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Intimacy and empathy

Perhaps we should be focusing on what tech can do to bring us together, rather than push us apart

We’re lonely, tired and stressed out. In 2013, only 36% could pick their neighbours out of a line-up, yet we spend more time connected to others than ever. And an impending explosion of internet-connected devices, with all their niggling demands for attention, only add to the mounting sense of cultural anxiety.

Timely, then, that a new posse of products and tools is urging us all to chill out, and offering a glimpse of the world outside of our own narrow selfie-filled spheres of reference. Mindfulness apps like Headspace – which has over 2 million users – alongside personal data trackers and wearables promise us a greater understanding of ourselves. Now we’re being offered tech which promotes a greater understanding of others.

At its best, the experience is seamless and immediate. The Oculus Rift gaming headset has been used to swap two people’s perspectives of gender. The Meerkat and Periscope apps (“see the world through someone else’s eyes”, says the latter) broadcast a personal, live video feed to someone on the other side of the world. Tworlds matches you with a complete stranger who’s (allegedly) thinking or feeling what you are at that very same moment. Or Somebody, Miranda July’s tech-fuelled experiment in serendipity, which was updated in April 2015. Have a message for someone? Send it through the Somebody app and it will be delivered – not to your friend, but to the Somebody user nearest to your friend, who will then deliver the message in person. Best not to sext, then.

As far-fetched as these new apps may seem, they all share a recognition that we need to spend more quality time by ourselves and with each other. Amber Case argues how technology should allow us to be more, not less, human, by building in fewer distractions – Kate Unsworth’s stealth-tech jewellery line Kovert shows how this might work in practice. In addition to making time online more meaningful, new devices and tools can also foster empathy with those whose experiences are markedly different from our own. Be My Eyes uses mobile video to connect sighted volunteers to blind people in need of assistance, Depression Quest is a game which simulates how someone might experience depression, and then there’s MIT’s AGNES – a suit which simulates the body of someone in their seventies.

Language – or its absence – plays a role in forging intimacy and empathy in the 21st century. Emotions and senses are actively shaped by language and culture. Designer and psychologist Cassie Robinson’s quest to create the ultimate intimate object – 3D printed, completely individual – relies on people’s descriptions of their own desires. As they talk about what they want in a sex toy, they develop a greater understanding of themselves.

At a more abstract level, Asifa Majid researches how the words a culture has to describe its sense of smell impacts their ability to experience it. Tiffany Watt Smith looks at how our emotions aren’t just a product of our biology of psychologies; they’re influenced by the culture we live in. Even emojis can “transform our decisions and behaviour in unexpected ways”. Sanskriti Dawle, co-creator of braille computing device Project Mudra, is fascinated by the way programming languages can transcend communication barriers – perhaps we should be focusing on what tech can do to bring us together, rather than push us apart.

Join us on June 2nd at the Trouble Club, London, where we’ll be discussing intimacy in the 21st century. Tickets available here.

Image credit: CC Jennifer Yiu


of Brits could pick their neighbours out of a line-up (2013, Churchill/Opinium Research)



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