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NeoTouch. An exploration of future haptic technology and the ethics and social norms surrounding it.

NeoTouch. An exploration of future haptic technology  and the ethics and social norms surrounding it.

This thesis is part of a critical design project that envisions a future haptic communication device, NeoTouch, that enables people to touch each other at a distance. The project goes beyond imagining the technical development and the precise functionality of the device to speculate on the social and ethical implications of such a technology.

As Dunne and Raby state in their book Speculative Everything (2013):

“While we are more than ever aware of both the promise and the threat of technological advance, we still lack the intellectual means and the political tools for managing progress.”

Their understanding of critical design is that it has the power – and therefore the responsibility – to question and challenge technological development and the limitations it places on people. It does this in the form of a speculative design proposal, to spark debate, to caution or to show alternatives.

The aim of this project is to use the language of speculative design to create a fictional product on which to explore a future projection of current ethical and social issues. This speculative narrative takes current debates around topics such as consent and agency, privacy, digital safety, and online harassment and investigates how they are affected by technological development and related shifts in social norms.

The debate is rooted in the hypothesis that the way in which technology is increasingly integrated into every aspect of our lives causes our digital and physical selves to blend together and overlap more and more. Applying this idea to a future in which haptic communication has become a part of our daily human-to-human interaction greatly amplifies this concept and the connected societal and personal concerns. It would mean literally mapping the digital self onto the physical body. But what happens when you merge digital and physical privacy in this way?

Who gets to touch me? When? And where? What is the haptic equivalent of digital harassment such as a rape threat? And how would this change our physical interactions and understanding of intimacy?

This thesis makes use of the same speculative language to envision and debate the societal and personal effect of such a technology by asking: How could haptic technology affect our perceptions and conception of privacy and intimacy?

For this purpose, it is written as a piece of fiction in the form of an opinion piece that includes different angles on this topic. As is the aim of speculative design, this story is not trying to be real, but rather to be provocative. It is a tool to open up the debate about different possible futures and to discuss current issues around the topic.

The story is set in a world where haptic technology has become a normal element of human-computer interaction (like accessing digital haptic information of products during online shopping) and chip implants in the brain and other parts of the body are a common way to treat various mental and physical conditions and enhance cognitive abilities. The article is published in 2039, eleven years after NeoTouch first came to the market as the first product that offers a different kind of haptic technology for human-to-human communication based on a brain-computer interface (BCI); an interface that connects a brain – either invasively or non-invasively – to an external computational device (Vallabhaneni, Wang and He, 2005), (Lebedev and Nicolelis, 2006). By using nano chips NeoTouch simulates human touch through micro stimulations directly in the brain.

Image by Christine Wuerth


Generation NeoTouch.
How digital touch is impacting the way we are intimate.

TECH TOMORROW. Christine Wuerth. Sat 21 SEP 2018 14.00 BST.

 

When Barbara Wells got her first NeoTouch she was over the moon. As one of the last teenagers in her school to not have the BCI (brain-computer interface) she was feeling left out. It had taken her months of arguing with her tech-critical parents to get their permission. For her sixteenth birthday, she finally got her wish. “I can’t wait to finally experience digital touch.” She said in her online diary at the time. Only two years later she just had the interface permanently deactivated. For Barbara, the negative effects greatly outweighed the benefits.

At first adopting haptic communication actually did exactly what she had hoped for. “Before, I just constantly had to admit to people that I didn’t have it and explain why. And it just made me feel really embarrassed. I mean, everyone else my age has it. People would be so surprised and kind of suspicious. Like I was a weirdo.” With NeoTouch she finally felt part of her group, and more confident in making new friends and approaching boys.

Image by Christine Wuerth

As a researcher, I have been observing the adoption of NeoTouch for years now and the numbers are impressive with 78% of teenagers between the age of 12 and 17 using it. [1] (The age range in which it is legal to get the BCI set up, but only with parental approval). At this age, the tech is particularly common amongst girls. (Unfortunately, this trend shows that platonic touch is still far more common and accepted amongst girls than boys. [2])

 

Figure 01: Percentage of girtls and boys (12-17) using NeoTouch.

Figure 02: Adoption rate of NeoTouch.

This has been a massive trend in the eleven years since the technology first came to the market. But NeoTouch is not only popular amongst teenagers: the adoption rate has been surprising amongst all ages, most of all people in their 20s and 30s. [3]

Soon, however, Barbara felt the pressure of being ‘always on’, being expected to always be accessible to her friends, and her new boyfriend. “I don’t think our brains are designed to constantly be connected to others” she says. “Even though in a way it really does feel the same as being touched, the other person isn’t actually there. And somehow that contradiction really started to mess with my head.”

