To capture these signals and depict them visually, Pentland worked with MIT doctoral students Daniel Olguín Olguín, Benjamin Waber and Taemie Kim to develop a small electronic badge that hangs around the neck. Its audio sensors record how aggressive the wearer is being, the pitch, volume and clip of their voice, and other factors. They called it the “jerk-o-meter”. The information it gathers can be sent wirelessly to a smartphone or any other device that can display it graphically.
It didn’t take the group long to notice that they had stumbled onto a potent technology. For a start, it helped people realise when they were being either obnoxious or unduly self-effacing. “Some people are just not good at being objective judges of their own social interactions,” Kim says. But it isn’t just individual behaviour that changes when people wear these devices.
In a 10-day experiment in 2008, Japanese and American college students were given the task of building a complex contraption while wearing the next generation of jerk-o-meter – which by that time had been more diplomatically renamed a “sociometric badge”. As well as audio, their badge measured proximity to other people.
At the end of the first day they were shown a diagram that represented three things: speaking frequency, speaking time, and who they interacted with. Each person was indicated by a dot, which ballooned for loquacious individuals and withered for quiet ones. Their tendency for monologues versus dialogue was represented by red for Hamlets and white for conversationalists. Their interactions were tracked by lines between them: thick if two participants were engaged in frequent conversation and hair-thin if they barely spoke.
“We were visualising the social spaces between people,” Kim says. The results were immediately telling. Take the case of “A”, whose massive red dot dominated the first day. Having seen this, A appeared to do some soul-searching, because on the second day his dot had shrivelled to a faint white. By the end of the experiment, all the dots had gravitated towards more or less the same size and colour. Simply being able to see their role in a group made people behave differently, and caused the group dynamics to become more even.