Notes on “The Familiar Stranger”

October 26, 2008

The Familiar Stranger: Anxiety, Comfort and Play in Public Places: Eric Paulos, Elizabeth Goodman

A familiar stranger is someone we recognize but we don’t speak with. The paper explores how emergent wireless technologies might affect our lives and interactions with these familiar strangers. The authors conducted two experiments and presented one ubiquitous computing device concept.

In the first experiment, they photographed everyone present at a train station at a certain time. A week later, they returned and asked everyone at the train station to identify which photographs they recognized. They also distributed a survey about public relationships.

In the second experiment, they walked around Berkeley with a test subject and interviewed him or her about significant places, comfort levels and relationships.

The proposed device transmits an identifier and listens for others of its kind. In this way it leaves a “digital scent” and smells for other digital scents left by others. Repeated detection of the same digital scent implies the existence of a familiar stranger.

The paper’s conclusion makes the following claims: 

The very essence of place and community are being redefined by personal wireless digital tools that transcend traditional physical constrains [sic] of time and space. New metaphors for visualizing, interacting, and interpreting the real-time ebb and flow of urban spaces will emerge. Crucial to this discussion will be the often ignored yet vital role of our Familiar Strangers. Without a concerted effort to develop new knowledge and tools for understanding the implications of these new technologies, computer and social scientists, city planners, and others run the risk of losing touch with the reality of our urban streets and their inhabitants.

If the authors are right about the assumptions made in these statements, it is conceivable that informal foundational work will be useful. In the end, however, this is a paper grounded in art more than in science. Books and art pieces dominate the citations list. The experiments consist of surveys unscientifically exploring the obvious. There’s not much here.

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