Despite the success of NeoTouch there have been growing voices of concern. Especially the last few years have seen an increase in people deactivating their devices and specialist questioning the effects on privacy and physical integrity. But there are always those that oppose new technologies, so is NeoTouch really any different to other kinds of digital communication?

 


  • 1: Numbers inspired by a collection of studies on current use and ownership of mobile phones by teenagers (CITA, n.d.)
  • 2: Major (1981)
  • 3: Cocozza (2018)

The story behind haptic communication

The arrival of NeoTouch on the market in 2028 redefined our understanding of haptic technology. Originally the word haptics described the use of mechanical pressure, vibration and motion to send impulses through the skin. Early attempts to incorporate touch into everyday technology like touch screens on portable devices were pretty basic by today’s standards. Tactile interfaces developed in the 2010s were mainly used to navigate through information by touching the screen rather than touching anything beyond the screen. [4] Now, haptic technology has developed to the point that we cannot imagine daily activities like online shopping and watching films without a tactile dimension.

Early development of haptics saw competition from various fields. From gaming and VR to medicine and from the automotive to the sex toy (or teledildonics [5]) industry. [6] While VR was making the headlines, it was actually the sex industry that first came close to using haptics as an emotive interpersonal connection [7]. Once the communication industry realised the potential that haptics held for a more emotive form of digital communication they started creating wearable devices incorporating vibration and muscle stimulation to express human touch. Smartphones had used vibrations as an alert mechanism for text messages and calls but they wanted to transform haptic input into a message in its own right.

The first Apple watch released in 2015, for example, was in fact introduced as the company’s ‘most personal device’ ever: “…alerts aren’t just immediate. They’re intimate… We found a way to give technology a more human touch. Literally.” [8]

If this doesn’t show how much haptic tech has developed in the past few decades, what does!? At the same time developments in neuroscience and nanotechnology made brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) more versatile and precise and the process of embedding them into the brain more routine and much less invasive. First just used for medical devices they were soon commonplace in mainstream products for cognitive and physical enhancement.

Fast forward to 2029 when Somas Technologies (ST) [9] introduced the first NeoTouch. The first technology to create a tactile sensation directly in the brain rather than on the surface of the skin. By approaching the challenge of haptic communication from this angle they managed to completely revolutionise the industry.

Mike Seymour just published his book ‘A New Intimacy’ which investigates NeoTouch’s rapid success within the wider context of digital communication.

“The height of globalisation, the ‘cult of the individual’ [10] and ever busier lives in the early 21st century meant that we spent less and less time with our loved ones and in face-to-face interactions in general [11]” he says. “It is no surprise that this coincided with the rise of digital communication and social media. After all, being lonely is literally unhealthy.” [12]

But these technologies – he claims – could not compensate for the loss of real face-to-face interaction. [13] “Even though we don’t realise it, a major part of our communication is non-verbal and the nature of digital, audio-visual communication just means that most of that is lost. While we are not consciously aware of it, this still subconsciously diminishes the interaction. It’s just less fulfilling if we don’t receive the same variety and density of cues. [14]”

This paved the way for haptics to be used to create more emotional connections. Digital communication collapses the sense of spatial distance. In the past that has been done mainly using vision and sound but the haptic revolution aimed to create a digital space that allows us to experience synthetic touch as an immersive experience, creating a real sense of physical closeness. The greatest potential was seen in the improvement of long distance relationships and in offering health benefits for touch-deprived people such as the elderly [15] and the sick. “The special thing about touch is that it’s immediate and emotional. Being touched by someone makes us feel more connected to them. [16]” Seymour explains. “Touch is our ‘private’ sense [17] and it has so many benefits for our health [18] and relationships [19].”

“Being touched by someone makes us feel more connected to them.”

