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Personalised? Tampered With?


Passing through Heathrow earlier this month I found myself being screened by a trainee baggage checker who, pointing to a decorative sticker on my laptop asked “Why did you tamper with this?” Yeah, admittedly the decoration is from a roll of gaffer tape more often associated with holding things together and yeah, its pretty bland as far as decoration goes, but it shifts it from just another corporate laptop to something that is a tad more personal.

There are a number of reasons why humans personalise things cnot least that it is a reflection or their personal or group identity – I’m into skating so is my possie; creating a talking point I see you went to Izu? I was thinking about going there next week..; to matching their current mood “its Monday morning I’ll put together a bleep-bleep tracklist to ease me into the day“. In a study on carrying behaviours a few years back [PDF, 0.4MB] we noted similarities between the personalisation motivations of Shanghai school kids and San Francisco bicycle messengers – the former personalising their identical electronic calculators, the latter their 2-way radios – their primary, and simple motivation being that when everything looks the same it is eaiser to identify your widget from the rest.

My Bangalore design studio colleague Jan Blom has carried out extensive research in this field once more of it is in the public domain I’ll return to this topic.

A mixed jumble of thoughts before heading out into today’s Tokyo heat: for any given thing what is the motivation for, and likelihood of personalisation and why? In what contexts will your notions of acceptable levels and types of personalisation be called into question? And if, as with the example of airport security the motivation in defining the boundary between personalisation / tampering is that the origin of the object can be ascertained and verified to be ‘clean’ to what extent does this push us towards a situation where for the sake of an easier life, we gravitate to things that are obviously not ‘tampered with’? Are you willing to give up personalised objects for the sake of getting on a plane? How about a subway? Or bus? Or convenience store?

We live in a world where things are and will increasingly be monitored and logged. In the future you will not only perceive mass-production object A-1 as being indistinguishable from mass-production object A-2, but your hunch will be verifiable by scanning the metrics that are important for you. The ability to accurately verifiy changes in things shifts our notions of what constitutes personalisation and ultimately, perhaps our notions of ownership. Why do you need to ‘own’ object A-1, when A-2 or A-2Billion is available at a moment’s notice? And what are the physical and other characteristics that made A-1 a little more you, that can now be transferred to object A-2, also at a moment’s notice? In many ways we are already at the point for online services and are moving in that direction with networked objects. At some point you and the way you do that thing you do – walking, reading, breathing, whatever, is just another parameter. Try explaining your deviations from the norm next time you head through airport+ security.

How this plays out in a nano-tech-imbibed world is a topic for another day.


For those of your living across the pond, I’ll be giving a couple of talks on the 27th September on the broad theme of design research: Seat Covers & Service Design will be presented at Stanford University hosted by Carissa Carter & the d-school (with a more accomplished set of speakers from the same series here). Students tend to be a pleasantly critical bunch and I hope this is no different. And earlier in the day a Google Tech Talk entitled Context, Adrenaline, Design kindly hosted by Irene Au and the Google UX team.

Airport security permitting, see you on the other side.

Photos? A small op from last year – body scars just being another form of personalisation.