Stuff We Use That Isn’t Designed For Social Media: The Peri-Personal Space

Research by Marco Iacoboni, Professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences in UCLA (and written up in his book Mirroring People: The New Science of How We Connect with Others) suggests that the tools we use such as forks and knives are not just implements that we merely just manipulate in some objectified manner. His research suggests that tools are mapped by our brains in such a way that they become extensions of ourselves.

Not only do we use knives and forks to move and cut our food, we also use them to assess the quality and texture of our food as well. Every tool or implement that we learn to use with some degree of mastery eventually becomes an extension of ourselves. This happens because the brain does not stop mapping our body at the outer layer of the skin. It also maps the immediate environment beyond. This idea has some amazing implications for the way that we interact with the world.

Through enculturation we have the habit of thinking of ourselves as in here and everything else as out there. Professor Iacoboni’s research is showing that this concept may be wrong. It seems our brains handle the world in a ‘hereness’ (my term) space that is proximal to our bodies. He refers to this relationship between us and the world as a “being-amidst” space. All of our interactions with the world, although processed in the brain, are represented to us in this space. It is a space where our feelings live alongside our thoughts and emotions. All of them are moving around and interacting with each taking precedence in our attention from time to time.

It is kind of wild but it’s really not that long ago that we all believed the Sun orbited the Earth. This area of awareness and influence is called the peri-personal space, and this research could have some very definite implications for our daily lives, particularly in the design of the tools that we use.

The social part of social media is very human and natural to us, but the media in the form of the tools it uses, primarily the computer terminal and mobile phone, is pre-existing technology that we have adapted to our needs. The materials and processes may have advanced geometrically, and the processing and storage has progressed exponentially, but the tools we use to interact with them, the qwerty keyboards, mice and touchscreens are refinements and variations on a theme.

If what Dr. Iacoboni’s findings show are true, and there is no reason to doubt or reject them, then we may have to look at the design of terminals and smartphones in a whole new way. That means that terminals and smartphones are no longer thought of as items out there outside ourselves but become, through the means of the mirror neurons inside our brains and the subsequent engineering inspired by these new ideas, avenues through which our brains can connect to other brains more efficiently.

In this context design is every bit as important as engineering. The ultimate goal is complete transparency, e.g. to be able to communicate at a distance with the same fullness of experience that we can communicate with someone sitting or standing in front of us. We know that talking to someone on the phone is far more tiring then having the same conversation while present with that person. Talking to someone on the phone while driving is more dangerous than drinking and driving, but paradoxically there is no real danger in talking with the same person about the same thing in the same car. Somehow in some way the mobile phone requires us to communicate in a highly effortful and non-natural way.

With this new knowledge coming from the cutting edge of neuroscience, we can look again at the fundamental design criteria of phones and computers, and perhaps come up with something new and wonderful that will work with us the way we want to work. We can ask how we can make new communications tools that work more naturally with our brains, making it easier for our brains to turn new interfaces into an extension of ourselves that will in turn determine the level of transparency between individuals.

Brace yourselves, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

2 thoughts on “Stuff We Use That Isn’t Designed For Social Media: The Peri-Personal Space

  1. Thought provoking Tom, especially in the context of virtual worlds. I’m always telling people Second Life is something you can’t appreciate until you try it – when you experience the proximity and presence of others through their avatars the barriers to communication break down in the same way that having them in the car with you does.


  2. Thanks James, I was just reading in and on page 190 I found the following paragraph “Perhaps this is why first-person shooter games have hit upon showing an image of the player’s hands on the display. Having hands where you can see them ay actually remap your bodily representation to make the screen part of your pesonal – or near personal – space, and hence give all the benefits of attention [hack #54] and multimodal integration….As we find out more about our brains really work then it follows (I hope) that there will be changes in the ways that we design our tools and our environment for better interactions with the world.


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