Despite the hype, early haptic devices were rather clunky and didn’t really live up to the expectations of ‘realistic’ experiences that people had come to expect from image and sound-based communication. A range of devices in the 2010s used localised vibration and muscle stimulation as symbolic messages of ‘touch’ and physical presence. [20] These novelty gadgets had very little use in everyday life. Later attempts relied on more and more advanced tech that sits on or in the skin. However, this still confined the experience to specific parts of the body and was very limited in the quality and type of touch that could be conveyed. [21]

 


  • 4: Parisi (2018)
  • 5: Teledildonics is the technology of remotely linked sex toys that operate in synch (Lynn, 2004).
  • 6: There have been recaps of the development of haptic technology to date (e.g.: Stone (2001) and Parisi (2018)) that conclude that scientists and technologist are still hunting for the ‘holy grail’ of haptics to create a realistic, immersive experience.
  • 7: See n. 5.
  • 8: Apple (2014) as quoted in Lupton (2016)
  • 9: Imaginary company behind NeoTouch
  • 10: See Klinenberg (2012) on the phenomenon of more and more people living alone.
  • 11: Greenfield (2014) reports on a trend of n increasing number of people living alone and correlates this with changes in social interactions and reported feelings of loneliness.
  • 12: Loneliness weakens the immune system (Greenfield, 2014) and increases the risk of stroke (Greenfield, 2014) and heart diseases (Valtorta, 2016).
  • 13: Turkle (2015), Greenfield (2014), Seltzer, Prososki, Ziegler and Pollak (2012), Lord (2013)
  • 14: Seltzer, Prososki, Ziegler and Pollak (2012)
  • 15: Cocozza (2018)
  • 16: Montagu (1971), Pallasmaa (2012), Chillot (2013. B)
  • 17: The scientific field of proxemics defines touch as one of our private senses (along with smell and taste). These senses make us feel immersed in an experience as opposed to a removed observer as we do with everything we experience exclusively through our eyes and ears. Touch is immediate, intimate, close in contrast to vision, sound and even smell. (Hall, 1966)
  • 18: There has been much research done on the effect of touch and tactile input on our physical and emotional health – e.g., warm touch lowers stress hormones and enhances trust and attachment (Chillot, 2013. B). For more research in this field see: Field (2010), Heinrichs, Baumgartner, Kirschbaum and Ehlert (2003), Henricson et al. (2008) and Eaton, Mitchell-Bonair and Friedmann (1989)
  • 19: Gulledge and Fischer-Lokou (2003) found a high correlation between physical affection and overall relationship and partner satisfaction.
  • 20: E.g., Keep in Touch, a fabric touch screen for long distance relationships (Motamedi, 2007), Hug Over a Distance, an air-inflatable vest (Mueller et al., 2005), the HugShirt by Cutecircuit (2002), the Paro Seal Robot (www.parorobots.com) for dementia patients (Sharkey and Wood, 2014), Tactilu, a bracelet for remote tactile communication by Pangenerator (2013), and the Teslasuit (www.teslasuit.io, 2015) for gaming and Virtual Reality to name just a few.
  • 21: Research in on-skin and under-skin technology see: Vega et al. (2017), Leigh et al. (2017), Kapur, A., Kapur, S. and Maes (2018), Kao, Johns, Roseway, and Czerwinski (2016), Masters and Michael (2005).

The rise of NeoTouch

In the late 2020s bioelectronics finally left the lab and found their way into mainstream products for mental and physical health as well as cognitive improvement. These brain-computer interfaces also started being used to control devices remotely, directly through brain signals as well as to merge the human brain with artificial intelligence (AI). In haptic technology, these interfaces made it possible to synthesise the experience of human touch without imitating it mechanically on the skin. Simply by stimulating the relevant brain areas directly, this new kind of haptic technology can create the physical illusion of touch in a very convincing way. [22]

As Hannah Eisen, Designer at NeoTouch, explained: “In the past technologists and scientists focused on simulating the physical process of touch. Obviously, they never got the technology to advance far enough to really create a realistic experience. But then with the introduction of chip implants that interface directly with the brain came a massive shift in how we looked at the problem. Because suddenly we were able to synthesise the holistic experience of touch instead of just recreating it mechanically.” (NeoTouch. An IA Lab documentary, 2037) [23]

As the first internal human-to-human interface NeoTouch has – without a doubt – had the biggest impact on the nature of social interaction since the smartphone.

As the company claims in a video from 2028 that introduces the technology:
“NeoTouch lets you truly connect with another person at a distance. It enables instinctive, non-verbal communication through digital touch.” [24]

“NeoTouch lets you truly connect with another person at a distance.”

