Jokebox aims for eye contact in a city full of screens

Seeing eye to eye in the city has never been easy. Squished against a Tube window at Bank station or weaving past shopping bags on Oxford Street, it’s tempting to close up, block out.

Jokebox aims for eye contact in a city full of screens

Shutting out the city is, as the German sociologist Georg Simmel described it in 1903, “the resistance of the individual to being levelled, swallowed up in the social-technological mechanism.” That mechanism has certainly evolved. Smartphones and automation make it easier than ever to avoid human contact. Walk into Tesco checking Twitter, snatch a £3 meal deal and queue for the self-checkout – you can buy lunch without meeting the eyes of a single person.

Mara Balestrini, an expert in human-computer interaction and director of research at Ideas for Change, has been investigating ways to bring shared experiences back into public spaces. She’s been working with researchers from the UK and Mexico on the Jokebox project – an installation that involves separate wooden boxes, each equipped with speakers, sensors and arcade-style buttons, that tell a joke when two people activate them simultaneously.jokebox_mexico

The key, Balestrini tells me, is that it’s impossible for one person to push both buttons. “The Jokebox is an ice-breaker, an excuse to get strangers to talk to each other or to share a laugh in public spaces,” she explains. “It is also a technology prototype that can help us understand how to design novel interfaces to foster social connectedness in urban settings by encouraging eye contact and co-operation between strangers.”

As part of their study, the researchers conducted a series of tests in the north-western Mexican city of Ensenada. Boxes were set up in a park, a shopping centre and a bus stop. According to the project’s findings, people in those settings reacted in different ways – kids and parents would be more likely to play with the boxes in the park, for example, whereas teenagers were more likely to engage in the shopping centre. Even when people avoided using the Jokebox directly, which was frequently the case at the bus stop, it still provided an excuse for interaction – as is the case in this moment of gentle warmth:

Figure 6: A lady was sitting at the bench and when a man stood by the installation, an instruction was triggered. They looked at each other and smiled. Five seconds later, she stood up and walked towards the Jokebox. As they spoke, he discovered the other box and pointed it out to her but she was too shy to press it. One minute later she walked away smiling. The man sat at the bench and used his mobile phone.


Balestrini tells me future cities will combine different types of technologies, from those that support efficiency by replacing the humans to those that try to foster shared encounters among people. She says it is crucial to enable playfulness and curiosity, particularly in a moment where the discourse around cities revolves around ideas of data-driven automation and efficiency.

“At an individual level, interacting with others increases happiness and wellbeing,” says Balestrini. “Encounters that include humour and conversation can support psychological and physiological health. I’m not saying that we should avoid deploying ‘smart technologies’, but am rather pointing out that enabling social interactions is as important as making city processes efficient and that opportunities for strengthening the social fabric should not be neglected.”jokebox_4

While Balestrini claims the research surrounding the Jokebox isn’t intended to undermine smart devices, the project is a clear reaction to the increasing technologisation of our cities. The Internet of Things promises to facilitate a new-found sense of connectivity between ourselves and city services, yet the Jokebox is a reminder that real connectivity between humans hinges on physical interaction.

The project also comes at a time when citizens are reacting against the privatisation of public spaces. It may not be an explicitly political endeavor, but projects like the Jokebox raise questions about what we should expect from spaces in our cities. During a recent “public space intervention”, the author Will Self said “the kind of ludic, playful potential of living in a city is being significantly impoverished” by the development of privatised public zones. Will the Jokebox bring a sense of human playfulness to corporate-owned liminal spaces? Or would its appropriation by those spaces control and sanitise what should be a subversive element of play?

I guess it depends on how dirty the jokes are.

Images: Flickr (Britt-knee), Mara Balestrini

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