Empathy for the Other through wearable tech?

My last post in December was a reflection on technology and politics.  How can we understand the connections between technology and politics, especially given that technology is generally understood as a tool of humans—either neutral as a mirror to our desires and interests, or as evil and uncontrollable progeny of humans as Creator? Think of the Cylons, Skynet, or Arnie as the Terminator. If politics and technology become entangled and rife with ethical issues and ontological angst at multiple levels what about bodies and technology?  What I think of as the “materiality of technology” is another topic that is buzzing through the webs this month….

Two things caught my attention along these lines: Oculus Rift and Google Glass.  Of course, neither of these wearable VR and computer platform, respectively, are new this month, but there has been some heavy rotation on the interwebs.  I guess I could add that I suspect the new Spike Jonze film “Her” has brought quite a few of the underlying issues about technology and our relations with technology to the surface.  Sexuality and intimacy and how they are enhanced or stymied by our tech are always top concerns.  Rightly so, of course, as more often than not plain old low (or old) technology comes along with them: misogyny, racism, sexism, criminality, etc. More broadly, the discussion in the case of “Her” has centered on our need to sexualize technology, to “weirdly” sexualize: is it “homage to form” when we assign inanimate objects gender stereotypes–as Isha Aran points out in her Jezebel essay–or a more disturbing and continuing desire to objectify and create subservient subjectivity for women?

Somewhat counterintuitively, I think that the two products above incorporate a need to both remove material barriers to our technology while creating new ways to materialize, or sexualize, this technology.  Ultimately, it may be more about sensualizing our experiences with technology, not necessarily sexualizing them.  They seem to represent a deep desire to remove “things” from between our bodies and our computers and information (mouse control, monitors, keyboards—ways of externally interacting with computers) with intuitive body controls. Think Robert Downey Jr. in Ironman (watch this) or Tom Cruise in Minority Report (2002). The drive is to interact with our information in radical new ways–in ways that mimic how we manipulate “things” in the world.


Minority Report (2002) 20th Century Fox/Dreamworks Pictures (Remember how this movie blew our minds?  Especially when we found out that this was all kinda old tech?  And now we don’t need those silly gloves.)

This is added to an anxiety that technology is altering or complicating or potentially harming our relationships with others and ourselves.  While we want technology to operate seamlessly, we are wary of its possible pernicious effects.  This is not necessarily unfounded from a bodily point of view.  We are mammals; we need contact with other mammals to mature correctly and to be happy and healthy. Babies need skin-to-skin contact and the elderly who live with a partner, or dogs and cats, tend to live longer than those who live alone. This is not necessarily reductionist thinking, just a biological understanding of limbic connections. Ultimately, we are pack animals. Playing WoW all night and day might be unhealthy for lots of reasons—many of which aren’t necessarily the fault of technology.  Isolationist behavior in any form tends to be damaging if taken to an extreme.  This brings up the other reason I chose these two examples: another impulse that wants to use this wearable tech and less interface to share and swap experiences with others for greater understanding of perspectives other than our own.  To be able to see into the pot and past the steam, as Wittgenstein wrote, of another’s mysterious inner world.

More specifically, I want to discuss two applications of Google Glass and Oculus Rift, and in one case, a hack of these two pieces of technology. Let’s return to firstly to Google Glass.  These are wearable google interfaces to simplify your interaction with information and devices; they are wearable smartphones.  They allow a user to move away from a screen and use the technology without breaking contact with the “real” world.


Sex with Google Glass is a recent app created that allows the wearer to watch and record sex from various angles.The wearer can also sync the glasses with lighting, music and to the Kama Sutra for “ideas”, for example.  It is private and all recordings are deleted after five hours.  Although Google has a strict anti-porn standing, this isn’t exactly watching porn–it’s sharing in its creation, perhaps? Sex with Glass can also allow couples to trade places and see what the other is experiencing.

This brings us  to Oculus Rift.  These are virtual reality goggles, originally funded through Kickstarter, and just out with the “Crystal Cove” prototype.  This prototype is the latest in immersive gaming and virtual experiences.


