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Galit Ariel is a technofuturist, author, TED speaker, founder of WondARland, and self-professed digital hippie whose work explores the ways technology and humans influence and interact with each other. A major focus of her work is the creative potential of augmented reality and mixed reality to enhance and deepen our lives and our humanity as well as the ethical questions surrounding their misuse. She is a respected thought leader in the field of immersive tech and often delivers talks and workshops around the world at events like SXSW, Fifteen Seconds, and Slush Tokyo. 

Her book, Augmenting Alice: The Future of Identity, Experience and Reality, at once introduces the core concepts behind augmented reality and also addresses the promises and challenges of its wide-scale implementation. Sugar Gamers was fortunate enough to have an in-depth conversation with Ms. Galit Ariel about these very promises and challenges.

Would you educate our audience about what you do and why it’s important?

I am a creative, author, and Techtivist focused on immersive technology. I write about, talk about, and create projects that utilize immersive tech in a way that promotes meaningful application and a debate about tech and humanity (such as the role of tech in culture, questions of identity, and global issues like privacy and sustainability). 

We are now living in a fantastic era where most of the tech “how”s are being revealed. It is amazing to see (almost) all of my childhood science-fiction concepts materializing. But that also means that it’s time to go back to the origin of WHY we create technology. I feel that a lot of the way we create and apply tech does not come from a genuine human need or social pain, but as a pursuit of external drives such as efficiency, quantification, and the financial benefit of the few (versus the well-being of the many).  

What are the impacts that spatial computing have on our culture and behaviors and what would be the best and worst case scenarios for our future?

The best scenario is that it would emulate what technology is meant to be: a tool to better the human experience. One of the reasons I love Augmented Reality is that the definition itself encapsulates a promise for a meld between digital and physical that amplifies and elevates physical reality and space. If we do it for the right reasons, and with humans and humanity in mind, we would positively integrate the fantastic capabilities of this technology in a way that enhances the existing value of physical reality and space. My hope is that it would get us more connected to physical space, hone heritage knowledge that we’ve lost, and allow us to create inclusive experiences.

The worst case scenario in my mind is that we end up creating detached multiverses and enhancing echo-chambering and social disconnect. Or that that we utilize this technology as a tool to capitalize on behaviors and intentions such that users lose agency of their data and decision making, or to manipulate social narratives and political realities in an unfair way. I believe in heterotopia: we would likely have a combination of both. However, I wish to maximize the best-case scenarios and minimize the worst-case ones. Both paths are possible. The question is, what can we, and will we, be doing to amplify and ensure the implementation of the positive impact? We have learned so much since the World Wide Web, and social media has soared. There is no reason why we can’t prepare for the spatial computing era. In the long run, if we love the tech industry and want it to thrive, it needs to be for the right reasons.

In a world where there seem to be so many urgent challenges to attend to, what should people pay more attention to: AR, VR, or Spatial Computing?

Spatial computing marks a whole new paradigm in computing and technology integration. So many people and causes could benefit from it. Done right, it can solve many hard problems that we are facing. It can be applied to reduce consumerism and carbon emission, improve accessibility, and enhance educational practices. There is so much potential to use it as a tool for good. […] We cannot unwind the wheel of technology, but we can make sure that it spins towards the right path.  

What does it mean to create humanity centered tech and why is it so important to you?

Human[ity] centered tech is important to me because the industry sees tech as a goal and not a tool. It is an exponential, limitless tool but a tool nonetheless. The context of its implementation and creation is within an unpredictable, finite and imperfect ecosystem of humanity. The complexity and imperfection of humanity is not an enemy that needs to be defeated or overridden at all costs. That is not the point of tech in my mind. The finite part is also important to understand. We don’t have unlimited resources: time passes, our biological and mental space are not infinite, and our planet cannot support exponential growth of life expectancy and consumerism. It’s that simple. So disruptive, exponential technology that does not seriously offer sustainable alternatives are futile. If we ignore the pragmatism of the human condition just because we can develop more tech we are clogging the entire ecosystem and ultimately the purpose of technology.

Where’s our future silver lining? There are a lot of challenges with diversifying the tech industry. People want change but no challenge. How do we move forward when people will feel threatened and attacked?

