In daily life the individual ordinarily speaks for himself, speaks, as it were, in his ‘own’ character. However, when one examines speech, especially the informal variety, this traditional view proves inadequate…When a speaker employs conventional brackets to warn us that what he is saying is meant to be taken in jest, or as mere repeating of words by someone else, then it is clear that he means to stand in a relation of reduced personal responsibility for what he is saying. He splits himself off from the content of the words by expressing that their speaker is not he himself or not he himself in a serious way.
– Erving Goffman
All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.
– William Shakespeare
Sabrina stabbed listlessly at her steak tartare and stared a little to the left of Matt’s nose to appear to be listening to him. “Does he never shut up?” she thought, likening the sound of his voice to a thousand bees dancing deep within her skull. A quick glance to the left and right showed that Bob and Nathaniel were as enthralled as she. As the winners of the Very Bestest and Insightfullest Project Award of the 2009 Critical Making Lab for their brilliant Social/Lites from Bruno’s Bellybutton, the three tortured graduate students were treated to dinner by their verbose professor. Sacrifices must be made for free food.
Just as the monotony was reaching a fever pitch of violent beige dismalness, Matt tensed slightly and stared at his glass, which had just then lit up with a slight warming glow, an indecipherable question on his face. Suddenly silent, he grinned sheepishly and looked around the table. “Oops! My “glass” is trying to tell me something.”
Sabrina giggled to herself as Bob launched into a passionate account of the shortcomings of Arduino and Nathaniel twiddled his wineglass. Social/Lites from Bruno’s Bellybutton actually worked! It actually managed to send a non-verbal message to the intended receiver, who received it, understood it, and reacted to it. In this case, someone had told Matt to shut up. But who? It wasn’t her. Matt could have sent it to himself to get out of talking in circles, but that seemed unlikely. Bob usually kept his opinions to himself unless asked directly. Only Nathaniel was lacking the internal editor that would stop normal people from telling their professor to clam it. Luckily, Matt had a good sense of humour. A very good sense of humour. A very, VERY good sense of humour …
Social/Lites from Bruno’s Bellybutton is a social device that enhances pre-existing communication currents through technology and human social knowledge. It is a simple concept: each place at a table is equipped with a foot pedal attached by wire to a central Arduino hub, which itself is connect to specially constructed glasses at each place. The pedals are able to communicate with each glass by pressure switches within the pedals assigned to each glass at the table. The glasses, in turn are able to both send and receive messages by means of LEDs and mercury switches. When a participant wants to send a message to a particular companion, she activates the corresponding pressure switch in the foot pedal and tilts her glass in one of three predetermined directions. The mercury switches in the glass (separated from the liquid for health reasons) read the direction the glass is tilted and send a message to the intended recipient. Each direction corresponds to one of three commonly known iconic symbols: smiley face, winky face, and frowny face. Thus the sender chooses the recipient with the pedal and the message with the glass. The recipient sees one of three backlit emoticons glowing at the bottom of her glass (emoticons were chosen because of their simplicity and increasing universality). The light is strong enough to make the glass glow, alerting everyone at the table to a message, though they are unaware of what the message is and who sent it.
Recognizing that the majority of face-to-face socializing takes place around tables, Social/Lites from Bruno’s Bellybutton explores the never-verbalized communication socializers employ to make subtle comments on events unfolding during the meal. In the example above, one party member decided to tell another that he was monopolizing the conversation. In the somewhat formal circumstances of restaurant dining with a professor where simply interrupting would be inappropriate, participants rely on subtle non-verbal cues to broadcast their message. While the main character tried to appear interested although she wasn’t, it was clear to her that her two silent companions were not interested in the conversation. To some speakers, this dispassionate ambience would be sufficient to deduce that it may be time to invite others to speak. When the speaker fails to notice this, the other party members must resort to more active tactics that yet remain within the boundaries of social etiquette, such as meaningful glances or fidgeting with silverware. Should this fail, meal participants are forced to increasingly overt means of appropriating the conversational space while increasing the risk of breaking social norms.
Social/Lites examines these communications and heightens them in a lighthearted manner. While acknowledging that there it is impossible to grab someone’s attention overtly in a situation where social norms would prohibit such blatancy, the device nevertheless allows a certain amount of discretion for both participants. The recipient knows that the message’s contents and the dispatcher are not broadcast to every individual at the table. The dispatcher has the same assurance, and the other participants benefit from a fair of amount of entertainment as they try to guess what message was sent and by whom.
As the meal progresses, participants increasingly attempt to piece together who “says” what to whom. They have already at the disposal the general context and knowledge of the relationships between their companions as well as more immediate circumstances relating to the overt communication occurring. These, along with the sudden glowing of the glasses and participant reactions, are used as tools to gauge the kinds of covert communication from which they are partially excluded. In this respect, Social/Lites allow groups to enhance pre-existing currents of communication and add solidity to the dinner theatre in which they play their role while at the same time forcing each other to take responsibility for the particulars of their interactions since nothing is strictly anonymous, especially for the receivers.
The strength of Social/Lites does allow users enough cover to send messages back and forth with the confidence that messages are received and understood without breaking social taboos or rules of etiquette. The professor in the opening except receives a clear message that permits only a small injury to his dignity and allows him to save face through humour. Perhaps now-separated new parents Bristol Palin and Levi Johnston would have been able to continue their romance of they had had the opportunity to send winkies and smilies back and forth throughout their many official meals during the 2008 American election campaign. It is conceivable that international relations would have gone better for America had President Koizumi of Japan been able to send a covert frowny to President Bush after his ill-conceived shoulder run of Germany’s Chancellor Merckel, saying, “Hey dude! Not cool.”