Intimacy vs Outimacy

I’ve been taking part in discussing ‘ambient intimacy’ over on the disambiguity blog.

Personally, I think the phrase is oxymoronic. It doesn’t matter what secrets you shout from the roof, or who is listening, the fact that you’re shouting from the rooftop means that you’re not part of an intimate exchange. The value of what you say doesn’t lie simply in the information you transfer, but also in the wider context. If you only tell one person your real name, that can be enormously intimate. If you tell everyone, it means little. Intimacy is about showing and building trust beyond normal levels. For intimate exchanges, the level of privilege of the information can often be at least as important as the information itself.

I believe that for every relationship there is an appropriate level of intimacy, and more than is appropriate can be damaging, just as it is damaging to the relationship for there to be less intimacy than is appropriate.

Anyway, here’re my comments, from that page, complete with response.

Comment 102, written by: kyb

It’s not intimacy though. Intimacy can never be broadcast by its nature. Intimacy is about more than the knowing of details. It requires two way, privileged communication.

It may be that things like twitter encourage intimacy because it’s easier to enter into intimate exchanges with those you keep up with, but we shouldn’t mistake the two.

Comment 103, written by leisa.reichelt

hey kyb,

I can kind of see where you’re coming from here but I see things a little differently. For me, Twitter – for example – is not really ‘broadcast’ – even though my Tweets are public, I don’t think of them as going out to a vast and faceless audience, rather I think of the collection of individuals with whom I regularly share communications using this medium and am communicating to them, usually as a group, occasionally as individuals.

Secondly, I think of ambient intimacy as just one type of intimacy. It’s certainly not a substitute for all the other types of more direct and in-person intimacy (at least, it is not for me and I would hope not for anyone else). I do know that certainly my experience and the experience of many others that I’ve spoken to is that tools like Twitter and Flickr and Facebook and many others *do* create a experience of intimacy where, without these tools, there would almost certainly be none.

It doesn’t seem to be a universal experience, but certainly significant enough to be acknowledged.

Comment 104, written by kyb


Thanks for the reply. As I understand intimacy, its very nature requires priviledged communication. If you talk about ‘intimate surroundings’ you’re talking about surroundings that encourage priviledged communication. If you say ‘getting intimate’, you mean that the people you’re talking about are priviledging each other in their communication. An ‘intimate group’ is a small group of people with a special bond. It’s this specialness that is important in the concept of intimacy.

Another important part of intimacy is not just that priviledged information is received, but that the reaction to its reception is part of the experience of intimacy. You can’t have an intimate conversation with someone who is watching the tv at the same time. A single email cannot convey intimacy although an email exchange can. Intimacy is two way, and most naturally (although not exclusively) synchronous.

Any broadcast that can be received by others (no matter who it’s intended audience) is by my definition not intimate. If someone who doesn’t know you at all can take part in the priviledged communication channel, then it’s not priviledged anymore, and therefore the transmission and reception of the information means less. I think that the extent to which it feels intimate is actually an illusion of false intimacy, and in some cases may even be harmful to the relationship.

I don’t want to suggest that there is therefore no value in things like twitter, im and all the other paraphenalia of social networking. It can obviously have enormous benefit, but it is almost direct opposition to the way I understand intimacy.

I’d even go so far as to call it outimacy.

BBCs iPlayer Beta Feedback

The Good:

  1. I get pretty respectably speedy downloads.
  2. The quality is fine for my purposes.
  3. There is some content on there that I want to watch. (Tribe, HardTalk….)