The future silver lining to me is the idea that “You Cannot Step Into the Same River Twice” (Heraclitus). Things are ever-changing even when they seem immobile. There are shifts in the right direction made by policymakers, people in the tech industry, and within society. There is still a lot of challenges and progress that can and should be made (for example, the latest report I read estimates that it will take 97 years for women to get equal pay—97 years !). However, we can ask for it to be changed today. Some countries did. It IS possible. I was part of the 2018 CPH150 – a think tank of 150 people that drafted the Copenhagen Catalog which outlines 150 principles for a new direction in tech. These 150 individuals created something that they all echo in their practices, that can be shared, that can be applied. You might be threatened and attacked [if you ask for and demand change]. I was, directly and indirectly, and sometimes it overwhelms me. But I choose to be unafraid, even at the price of personal and financial costs. The alternative, letting things stay as they are, is just unacceptable to me.

How do you approach this industry in a way that’s different? 

I love spatial computing and believe it marks a new era in human-computer interaction. That is why I filter what projects I accept or decline. I believe that even when we create digital assets, they need to be worth doing. I don’t want to create digital noise. I value what I bring out to the world, and I value people’s mental spaces and time. So if people come to me and want to make killer apps, I tell them “I don’t believe in killer apps, I believe in killer experiences. Is that what you are trying to achieve?” It doesn’t mean that it can’t be a commercial project or needs to have a higher purpose. You can also make fun and creative things that generate value. The point is that we need to shift the focus and make an effort in researching and understanding real needs and an experiential value that sticks after the moment is over versus creating viral content that is just polluting the digital space (and eventually either leads to toxic outcomes or drives users away). 

“I choose to be unafraid, even at the price of personal and financial costs. The alternative, letting things stay as they are, is just unacceptable to me. ” —Galit Ariel

What are some common misconceptions people have about you and what you specialize in?

The common misconceptions are that since I’m an idealist, I am not pragmatic. My feet are deeply rooted in the ground. I understand the challenges. I see them as what they are,  challenges. I tend to look for the root, frame the hard problems, see what can and should be solved, and go from there. I don’t move quickly and break things. I move at the right pace and solve things. I constantly work towards translating what I preach into building tools, methodologies, and experiences that emulate those values.  

galit ariel
photo: Peter Boer

What does it mean to be a digital hippie for you? 

I would love to understand exactly when the word “hippie” became a synonym for something negative. Most of Silicon Valley was founded on hippie aspirations and values. So I take it as a badge of honor. To me, being a Digital Hippie means believing you can create great tech that is also great for the many and not the few. 

You mentioned you don’t like using the word “disruptive”? Why?

Disruption is a natural bi-product of any innovation or technology. So the word is not out of context completely. But sometimes “disruptive” becomes the sole purpose of creating a platform or a technology—you disrupt first, and ignore existing structures, needs and consequences. So many platforms that were “solving” problems via disruption ended up causing more long-term harm than benefit. Car sharing platforms did not reduce traffic congestion and actually took away passengers from public transport, making public transport systems less profitable, more expensive, and less accessible to those who needed it most. Online travel and booking platforms created a tourism surge that is making the lives of residents in many cities a living hell. I will take a constructive innovation over a disruptive one any day.

What makes you mad about working in this space?

There is one thing that makes me angry and another that makes me sad. 

The sad thing is the fact that a big chunk of the tech industry (perhaps due to the economic stakes and power this industry gained) lost the original purpose of technology: to elevate the human experience. They are developing dark UX mechanics and tools with the sole purpose of tricking, hooking, data mining, and exploiting people. It makes me sad. I am not naïve. I do not expect tech platforms to be unprofitable, but I think the hierarchy of values has skewed, and the ones to pay the price are always the users. 

This leads to what makes me mad. Try going to an investor, platform, VC and show something that doesn’t guarantee a double (or triple) digit financial growth. For example,  I’ve been working on a great AR experience around sustainability that also had a monetization element to it, and the FIRST question I was asked was, “What would be the ROI (Return On Investment)?” My answer was, “Aarghhhh, planet earth?” Also, I get that people and organizations want to be financially viable and profitable, but the question could have been, “’What positive impact can we make and how can we also monetize it?”

