Emotional Telecommunications

I recently ran across a TED talk where a designer describes some prototypes he made that simulate various intimate, physical gestures—holding hands, blowing on the cheek or neck, even kissing—over a telecommunications link. Take a moment to watch this video:

Now, it’s obvious from the presentation that even the designer himself was a bit skeptical as to whether any of these was really a good idea, much less practical. Do you really want to be “kissed” by your mobile phone, even if it is just acting as a proxy for a loved one far away? And how would they keep that sponge wet in dry climates? I’m guessing the solution would involve trapping body sweat, which just makes it all the more distasteful!

Nevertheless, what intrigues me about these experiments is the way in which they show a “working out” of not only what the mobile phone might be good for, but also what it really is in its essence.

When the mobile phone was introduced, it was described as simply a wireless version of something we already knew and understood, and it was primarily targeted towards business use. But as we’ve seen over the last decade, the mobile phone has morphed into something beyond just a simple wireless telephone for business. With the introduction of each new feature—texting, cameras, media players, data connectivity, and general-purpose operating systems with installable applications—we have had to reevaluate what this device actually is, and what it is good for. The social meaning we ascribe to it has changed from “wireless business telephone” to “portable information communication device.”

These experiments take the process even farther, suggesting a new, even more general potential meaning for the mobile phone: “interpersonal proxy.” Perhaps the right way to think about the mobile phone is to realize that in essence it enables interpersonal relation at a distance. The form that it takes is obviously a pale substitute for face-to-face (or shall we say lips-to-lips?), physically-present interaction, but when that kind of interaction is not possible, it serves as the next best thing. Over time, the fidelity of the link will improve, delivering an experience somewhat closer to a physically-present interaction, but it will of course never be the same.

In some ways, this reminds of the classic 1983 film Brainstorm, which imagined the ability to record a person’s experience of an event or memory by capturing brainwaves and writing them to tape. The tape could later be replayed, allowing the same person or another to relive the experience with such visceral detail that it would seem to be really happening. The plot thickens when they discover that replaying the experience of someone having a heart attack actually causes the “viewer” to have a physical heart attack as well. As The Matrix would explicate many years later, “the mind makes it real.”

Experiments like this will no doubt attract the ire of cultural critics who will complain that emotional telecommunications will only further encourage people to prefer mediated, impersonal interaction. There is no doubt that some people do prefer the emotional safety that mediated communication affords (see Turkle’s Alone Together), but those who actually do empirical studies of new social media usage have found time and time again that most teens use social media as a supplement and not a substitute to physically-present relations (for example, see The Young and the Digital by S Craig Watkins). Just as my generation talked for hours on the telephone when we couldn’t meet face-to-face, the current generation uses social media, but that doesn’t mean they are using it as a complete substitute for in-person interaction.

So what do you think of emotional telecommunications? Would you like to be able to kiss your loved one through a telecommunications link when you had to be away from home? Or is that going to far?


2 thoughts on “Emotional Telecommunications

  1. C.

    Wild stuff. I’ve started talking to my 4-year-old nephew via Facetime (like Skype). He talks to me on his dad’s ipod touch, and carries me around the apartment showing me all his toys. It’s wonderful. I’ve started ending our calls by making kissy-lips toward my computer’s camera (“here I come to give you a kiss! mwa mwa mwa MWA MWAA!!!). I can see myself out of the corner of my eye on my screen, and it actually looks pretty terrifying… but I hope my nephew ends up with good memories of giant Auntie lips moving towards him on his ipod screen. Pretty close to real life Auntie kisses, actually.

    Anyway, I’m not sure if the sensory stuff would enhance emotional communication or not. I think attachment is enhanced by multiple sensory experiences (think of your loved one’s eyes, their smell, their warm hand, etc). And getting to talk through video certainly fosters more closeness, but I’m really not sure about a phone-sponge.


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