The Bad:

  1. How many different logins do I need to access this service? It seems to be about 3. What’s wrong with one?
  2. The website for downloading files is badly designed – too small, badly organised, over complicated, doesn’t show the useful information for the shows and worst of all is terribly slow.
    1. It doesn’t need to look like it’s done in flash. A simple web page design would be better for browsing a lot of this stuff. Web pages work well with lists going down the screen that you can scroll, and badly with clicking a page button repeatedly to get to where you want to get to. If it really must be fancy, something more like a google maps approach for a timetable display would be much better.
    2. If all the thumbnails for a program are the same, then they add little value. They can be smaller.
    3. I want to be able to view by time or by show.
    4. Interview/debate programs should have the name of the interviewee, or the topic for debate as their title.
    5. All programs that are part of a series should have their episode number and series number as part of the detailed description.
    6. Given we’ve got DRM, why can’t we download shows in advance, and watch them when the license makes them available? If downloading shows in advance is not allowed, then they shouldn’t be listed in advance.
    7. I want to be able to auto download any episode of a specific show as soon as it’s available.
  3. Lots of popular programs are not available. I know it’s a beta, but it’s a shame.
  4. Lots of programs are listed, but then the download for them doesn’t work. I know it’s a beta, but this is very frustrating if it’s an episode you particularly want to watch.
  5. The video chooser site doesn’t work in firefox. It should, and it should open in the default browser, not always IE.
  6. DRM is not a good idea for many many reasons.
  7. Only working on windows is close to immoral. (glad to see you’re going to work on that)
  8. If the first part of the file is already downloaded, and there’s only a few minutes to download left, it’d be good to be able to start watching it while the rest comes down.
  9. Too many of the programs on it are only available in welsh or with a signer standing on half the screen.
  10. The download application is flaky

Final thoughts:

The iPlayer is a great idea, and I’m glad to see that the BBC is going down this route. Remember though that it’s competing with viewer-provided (legally disapproved of) services that allow bittorrent downloading from RSS. With a service like that, you just tell it the series (including many popular bbc series that aren’t on iPlayer) you want to watch, and as soon as the show airs and someone puts it online, your computer will automatically download it for you, and tell you when it’s available (e.g. Miro and They do it because people want that functionality, so you should have it too. You’re also competing with services like tivo, and sky+, both of which have pretty nice interfaces. A well designed interface is not an interface that looks like it’s been done in flash, or an interface that uses AJAX for the sake of it, it’s an interface that conveys the appropriate information in a useful way. If you want to leave behind the webpage way of doing things, you should make sure you’re leaving it behind for something better. And please, make the catalogue viewing fast. If I know I want to download the next Doctor Who that I haven’t seen, I shouldn’t have to click through 6 pages to get to it, especially when each page takes an age to load. I’m using the service because I want to watch TV, not watch webpages load.

Virtual Worlds (Part 1)

I’ve been interested in virtual worlds since I first heard of them. Actually that’s a lie. I’ve always been suspicious of virtual worlds. I love mixed reality – virtual representations of real world things, or real world representations of virtual things – it has almost unbounded potential for usefulness, and virtual reality technology is great for games and storytelling, but how is pure virtual reality actually useful?

Dave Taylor has an interesting blog entry on his take on Second Life, and virtual worlds in general. I think he makes some good points, first about the user experience, which at least in Second Life needs a lot of work, and then later about the need or lack of it for realism in virtual worlds.

“My take: Second Life is an evolutionary step”

I agree that Second Life is an evolutionary step, but it’s a step backwards. Part of the beauty of the internet (I’m including web and various other services, such as IM etc.) is that when I’m online, I am disembodied, a pure spirit, floating in a sea of concepts. My ‘I’ is diffuse, and in a sense, I am simultaneously everywhere (or at most, a single step away from everywhere). My location in concept space is really only defined by my attention, which itself can be diffuse – on a server in Australia, learning about the behaviours of Finnish animals in one tab, while simultaneously listening to radio from the US, and keeping an eye on pictures posted by my friends on holiday in Russia. All this time, I am as easily accessible to those who know me as if I were standing right next to them, no matter where I or they are in “real” space. In concept space, I am right next to them.

