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Dan Ariely
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Ike Chuang
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Judith Donath

At the core of my work, I am fascinated by the question of how we communicate to others about who we are, and how we interpret the social messages that we receive. And I am deeply interested in the flow of history, and how tides have shifted over decades and centuries, and in particular, in the role that science and technology has played in reshaping how we think.

Judith Donath

Technology is changing the way we communicate with each other. It is creating new "places" to meet people and new situations to experience with them; in these places and situations we are "seeing" people in ways vastly different from those at we are accustomed to.

The online chatroom may seem like a banal place, with its motley crowd of insomniacs flinging non-sequitors across an already almost obsolete interface, yet it contains the basic elements of an extraordinary revolution in human sociability. How do people form impressions of each other in this environment? Conversational software agents are beginning to appear in many online sites; how do people know—or do they—that they are talking to a fellow human? In this highly constrained world, how do fashions appear, languages evolve, customs arise? Chat, of course, is just one of the many new technologies that are revolutionizing our social world, which include the vernacular self-portraiture of the Weblog and homepage, the extraordinary ubiquity of email and telephony, and the physical world permeation of sociable robots and augmented humans.

These technologies do not, of course, just happen. They are designed. How they are designed has an immense impact on how they are used and their effect. The goal of my work is to understand more deeply the social implications of design and to create works that make possible intriguing new situations, forms of communication, and ways of perceiving other human beings.

We have been exploring several areas in depth. One is social visualization, the creation of expressive representations of social data, such as conversational patterns or an individual's history. The big questions here include: How does a new visual language evolve? What should people "look like"? How can we see the great patterns of the online world? Its history? What is the relevant data? What does it "mean"? How to depict it? Who makes that decision?

Another area we are investigating is mediated spaces. Here we are interested in what happens when communication technologies permeate physical spaces; we are exploring how the social aspects of the online world, such as the greater ease with which strangers can interact, can be integrated with real world situations. The questions we are addressing include: What happens when we mix communication technology with public space? Why do we care about public space? This hybridization of virtual and real is happening already with cell phones, etc. - are we becoming disconnected from the real world? Some of our projects in this area are "interventionist" work; their purpose is to make people think. Others take a more traditional design approach, attempting to bridge distances and make the spaces more interesting.

We are at all times social beings, whether or not we are consciously aware of it. The advent of the online world has given us an unprecedented opportunity to understand this aspect of our humanness by providing as a laboratory for observing human behavior and the emergence of social norms, aberrations, and rituals. It has also given us the extraordinary opportunity to create a fresh new environment, with new rules, new mores and eventually, a new sociability.

Favorite childhood toy: early on, probably my toes
Copyright 2003 MIT Media Laboratory; Image Webb Chappell