be worried about is, how much strangeness are we getting?
Why strangeness? Because our social relations are increasingly mediated by data, and data turns our social relations into digital relations, and that means that our digital relations now depend extraordinarily on technology to bring to them a sense of robustness, a sense of discovery, a sense of surprise and unpredictability. Why not strangers? Because strangers are part of a world of really rigid boundaries. They belong to a world of people I know versus people I don't know, and in the context of my digital relations, I'm already doing things with people I don't know. The question isn't whether or not I know you. The question is, what can I do with you? What can I learn with you? What can we do together that benefits us both?
I spend a lot of time thinking about how the social landscape is changing, how new technologies create new constraints and new opportunities for people. The most important changes facing us today have to do with data and what data is doing to shape the kinds of digital relations that will be possible for us in the future. The economies of the future depend on that. Our social lives in the future depend on that. The threat to worry about isn't strangers. The threat to worry about is whether or not we're getting our fair share of strangeness.
Now, 20th-century psychologists and sociologists were thinking about strangers, but they weren't thinking so dynamically about human relations, and they were thinking about strangers in the context of influencing practices. Stanley Milgram from the '60s and '70s, the creator of the small-world experiments, which became later popularized as six degrees of separation, made the point that any two arbitrarily selected people were likely connected from between five to seven intermediary steps. His point was that strangers are out there. We can reach them. There are paths that enable us to reach them. Mark Granovetter, Stanford sociologist, in 1973 in his seminal essay "The Strength of Weak Ties," made the point that these weak ties that are a part of our networks, these strangers, are actually more effective at diffusing information to us than are our strong ties, the people closest to us. He makes an additional indictment of our strong ties when he says that these people who are so close to us, these strong ties in our lives, actually have a homogenizing effect on us. They produce sameness.
My colleagues and I at Intel have spent the last few years looking at the ways in which digital platforms are reshaping our everyday lives, what kinds of new routines are possible. We've been looking specifically at the kinds of digital platforms that have enabled us to take our possessions, those things that used to be very restricted to us and to our friends in our houses, and to make them available to people we don't know. Whether it's our clothes, whether it's our cars, whether it's our bikes, whether it's our books or music, we are able to take our possessions now and make them available to people we've never met. And we concluded a very important insight, which was that as people's relationships to the things in their lives change, so do their relations with other people. And yet recommendation system after recommendation system continues to miss the boat. It continues to try to predict what I need based on some past characterization of who I am, of what I've already done. Security technology after security technology continues to design data protection in terms of threats and attacks, keeping me locked into really rigid kinds of relations.
Categories like "friends" and "family" and "contacts" and "colleagues" don't tell me anything about my actual relations. A more effective way to think about my relations might be in terms of closeness and distance, where at any given point in time, with any single person, I am both close and distant from that individual, all as a function of what I need to do right now. People aren't close or distant. People are always a combination of the two, and that combination is constantly changing.
What if technologies could intervene to disrupt the balance of certain kinds of relationships? What if technologies could intervene to help me find the person that I need right now? Strangeness is that calibration of closeness and distance that enables me to find the people that I need right now, that enables me to find the sources of intimacy, of discovery, and of inspiration that I need right now. Strangeness is not about meeting strangers. It simply makes the point that we need to disrupt our zones of familiarity. So jogging those zones of familiarity is one way to think about strangeness, and it's a problem faced not just by individuals today, but also by organizations, organizations that are trying to embrace massively new opportunities. Whether you're a political party insisting to your detriment on a very rigid notion of who belongs and who does not, whether you're the government protecting social institutions like marriage and restricting access of those institutions to the few, whether you're a teenager in her bedroom who's trying to jostle her relations with her parents, strangeness is a way to think about how we pave the way to new kinds of relations. We have to change the norms. We have to change the norms in order to enable new kinds of technologies as a basis for new kinds of businesses.
What interesting questions lie ahead for us in this world of no strangers? How might we think differently about our relations with people? How might we think differently about our relations with distributed groups of people? How might we think differently about our relations with technologies, things that effectively become social participants in their own right? The range of digital relations is extraordinary. In the context of this broad range of digital relations, safely seeking strangeness might very well be a new basis for that innovation.
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In our digital world, social relations have become mediated by data. Without even realizing it, we’re barricading ourselves against strangeness -- people and ideas that don't fit the patterns of who we already know, what we already like and where we’ve already been. A call for technology to deliver us to what and who we need, even if it’s unfamiliar. (Filmed at TED@Intel.)
A principal engineer at Intel, Maria Bezaitis focuses on how constellations of personal data can form new business models. Full bio »