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​Knock-knock. Who's there? Everyone

Commentary: A feature in Google's new Duo video chat app is a harbinger of how notifications could become even more intrusive.


Google's upcoming video-chat app, Duo, has a feature that's been bothering me since it was unveiled days ago. It's called knock-knock.

Knock-knock is a peek-a-boo video preview of the person calling you. It's like a video doorbell for your conversation. Stuck in a meeting? Oh, that's my kids waving to me, maybe I should answer. Waiting on line at Starbucks? That's my friend, I know she wants to talk to me. Now I see her making faces on my phone.

Immediately I was upset. I saw flaws in this system. And I wasn't the only one.

Knock-knock feels like a harbinger of how the interruption culture of notifications can start to become even more intrusive. Instead of filters, we get push communication.

What if...well, what if the knock-knock was a penis?

Sexting meets instant video doesn't seem like a leap. (Remember Chatroulette?) The problem with it on knock-knock instead of, well, Snapchat or something else is that this message gets pushed right to the top of your phone or tablet. Or, maybe, in a Google-connected everysystem, to every area of your home. (Imagine an Android TV version of Duo -- apologies in advance if your family Netflix hour is interrupted by a dickpic knock-knock, or merely a drunk idiot friend.)

You could, surely, use filters to block out unknown callers, or allow only top-level friends or loved ones to knock-knock you. I hope so anyway. But people are already harassed in Google Hangouts, and nearly every other form of social media.


With Duo, you can see a video of who's calling before you pick up. we need that?

James Martin/CNET

Even without harassment, even if everything worked perfectly and all you were getting were nice, normal as-seen-on-Google video calls from your family and friends, what about the guilt? I don't answer my phone a lot, even with a smartwatch that buzzes me like a cattle prod. I see the reminder, and then I choose to answer later. Which usually pisses off my family. If something is serious, I get a text. I can get a heads-up. I can filter.

So, now, if I know my family is calling via FaceTime or Skype or something else, I know they want a video chat. I usually know in advance that they want to chat, too.

If I'm getting a preview before the chat, what does that get me? It's not useful as a video doorbell, or a "knock-knock." Because I already know who it is. It's really, maybe, a quick premessage. Some sort of snapchat-like way of sending a hello. But I don't know if I need that hello, and I'd rather receive it asynchronously than have to feel like I need to answer.

This isn't Google's only new proactive type of notification technology. Nearby uses beacons and location to encourage nearby places, people and things to ping you as you pass by. By phone, or maybe eventually by watch or glasses. At first I think it's the future I want. Then I wonder: What happens when everything is trying to ping you at once?

This short film imagines augmented reality taken to its maximum nightmare: a daydream hallucination, a clutter of knocks and pings. Spam everywhere.

Science fiction movies have imagined this for years: Terry Gillam's "Zero Theorem" zeroed in on a man who couldn't escape the ever-intrusive messages. "Minority Report," of course, comes to mind. Can we escape being besieged by ads?

On the other end of aggressive pre-pinging is a world of heightened notification filters. People who can be reached some hours, but not others. Muting strategies. Away messages and signatures that send video back. Maybe we send pre-pings that interface with social gateways and virtual footmen, like a future Victoriana. Or maybe, for our most loved ones, communication flows in like telepathy: frictionless, open. We will always be reachable, and seen.

I prefer not having the knock-knock. My doorbell already rings; my phone vibrates; my watch tells me who it is. That's enough.