Pamela Pavliscak, Digital Anthropologist and UX Design Frontierswoman

On positive computing and hopeful AI

Digital Anthropologist, Founder of Change Science, a design research firm, and a member of the faculty at Pratt School of Information, Pamela Pavliscak has been designing and researching technology since the late ’90s. Having majored in Russian Literature and Human Computer Interaction, her work draws on humanistic disciplines to develop novel approaches to understanding our ever more tangled relationship to technology.

Ahead of her upcoming talk at the House of Beautiful Business we catch up with her to chat about the strong emotional attachment we have developed to our devices, ways of using technology more consciously and, of course, AI.

Your work draws on a variety of disciplines outside technology — anthropology, psychology, artistic practices. Please tell me more about how you position yourself within the tech world.

Well, in tech, we have two kinds of people: the ones who are focused on our data, they’re just looking at what people do, where they go, where they click, things like that and then the ones who are more about: “let’s observe how people use technology”. So for me, it’s about bringing those two together to inform each other. Because with just data on its own you don’t really get a story about why something is important or what makes sense to people or how they’re feeling about something.

In tech we’re pretty bad with feelings anyway, which is weird because we have a very strong emotional attachment to our devices and to our various technologies.

Are people aware of the emotional attachment they have developed to their devices?

I think in some ways we don’t acknowledge the emotional relationship that we have with technology. On the one hand there’s this moral panic, especially related to kids, about how technology is dehumanising us and we’re on it too much and is driving us apart from each other. But there’s not a recognition that we can’t just put it down, it’s already shaped our way of thinking, our way of relating to each other, our consciousness; even if we put our phone away, it’s still there framing our reality. A lot of my work is about how we can come to terms with that. And how can we help people understand and maybe manage that relationship when they can’t really articulate it. We don’t bring our emotional intelligence to bear on our devices, not yet. Probably that’s the pace. Technology is moving so fast and we need some time to catch up with where it’s brought us.

Sounds as if we haven’t figured out yet how to incorporate technology nicely in our lives…

Well, we haven’t… Right now we’re operating in this ON/OFF relationship with technology. But taking time off doesn’t really help you when you go back to using technology and besides, that time off from technology is still shaped by technology even though we put our devices down. So I don’t think that’s a productive conversation to have anymore. Might have worked 10 years ago, but it’s not going to work anymore now.

So what would be a productive conversation to have right now?

There’s been a lot of attention on all the negatives of technology and that’s good because it helps us know what to avoid. So, if you work in designing technology there are certain patterns we know now about, that can contribute to people feeling anxious, depressed or lonely; the ones that keep you clicking, scrolling or swiping through. But we haven’t paid that much attention yet to the positive aspects of using technology. We’ve only just started to think about that. Things like what are the behaviours that support us rather than undermine us, just haven’t been studied enough. There are a few bits of research that look at online behaviours that might seem silly or annoying, things like, taking a selfie of your food on Instagram. These studies, that have become known as positive computing, show that taking selfies of your food might actually help you pause and take a moment to appreciate, savour and enjoy your food more.

Recently Wired US devoted a whole issue to A.I. in an effort to help us cope with the anxiety generated by it, arguing that robots won’t take all our jobs. Soon after BBC Future Now joined the positive talk with a feature on the surprising ways in which AI protects us. Is the conversation about AI shifting?

I think that’s a really good take because at this point almost all the talk about AI, at least in the US, is becoming a mental health crisis. It’s making people feel disempowered, anxious and depressed. We need to step back and think about what we are going to automate, as even the most mundane tasks can be gratifying to people and give their lives purpose or meaning.

I love raking leaves — I could some day get a robot to do that, but I would miss out on that. We have to think about what we really value and what we can automate and then on the other hand we have to think about how we’re talking about this so that we don’t devalue and dehumanise people in the process. I think that’s a lot of what we’re doing right now when the truth is that we’re not going to automate whole careers, we’re going to automate tasks within careers.

Want to hear more about Pamela’s ongoing research? Join us in Lisbon! Grab your ticket here.


At the House of Beautiful Business in Lisbon, November 3–10th, Pamela will join a line-up of thought-provoking start-up founders, executives, nonprofit leaders, investors, writers, philosophers, scientists, designers, technologists, artists. We will be discussing and prototyping how to lead with purpose and passion; how to build human companies and workplaces; and how to design for deeper connections in an age of exponential change and massive societal disruption.

The House of Beautiful Business is a production of The Business Romantic Societyin collaboration with the BCG Henderson Institute and Siemens, as well as Typeform, HERE Technologies, Indeed Innovation, A Hundred Years, Caffeine, K Street Partners, Soulworx, Uberbrands, diffferent, Joint Idea, Gat Rooms, Moi Moi, and Girls in Tech.

It will serve as salon, stage, and sandbox for people who are keen on rehumanizing business and exploring meaningful conversations around humanity and technology. You can find more information and buy tickets at: houseofbeautiful.biz