This is a good thing. It is the kind of evolutionary step people are talking about when they write science fiction with “ascended” races. When we’re on the internet, we mimic as best we can many of the attributes that throughout the ages humanity has given to its gods. Omnipresence, omniscience, ability to be communicated with from anywhere. Pure spirit, existing in concept space. That is the next evolutionary step, and to anyone who has seriously used the internet, virtual worlds with their characteristic localising, their embodying, their tendency to demand your whole attention are an evolutionary step backwards, a seriously limiting experience. That is their nature and it is not something that can be fixed through technology.

This reason alone is enough to convince me that they are not the next leap forward.

However, I am a believer in the power of limitations. Great art is made by people who discover ways of making limits seem irrelevant, but it can’t be done without a deep knowledge of those limits. If we truly had no limits, then art would be boring. Limits and structure suggest and encourage different ways of interacting, and the kinds of limits imposed by virtual worlds can (when used in parallel with concept space rather than instead of it) help fix some of the problems that we humans have had in the ascent to concept space.


When you’re everywhere and nowhere at the same time, as you are in concept space, it’s awfully hard to bump into someone by chance. Without limitations, you see what you want to see, and talk to who you want to talk to, but actually that’s a pretty impoverished condition compared to the many interesting chance interactions that can occur to you when you’re limited to a particular body and location. Though we grasp at omniscience, until we actually have it, chance encounters are an important part of life and learning.


Sometimes, even in concept space, the concept or place that we’re reading about or talking about is a three dimensional, real world object, with solidity and function. No matter how abstracted we have become, it’s much quicker and more intuitive to give someone a parallel to the object in a world with similar constraints to the “real” world the object exists in. You can explore and learn by playing. If a picture of an object is worth a thousand words, how many more words is a functional, virtual prototype of the object worth?


Art is always looking for new mediums to express itself in, and with a virtual world, it has an old one (reality) with a new twist. What could be better for giving people a new way of looking at the (real) things around them?


As humans, our communication relies much more on non verbal channels than any of the disembodied spirits floating in concept space like to admit. As we spend more time in concept space, we will come up with more and more ways of expressing our different modalities of communication in that space, but perhaps it’s easier just to pull across wholesale many of the ways we communicate in the “real” world. Particularly as our interaction with computers is so serial at the moment – keys, mouse clicks, mouse movements. Simulating what is essentially parallel communication is a big challenge until we get more and better peripherals, so borrowing from the real world is a good idea.

These are things that by their nature Virtual Worlds are good at – in some ways an improvement on the internet of concepts. In Part 2, I’ll talk about a mixed reality of concept space and virtual space. The ways websites are starting to locate (in a philosophical, not big brother sense) their users, and some ideas for how virtual worlds can support diffuse attention and concept-type interaction.

I am (%AMOUNT_OF_SORRYNESS%) sorry for the delay

There was an interesting article in the New Scientist recently on computer voices and how annoying they can be. The recent snow has given me occasion to be irritated by one voice in particular.

“The oh-seven four-teen train to… Milton Central is… 50 minutes late. I… am very sorry… for the delay”

Who is this I? If it was a real person apologising, even if I doubted their sincerity, I’d feel a bit happier about it. If it said ‘we’, I’d know that somewhere the company realised that annoying customers is bad, and they feel sorry that they have, but I? It even adjusts how sorry it is for the delay – for 5 minute delays, it’s only “sorry”, but for longer delays it’s “very sorry”. It’s ridiculous. It’s also insulting that someone somewhere thought we would be mollified by a synthesised sorry. The day a computer can apologise using the word I for a train being late, is the day it goes home to it’s robot wife saying

“I had a terrible day at work today. So many trains were late, those poor commuters must have been so frustrated. I love those days when everything runs smoothly, I feel like I’m really contributing. Perhaps we should move to Germany, I’ve heard there’s better job satisfaction for transport announcement computers there….”

Until that day, computers may express sorrow on behalf of others, but not for themselves. In fact it would be better if they avoided the use of the word “I” altogether.

For an apology to be meaningful, there must be an awareness of wrongdoing.