Your computer doesn't care if you’re smiling. Why would it?
Your computer isn’t a person. It’s a computer! A tool. A machine. Computers are logical. They’re rational. They don’t get tired, or sad, or frustrated. They don’t get distracted. They’re oblivious to human happiness. They weren’t programmed to do emotion.
Your computer cares about important, useful things. It cares about your environment, dimming its screen when you turn off the lights. It cares about connecting you to friends and family, lighting up with a buzz whenever they want to get in touch. Increasingly, it cares about context: your next appointment, your next flight, the traffic in your city.
A smile? That’s just obviously not a computer’s concern.
All of which is to say: Smile Suggest, a Chrome extension that uses an open source computer vision library to automatically bookmark and share websites that make you smile—like, actually smile, with your mouth—is obviously a lark. Martin McAllister, the British copywriter who created it, called it “daft” no fewer than three times in our brief conversation, just so there was no confusion. There isn’t. It’s a joke! We don’t control our computers by smiling at them.
Still, McAllister did hazard what I thought was an astute observation about his “daft little B-side.” He began cautiously: “If I can read into it this deeply, Smile Suggest is a slight, flippant way of making a deeper point. When we like or share something, it’s not totally genuine. It’s something we’re putting our name on. A smile is something you do without thinking. You don’t have those layers of cynical thought. It’s just what you like and what’s funny to you.”
To any modern computer user, the idea of having every site that elicits a smile beamed automatically to Facebook is mortifying. But McAllister’s little extension got me wondering: Could a smile be a useful signal for a computer? Might we be able to do something interesting with such a genuine, unfiltered bit of input? Probably. I would like to review every YouTube video that made me laugh in 2012. I’d be delighted if my computer pointed me to a Gchat conversation, long forgotten, that made me crack up in college.
Granted, in a world of presumed total surveillance, it’s upsetting to imagine our computers having access to something as intimate as our unmediated emotions. That’s our last stand against the bureaucrats and the brands, the unquantifiable inner sanctum of self.
But supposing some alternate arrangement in which we could actually trust our devices and the people making them, emotion could be a profoundly powerful principle to design around. The Apple Watch will buzz you with a reminder to stand up if you’ve been sitting too long, perhaps the first time a mainstream consumer electronic device has tried to spur a healthy behavior change by default, right out of the box. Is it inconceivable that someday our gadgets would care about our emotional health in the same way? Smile Suggest is unthreateningly, unambiguously a lark—but what if it didn’t have to be?
A smile is the most basic unit of human happiness, the joy response embedded in our genes, more universal than any language or culture or custom. Shouldn’t that obviously be a computer’s concern?
Your computer already cares about a bunch of dumb things. It cares about your environment, dimming its screen when you turn off the lights, even though its blue light is screwing up your circadian rhythms. It cares about connecting you to the companies whose apps you’ve installed, lighting up with a buzz whenever they want to engage you. Increasingly, it cares about context: your next appointment, your next flight, the traffic in your city—even though, as a high school sophomore in Baltimore, you don’t use a calendar app, aren’t flying anywhere, and are still a decade away from your first rush-hour commute.
Your computer isn’t a person, but as psychological studies have shown, you often can’t help but treat it like one. Nope, your computer is just a dumb tool, a lowly machine. Computers were designed to be logical, rational, like we once thought humans to be, before we knew better. Computers don’t know to help when you’re tired, or sad, or frustrated. They don’t steer you away from distractions. They’re oblivious to your happiness. We don’t design them to do emotion.
Your computer doesn’t care if you’re smiling. It can’t hurt to occasionally ask: Why doesn’t it?
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