We are reaching a pivotal point in the world where we must look on return on investment in broader terms than JUST capital. How about Return On Value? Return On Experience or Return On Humanity? You can thrive financially AND contribute to a healthier society, culture, and the planet. There are so many examples of B corporations and exceptional brands that are doing it like Ben & Jerry’s, Patagonia, and Mozilla. Being profitable and having social values are not contradicting conditions. The combination of both is a more strategic approach that allows sustainable growth to the market. I can only hope that the industry, especially the tech industry, would recalibrate but it’s also the role of policymakers and consumers to start demanding that as well. If that happens, I guarantee you that the market would abide.

What are the continuous challenges of being a purpose-led woman in this space? And how do you work around it? 

Merging the Digital and Physical: Interview With Galit Ariel 1 Sugar Gamers
Galit Ariel’s book, Augmenting Alice: The Future of Identity, Experience, and Reality, contains an augmented layer that provides an additional interactive experience.

Ahhhh, the number of bros that take the time to explain to me what technology and AR is, without having the expertise or basic knowledge in it (le sigh). Or the fantastic online trolls that would command me to stop whining when I mention facts (!) about the state of women and minorities in the industry. It still gets me angry. My strategy is not to shut up, but what I like to call “killing them softly with their words” [*laughs*].  I use this anger to fuel my journey. Every time it happens, I say to myself, “Thank you trolls for making me realize how important what I’m doing is. Couldn’t have done it without you!”

When I moved into tech […] the bro culture was painfully evident and toxic. I could kind of handle it, but I could not stand seeing how other women and POC were being treated, talked about, and harassed. I felt helpless and angry. One day, just before I gave a keynote, […] a young female STEM student approached me. She had read my book, and with a timid voice and gaze she thanked me for being out there. She said that having a knowledgeable female who voices  her point of view is rare, and that reading my book and seeing my talks helped keep her going. At that moment, I realized a few things:

1. I have the (apparently rare) opportunity to have a voice that matters and. I need to keep it up.

2. There is value to inconvenient truths. Despite the backlash I sometimes get, there are people who want to hear and debate about the hard problems, the ethical issues, and the challenges we are facing.

3. I need to actively promote and support an inclusive mindset in the tech industry. There are so many people, and voices that don’t get heard and opinions are not considered.

4. If I want to stay in AR, I need to make sure we create meaningful immersive experiences and practices. […]

In light of how challenging the tech industry can be, what have you found to be compelling about working in this space?

It is meant to be a space that overcomes physical/biological limitations, and enhances virtues in order to better the human experience. A tool that frees us from biases, from bullying—a tool that’s transcendental. It cannot be an utterly perfect space since humans are the ones creating and utilizing it and humans are flawed. It does a lot of amazing things, but to be honest, so far we have been lousy digital gods. Mainly because we allowed to have some of the worst human traits embedded into it for far too long. Just out of greed and arrogance. And it doesn’t have to be like that. It won’t be perfect, but it can at least be a LOT better. At the stage where immersive tech is, and in light of the impact it would have, it is vital that it is built on foundations that embed inclusivity, meaning, and value.

Now that VR/AR and spatial computing have become such sexy topics, how does one become an expert in a field that is so new? 

Well, AR and VR have been around for a while. The newness is that it is becoming more integrated with other emerging technologies and capabilities and accessible outside the labs (to both users and developers). It is a great time to get into that space. My advice is to read as much as you can about it. There is a LOT of theoretical and hands-on literature in the subject (more than ever), influencers, online platforms, and media outlets…  Start playing with it – see what makes sense, what can you make (or break) with the available tools. And if you’re not happy with what’s out there, build your own!

What are some of your new projects and goals? How can we help?

I aspire to use and amplify my voice as much as possible. I’m speaking in some great conferences in the next few months (always happy for more opportunities). The one I am really excited about is giving the opening keynote at the EU data economy conference this November about privacy, inclusivity, opportunities, and challenges in immersive space. 

In terms of tool-building, I developed and am running workshops and training that focus on AR thinking – helping individuals, organizations, and institutions create immersive experiences that are meaningful, valuable, and inclusive – which I would love to get in front of more eyeballs and minds.

On the making side, the goal is always to find the space and the freedom to make meaningful (both experimental and commercial) immersive experiences. I am always looking for opportunities to make an impact via collaborations, commissions, and residencies. Project-wise I am currently busy with a large-scale sustainability-focused AR project that is getting seed funds, but I am looking for more tech and knowledge partners as well as sponsors.

Galit Ariel’s book, Augmenting Alice: The Future of Identity, Experience, and Reality is out now from Bis Publishers.

galit ariel - augmenting alice