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Is Tech EQ? We asked Emotionographer, Pamela Pavliscak

Tech is omnipresent and we’ve seen it explode in education as a direct result of the pandemic. But is tech as emotionally intelligent, aware, and as sensitive as it needs to be? “Probably not,” according to Pamela Pavliscak, founder of Change Sciences, lecturer at The Pratt Institute and renowned expert in emotionally intelligent design. Grit Daily News was a member of the media dialed in remotely for Collision From Home.

Grit Daily: You believe in a “future with a feeling,” what does that mean to you and in terms that our readers would understand?

Pamela Pavliscak: A lot of our technology now seems to erase our emotions in a variety of ways. Tech is mediating our communication experiences preventing our emotional behaviors from coming to the surface, so it doesn’t feel right. Sometimes, our emotions come through in an exaggerated way: some are more amplified than others (for example, anger, anxiety and so on) because they get engagement. I want tech to catch up to where humans are. I don’t want to make tech human, but I do want to make the spaces that we inhabit feel more empathetic, more emotionally intelligent and aware. We need to go beyond the categorization that we are “just rational creatures.”

Is tech as emotionally intelligent, aware, and as sensitive as it needs to be? Probably not. ~Pamela Pavliscak

GD: Tell us about Change Sciences.

PP: We work with companies to help them understand and adopt emotionally intelligent tech into design. What does that mean? It means thinking about ways to design more EQ into things with an advanced understanding of people’s emotional responses. The goal is to design solutions that are more respectful and aware of people’s emotions. Sometimes, the solutions are tech, sometimes they are not, but it usually involves ethnographic research to understand the depth of those emotions.

GD: Which aspects of EQ are typically missing from edTech solutions?

PP: When you look at emotional artificial intelligence (AI), there are numerous solutions detecting the emotions of students to see if they’re engaged, but it’s not nuanced enough. If a student is flagged as “happy” by the software, what does that really mean? What’s the context? Are they happy because they are sitting beside a friend or because they like the teacher? We need to apply our own EQ intelligence to situations, not just more tech. This is so important for learning; many systems are not sensitive to what this means for the students.

Pamela Pavliscak
Pamela Pavliscak tech emotionographer and expert in emotionally intelligent design

GD: What do you wish edTech vendors did more of? Less of?

PP: I wish that edTech vendors did more research that paid attention to the emotional experience and less of an effort looking to tech to solve the problem. What’s a “bad emotion” in the first place? Is it a solution to people’s emotional lives that they should feel good about? Impulse is something engrained in the tech and design community; we’re problem solvers. We try to empathize with people’s problems then we try to solve them with our tech solutions. We need to acknowledge that, then move on from there. So, what can and what should we do? Do we raise awareness of their emotions? Give them tools to manage their own emotions? Redesign our product to engage them? Those are the critical questions informing EQ design.

GD: You suggest that “emotions have become a blind spot and that VR and AI are replacing tech with more tech,” but implying that it’s not getting done. What should be happening?

PP: Virtual Reality (VR) is trying to become more sensorial but right now it’s very visual. You can always step away. Stanford had a VR for homelessness: the idea is that it’s not just cognitive empathy that they try to flesh out. It goes deeper into feeling empathy all the way to the third level which is compassionate empathy. Even that’s not going to give us a full understanding. Empathy has its limits; tech can give us a glimpse only. The beauty and tragedy of being human is that we’re always growing and evolving and that’s emotional, too. VR feels too static; it’s a momentary glimpse then we’re getting away. It affects us strongly like any other experience where you are immersed but you still step away.

GD: What do you wish that women in tech in the generation before you had told you and did you have to learn it the hard way?

PP: Fifteen (15) years ago, I made the decision to leave the agency and go out on my own because it was so intense. I wanted to be in charge of the intellectual work that I do and the master of my own schedule, as well as be the one who decides whom I work with and makes the choices. That’s been my ethos where I’ve resisted to be bought out because I want that flexibility. The advice that I wish that I had is to not to be afraid to step off the treadmill; there is always so much pressure to say that you worked for a marquis brand but you can be independent and still work for big tech companies plus have the same intentionality of your work.

GD: How do you apply your ethnographic research to design?

PP: We’re trying to understand people’s emotional context to that aspect of their experience. We’ve had to experiment a lot. Sometimes having someone there is too invasive to tell your story. Super basic tech, which detects only extremes and buckets emotions into only a few categories, can detect a handful of emotions – maybe five – and they have to be demonstrated intensely enough to be detected.   Giving people ways to describe their experiences and via creative activities, mobile diaries or other solutions can work well even when we’re not in the same room together. Emotions or inner thoughts and deeper psychology sometimes can’t be observed through behaviors, it’s not designed for that, so we rely heavily on these tools that are remote.

GD: Where have you encountered the greatest resistance at Change Sciences and personally as a leader?

PP: It’s morphed over the years. Earlier, it was freelancing, and we recreated that office agency culture then we all got burnt out on it and went remote. It used to be weird to be remote as recently as five years ago and now it’s all standard.

GD: How do your students react at the Pratt Institute? Have you ever been unable to get through to a student to change their thinking towards emotionally directed design thinking?

PP: The students are amazingly intelligent and extremely diverse. That makes me hopeful for the future of design and tech. It’s a two-year, very fast program where many of the classes are prescriptive, with processes and templates, but my classes always take students out of their comfort zone. We need to take things further and question things more. Let’s pretend that we don’t know everything and see were that line of thinking takes us. Twenty years ago, this industry didn’t exist and there’s still lots of room to grow.

GD: How is COVID-19 going to affect EQ design?

PP: EQ is now even more crucial than ever before. The pandemic immediately brought up all these emotional concerns. For example, we witnessed the first wave of panic shopping and most of us exhibited disgust at the idea of being dirty (a visceral reaction). There are social context and emotional queues lacking so we’re searching those out desperately. We’re realizing how our social media channels are letting us down in a lot of ways. Hence, we’re craving something more. We’re feeling isolated and trapped in our homes.

GD: Where’s the big opportunity in edTech?

PP: What we’re going to likely see is a lot of tools that try to assess emotions of students in remote classrooms to give teachers and admins the info that they’re missing to see what’s working what’s not. It may help a little but what’s truly needed is more tools in use and more confidence with the tools that are in use. Educators need to experiment more to see how we can move a physical class online. I expect that the events space will probably spill over to edTech.

Images provided by P. Pavliscak.