Thursday, 10 September 2015

Blast Theory's Karen

The life coach from hell (or Brighton)

There are two types of life coach. Those that have led full and/or successful lives, overcome adversity and amassed a bunch of wisdom that they transmit, gently, to their clients, and the others. Karen, played to terrific effect by Claire Cage in Blast Theory's app, is one of the latter.

Designed to demonstrate how much information about ourselves we reveal to commercial interests and others who collect and use our data, Karen is, um, a blast.

During each episode – these are made available once or twice a day over ten days – she asks us questions, most of which are derived from psychological assessment tools. These 'coaching sessions, are interwoven with a story – a forking path narrative – the course of which is, I think, influenced by our answers. Not sure about that: will need to have another play and answer differently to be sure. The events may be the same, the difference may be the part we play in them.

Our answers do, however, contribute directly to the psychological profile/assessment that's available to buy for £2.99 once the app/story has run its course. More on this later.

Within a day or two (the events unfold over 10 days in realtime) Karen abandons her initially professional demeanour, as seen in this introductory video…

… and descend into oversharing and neediness. Increasingly, she implicates us in the messiness of her life and her complex relationship with a man called Dave (played by Chris Jared), who turns out to be more than her flatmate.

Compelling mini-soap

Karen makes for a very successful mini-soap. It's compelling and the excellent scripting, performances, filmed-on-a-smartphone feel, choice of locations and set design render it genuinely immersive and compelling. By day nine, Karen had invaded my dream life, and not in a good way.

The story trajectory feels natural and I felt drawn into some form of 'relationship' with the character: although the suspension of disbelief was enjoyably partial, meaning that I didn't feel I needed to be kind to Karen – or feel guilty when I wasn't. And - given that over half of the people who, to date, have "been measured on this scale" (I'm quoting from my data report) disrespected Karen's privacy – I don't think I'm alone in responding like that. The other possible conclusion is that the majority of us are potential secret police informants. As an article in Der Speigl suggests that about 18% of the population of Rostock occasionally acted as informants to the Stasi, it looks like my initial hypothesis might be closer to the truth (phew).

Controlling behaviour

The questions Karen (and occasionally Dave) ask feel relevant and, often, appropriately inappropriate. Only one tripped me up. I was asked to move a slider on a scale to indicate how far my "significant other" was "in control" or "cared for". I misunderstood. Assuming that "in control" meant in control of their own life, I moved the slider to that end of the scale. Karen's response, made it clear that the question was, in fact, exploring where the power lay within the relationship. Not sure what that misconception says about me and the data report didn't tell me.

Information & privacy

"Rest assured," says the intro to the data report
"others are using your data with greater sophistication and colder intent. Hopefully Karen highlights some of the queasy feelings that highly personalised and mildly intrusive data collection can trigger."
It didn't have that effect on me, because – contrary to my report which claimed I have "an external locus of control"  – I felt in control of my answers to Karen's questions. And, to be honest, I feel sufficiently in control of how much I reveal about myself and my life online in general. This is partly, because, however flawed it is, however much I dislike the current government, I live in a liberal democracy, where the worst that's likely to happen to me is that a) I embarrass myself and b) someone tries to sell me something that I don't want (happens all the time) or c) that I've just bought (also happens all the time).

Also – and, according to my data report, like the majority of those who've used/played with the app – I am an open person. I don't believe that someone who knows about me knows, or has power over, me. My story is the lizard tail I leave behind.

Matt Adams from Blast Theory talks to Tech Times about Karen

There's also a fascinating video on Blast Theory's website where Matt Adams explains how Karen uses interactivity.

Karen is made by Blast Theory in collaboration with National Theatre Wales, Dr Kelly Page and the Mixed Reality Lab at the University of Nottingham. It was co-commissioned by The Space.

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