Imagine intimately watching the life of a stranger on the other side of the world from the palm of your hand. A new app will soon let people do just that.
Researchers at MIT have teamed up with The Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values to launch an iPhone app called 20 Day Stranger, which connects two anonymous strangers for 20 days. Though the idea may sound a little stalker-ish, the makers say the intention is to inspire empathy and awareness.
Using software like Google Maps and Foursquare, the app, which is currently in its testing phase, picks up all of the ambient signals of a user's daily life. For example, if you were in a taxi driving down Broadway in Manhattan, the app would send your "partner" a Google Streetview of your driving path, as well as images of nearby storefronts, to give the other person a feel for your surroundings.
“It’s not really about communication; it’s about opening up a window into someone’s else’s life,” Kevin Slavin, director of MIT Media Lab's Playful Systems research group, told The Huffington Post.
The app, he says, sends just enough evidence of your life so that your partner can imagine it. Slavin explains the idea for the app was born out of the desire to build something that would encourage mindfulness in our self-involved culture.
“What would happen if for a couple of times a day you put someone else at the center, somebody that you will never meet, that is just as much a part of this world as you are?” Slavin said.
The app is completely anonymous, meaning the two strangers will never know each other’s identity throughout the entire 20-day period. Anonymity, though, can have its downfalls: People may showcase a side or -- ahem -- a part of themselves they normally would never reveal in real life. (We're lookin' at you, Chatroulette.)
“A lot of people, when they have the opportunity to speak perfectly anonymously, they use it to say things they don’t normally say, because there’s no accountability," Slavin told HuffPost. "It’s not the most beautiful portrait of the human race. What we’re interested in is there a way to allow you to have contact with a stranger that takes all of that away? That removes all of the possibility for a negative inflection.”
That’s why the app's creators decided against allowing direct messaging. However, at the end of the 20-day period each person has the opportunity to send one message. It could be a question, contact info to stay in touch, or just a farewell.
“The main thing is that there’s nothing you can do to communicate with the stranger except live your life,” Slavin said.
There are a few more kinks to work out before the app goes public, but Slavin anticipates 20 Day Stranger will hit the app store in about two or three months. For now, the curious can sign up for a trial phase on 20daystranger.com.
Slavin says a mark of the app's success would ideally be heightened social consciousness and compassion from an array of people.
“There’s an old idea from David Foster Wallace which is that one of the fundamental mistakes we all make as we move through the day is to mistake ourselves for the protagonist, because we don’t experience anything that isn’t happening with us at the center,” he said. “That’s the nature of the human experience, but it is obviously untrue. The world is made up of all of us sort of connecting together in profound and banal ways. If this works, and if other things like this work, we can start to build the idea that in fact you exist in parallel to at least one other person."