BeAnother Lab is using the Rift to allow users to experience what it’s like to swap gendersto investigate embodiment, and issues like “Gender Identity, Queer Theory, feminist technoscience, Intimacy and Mutual Respect.” This is part of the The Machine to Be Another Project.  From the website:

More than individuals, we are part of a social collective called humanity. As members of this collective, the perception of our own identity is based on our relation with other people and our social environment: how people see us, how we do act and interact with them, and what self image we project to this society and to ourselves. As part of this collective society, it is clear the importance of understanding the ‘Other’ and ‘Each Other’ to better understand ourselves. This artistic investigation plans to use the recent neuroscience approach of ‘embodiment’ and apply it to investigate the perception and comprehension about the Self based on the comprehension of the “Other”.

While I am not enough of a tech follower to have an educated opinion on the specs and lifespan of these platforms,  what I find most intriguing are these examples of the application of these products.  They seem to be highlighting the desire to be able to experience what another sees and feels; to see through their eyes.  This is an interesting empathic impulse for tech and one that bears further watching and investigation.  If technology is never neutral, as I argued, in the last post, what are the opportunities we have for freedom and ethics within this medium?  If the medium is the message, how do these applications transform the material world?

For those thinking about “ding politik”…next time… the Internet of Things. A future where everything will have an IP.

38 thoughts on “Empathy for the Other through wearable tech?

  1. not sure that such virtual experiences would translate into flesh and blood encounters/response-abilities any more than say reading a novel (which is to say minimally at best), also to the 1st section of this selling thru sex aside are we much out of the all too familiar realms of narcissism and projection, every-thing/one as an extension of what I want and preferably as immediately/directly as possible?


    • My mind tells me that you’re definitely correct in your opening statement; however, there was a scene in Her, the consensual but virtual sex scene, that seemed awfully, well, responsive to virtual stimulae. Also, doesn’t the army find that training with video-game-like training modules actually improves first-person shooting with real guns?


      • Video games improve physical response time, for sure. Interestingly, this is gendered: women/girls have better response time than men/boys after playing video games. The other bit of empirics that is telling to look at side by side is that PTSD is higher with drone pilots v. soldiers who saw direct combat. So there is something even more hyper-visceral about the virtual in this case.


      • ” So there is something even more hyper-visceral about the virtual in this case” maybe but my money is on the role of context, something about killing before dinner with the kids and all…


      • That’s part of it, yes. Another part is that often the “targets” are people that the drone pilot has been been watching–sometimes for months. They have gotten to know the person they are watching–when they take smoke breaks, what kind of food they like, when they take walks or see family. I guess it becomes quite intimate.


  2. For me, the irony is precisely THAT, that we will never ever be able to perfectly transmit the human experience through anything other than a human; however, there is the catch; I remember when AVATAR (the movie) came out and I caught myself thinking “this is the realest-looking fake shit I have ever seen!” and then started to have odd Pomo flashbacks from the 80s and 90s. That rub or move toward simulacra or the “authentic fake” (I was in a museum recently, no joke, and saw them advertise “Genuine Reproductions”). I can appreciate that the human experience is unlikely to be fully replicable; however, that rarely, rarely stops the move toward folks to develop products that will one day make me say “oh wow, that is the realest-feeling fake shit I have ever felt!”


    • The reason these two things caught my eyes is that they aren’t fake, as such. Done with a partner where your experience is coupled with theirs. The BeAnother project was collaborative. Clumsy perhaps, but collaborative.


    • my reply to that was “why not just take the more inclusive/evolutionary stance that we are always already manipulating our environs to try and better meet our interests/biases and avoid any implicit moralism?” a little Rortyian rad-behaviorism for the orgtheorists…


      • I completely agree. Making the jump to policy/control is always a tough one. Don’t agree with the letting the market do it. Pre-normative tinkering is the way I come about it most of the time, but that is tough battle, right?


