Karen is a life coach and she’s happy to help you work through a few things in your life.
You interact with Karen through an app. When you begin, she asks you some questions about your outlook on the world to get an understanding of you. In fact, her questions are drawn from psychological profiling questionnaires. She – and the software – are profiling you and she gives you advice based on your answers.
Over the next week you have calls with Karen once or twice a day. Working from home as a freelancer, it soon becomes clear that Karen is slightly chaotic with few boundaries between her personal and professional lives. She contacts you late at night from her bedroom. She overshares and in return is very nosy about you. Before long she is becoming very friendly and wants to speak often. She gets hurt if you don’t call her.
She’s fun and funny, always cheekily pushing her friendliness into new areas. You can decide how open to be and how to handle her inquisitive nature.
She’s recently come out of a long term and moribund relationship. She’s got the rush of adrenaline and excitement of the newly liberated. She’s an explorer, voraciously consuming new experiences, new knowledge and new people during a key transition in her life.
As the experience unfolds, she gets more and more curious. She seems to know things about you that she shouldn’t. Is she spying on you?
You experience her laser focus on you amidst the disconcerting thrill of boundaries being crossed. And, inevitably, you draw lines that she cannot cross. She becomes hurt and begins to unravel. It’s your moment to act as her life coach.
As the story finishes, you are offered a personalised report using your data. Your report shows how you behaved and how the decisions you made affected Karen. You get to compare yourself with other players and to see how the science of psychological profiling underpins the story.
And, if you have been especially engaged, it turns out that Karen is not quite done with you either. Bright eyed and bushy tailed she pops up a week or two later to invite you to a secret rendezvous somewhere in the UK.
Why are we creating Karen?
When John McGrath asked us to develop a project with National Theatre Wales in 2013 we were keen to create a personal and intimate experience for smartphones in which you interact directly with the lead character. We wanted you to be challenged about how honest and open you might be and to experience the thrill of having your personality appraised.
We became fascinated with big data, and particularly how governments and large companies such as Facebook are collecting data on us secretly and using it without our consent. When we met Dr Kelly Page – an expert in this area – we learnt about the various techniques developed by psychologists to measure personalities. Researcher Geraldine Nichols spent a few months visiting libraries and archives in Wales and England to delve into the history. She helped us trace back to Assessment of Men by the Office of Strategic Services: a book published just after World War Two that helped the military recruit undercover operatives.
From there we rifled through hundreds of personality tests across the decades. We chose some of the most fascinating, unnerving or significant scales that we found and wove them into the story of Karen, a divorcee with just enough knowledge to be dangerous.
We feel it’s our job as artists to pose questions about this new world where technology is ever more personalised and intrusive. We love having our services tailored to us and we’re scared of the price we’re paying for that personalisation.
Karen is a system that gets to know you. She/it uses data about your behaviour – whether freely given or obtained by monitoring – to give you an experience that is personalised, adaptive and intriguing.
Karen is a new work by Blast Theory, developed in partnership with National Theatre Wales.
Co-commissioned by The Space and 539 Kickstarter backers. Karen has been developed with support from the Mixed Reality Lab at the University of Nottingham and in collaboration with Dr Kelly Page.