The difficulty of communicating subjective experience

Human beings have an innate need to connect and share.

In a sense, this is a need to share subjective experience. When my father shares a photo or video about him on a boat, he does not just want me to see how the boat looks, he wants me to feel what it is like to be on a boat.

This is where digital tools fail us. They can communicate objective truth in the highest resolution (and it is useful), but they mostly fail to communicate subjective experience.

This is a function which art does especially well. Great books, movies, music, and paintings convey subjective experience. Some great products do the same. When using such a product, you have the wonderful feeling that someone knows exactly how you feel, or how you want to feel.

Again, since we feel with our hands, our touch, our ears, and body movement, it is very hard for digital products to create intense feelings. Though to some extent, cool effects (like 3D games), succeed.

But even in this case, the experience created is top down. Someone decides how they want to make you feel and then they create something which would re-create the feeling. There is no way to do it instantly. A good photographer needs to have talent and spend years taking pictures till she can get to a stage where she can take a picture to convey exactly what she felt when she took the picture.

I can share a picture on instagram, I cannot share my subjective emotion. I can’t share what the picture made me feel. Yes, I can share the emoji, or the word which indicates that emotion, but not the emotion itself. (To some extent, instagram filters try to achieve this effect – they distort objective reality in order to convey subjective reality better).

This is what designers try to do with techniques relating to empathy. They talk to their customers, they try to live with them, they use images to capture those experiences. They use audio-visual aids, take videos, make diaries, do a whole bunch of stuff, to capture the holy grail of subjective experience. Because this makes the foundation for truly great products.

But technology has not yet given us the means to do this easily and effortlessly. Maybe with Brain-Machine-Interfaces this could be possible. Our emotions are supposed to a reflection of chemicals in our brain (or as Scott Adams says, we are moist robots). There are plenty of hacks to manage our own emotions. There is no reason to believe this could not be possible given a large enough span of time, because people deeply want it.

But it’s still quite far. Till then, keep listening to good music, and reading good books. We are lucky to have them, and I am thankful to the artists who have taken the pains to enrich the human experience.

One thought on “The difficulty of communicating subjective experience

  1. Pingback: Can we design meaning? – Curated Intelligence

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