      • brutal battles in my own experience of waging (and to date losing) them, but if we aren’t going to wage them than what are we doing? There is a bit of a side-realm (tho not an alternative to as there is no real off the grid) in the DIY/hacker experiments (as I was gesturing towards in my reply/suggestion above) that may be kinds of prototypes but can they be scaled-up to counter the powers that be?


      • That comment/question about war could take us a long time to hash out! Short, answer, no! Wars don’t end now and never did esp. if we take Foucault’s inversion of Clausewitz seriously. War is subsumed into politics.


    • An interestingly liberal take on human nature–usual human nature arguments are explicitly realist or Hobbesian. Kant would agree (or at least neoKantians would). As I read Kant’s argument, this is straight out of Perpetual Peace/Universal History. It is our institutions that make peace because the motor for human progress is conflict–“nature” is naturally divisive. She “wills discord” and, like the saplings competing for light in a forest, it is our competition that makes us “straight”.


      • how free-market of him, Kant as shock-doctrine…
        apart from his speculations on the limits of human grasp I find Kant part of a world better left behind.


      • Those two pieces read together are terrifying. There is a footnote in PP that justifies every liberal war ever fought–any non-republican state necessarily keeps us all in a state of nature, and therefore a state of war exists internationally so republican states are justified in their wars against them. It is for the good all, right?


      • without getting too far gone down the speculative tunnel I’ve been thinking of say the reverberations/tensions in the middle-east, the old soviet bloc, or even national politics here in the US and wondering if wars ever really end or just keep sending out fissures, some sense at least of un(fore)seen and continuing consequences if not direct/causal effects?


      • No doubt, it is nearly $.50 per page! The book centers mainly on a review of AI (the movie) and a review of theory and literature (say, Harding and Thomas Pynchon’s stuff). The glossy insight is that scholars may say that we want machines to extend our lives, but to Miccoli, the goal of machines is to recognize and embrace our suffering. In all, a short and odd book, but it was enjoyable in places to read.


      • hmm a bit outside of my entertainment budget, how long can people stand to write about technology without ever really taking their own technologies (including rhetorics) out for a test-run in the worlds beyond their own academic circles, will they have to be thrown out in the streets by the marketeers 1st?


      • ah too bad you folks would have likely had some interesting conversations, I lived right there on the mainstreet a few blocks down from HWS for a while when I was doing some work for the NYS dept of mental health over at Seneca Falls and down near Ithaca but I didn’t know about her work then nor could I have imagined that such a prepschoolish place would have welcomed such an open marxist but I can see that they are more openminded than I would have guessed.


        • I though her interpretation was acceptable, for the most part. Jonze, to me, just paints a picture, full of flaws and inconsistencies as well as truths and actualities and just lets the reader/viewer/listener figure them out for themselves. Turkle sort of conveyed that in her verbal review, but was a little to insistent on “we demand more and more from our machines point” blending/imposing her research a little too much onto Jonze’s work, in my opinion.


      • I tried to talk our tiny village theater into getting it, but no go. I have to wait for rental. And read all the reviews/opinion pieces in the meantime. The review by James Franco (yes, that James Franco) has been my favorite. It’s a really well done piece.


        Favorite bit:

        “Theo gets the extremely intelligent and charming consciousness of another without the body. This is the crux of Her, and it reveals an at-first “perfect” relationship that quickly becomes both chilling in its implications of intimacy with a non-human form, while also serving as a locus to study in order to understand the essence of human intimacy. Just what are we interacting with when we bond with one another? What is essential? What turns us on? And if a computer can provide the same emotional connections as a human, or at least foster the same emotions as a human counterpart, then what keeps the computer from being human? The lack of a body? Not really, because we can easily extrapolate from Her the possibilities of computers with fully formed human bodies, just look at the Terminator films”


  3. Pingback: Google Glass Goes Public: Not Exactly A Revolution | Installing (Social) Order

  4. Pingback: Wearable Tech, revisted | Installing (Social) Order

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