The video goes on to explain how it works: “The tactile interaction is received through your phone and then sent to the NeoTouch transducer: The Senser. This unit attaches to the skin behind the ear and communicates wirelessly with a network of nano-electronics in the brain to simulate the sensation of being in touch with another person. [25] These neural implants serve as an internal brain-computer interface that controls and receives the communication. They interface directly with the somatosensory and motor cortex. It is the stimulation of these particular brain areas that allows us to create a realistic experience of touching and the sensation of being touched. [26]”

Figure 03: NeoTouch external set-up

The Senser connects to the implants through ultrasound. Each chip is smaller than a grain of rice and can both pick up signals from the brain and send messages to the brain. That’s how we can send and receive the sensation of touch and have a natural interaction with another person. So How does it work?

The somatosensory cortex is a kind of map of our entire body. Stimulating targeted areas of this map can create a sense of touch anywhere on the skin. [27] The motor cortex, on the other hand, controls the way we move and touch. [28] Interfacing with these two brain areas means that NeoTouch can pick up our thoughts on touching another person from our motor cortex and then send this touch to their somatosensory cortex for them to experience.

Figure 04: Somatosensory cortex and motor cortex

“The interesting thing about the somatosensory cortex” says Seymour, “is the way in which it doesn’t just process the objective quality of touch, it also does a kind of social and personal evaluation. That’s why NeoTouch is able to give you the experience of different kinds of interactions with different people.” [29]

Stuart Johnson, CEO of Somas Technologies is quick to sell us NeoTouch as a valid replacement for real touch: [30] “For the first time we are able to artificially trigger our sense of intimacy and a felt presence.”

Seymore, however, is skeptical how much synthetic touch can really deliver the same benefits as the real deal. [31] “If someone touches me it’s not just about the sensation of their hand touching me. It also depends on the way the rest of their body is positioned towards mine, the mood, and place… In a way, it’s as if their whole body is touching mine. This element of touch is simply lacking in NeoTouch.”

Barbara, too, was aware of that subtle but significant difference: “It feels the same but something is off. Something is missing.”

Touch is an element of nonverbal communication such as body language and eye contact. As such it is experienced and understood in the context of these other aspects of communication that combine into a complex, multi-sensory experience.[32] This also means that it has unconscious effects on our emotions and behaviour towards others. [33]

In this sense, touch is more than a sensation on the skin. We even speak of something being touching when it affects us emotionally. Connecting to another person through skin contact is deeply instinctive, emotive and full of meaning. [34] Even before birth, we are connected to our mothers and after birth touch is essential to growth and physical and emotional development. [35,  36] To touch us, someone has to enter our private space. They have to literally be within arm’s reach. Those we are comfortable being in such close proximity to are generally the ones we are also emotionally close to. This makes the connection between touch and intimacy evident; The connection between emotional closeness and physical closeness. [37]

So what is the consequence of taking touch out of its natural context? How does it affect how we think of privacy and intimacy?

 


  • 22: On nano technology and brain implants see: Liu (2015) and Seo et al. (2016)
  • 23: Wuerth (2018, A)
  • 24: Wuerth (2018, B)
  • 25: On Neural Dust see: Seo et al. (2016)
  • 26: On stimulating the somatosensory cortex see: Flesher et al. (2016); And motor cortex see: Barker, A.T., Jalinous and Freeston (1985).
  • 27: Gallace and Spencer (2010)
  • 28: Chapin, Moxon, Markowitz and Nicolelis (1999)
  • 29: Chillot (2013. B) states that the experience of touching is linked to the social evaluation of the person touching. Gazzola et al. (2012) proved that the somatosensory cortex reacts differently depending on who the subject is touched by.
  • 30: Spapé et al. (2015)
  • 31: Haans and IJsselsteijn (2009)
  • 32: Chillot (2013, A)
  • 33: Touch and even just the physical sensation of touching something warm have powerful effects: Waiters that touch clients receive more tips, Doctors that interact through touch are evaluated as more caring and even have a positive effect on the patients’ recovery process and just holding a hot drink makes us feel less lonely and evaluate situations and people more positively. (Linden, 2016), (Williams and Bargh, 2008)
  • 34: Cocozza (2018)
  • 35: Pallasmaa (2012), Elo (2018), Chillot (2013. B)
  • 36: Harlow and Zimmermann (1959) showed that infant monkeys, if separated from their mothers, would cling to a cloth-covered wire surrogate to feel nourished instead of a cold wire one providing milk that would actually nourish them.
  • 37: Hall (1966)

The matter of privacy

The limitations of synthetic touch were not the only reason that ultimately made Barbara decide to get rid of NeoTouch. “I felt trapped; like I could never really be alone” she admitted. “I mean even before, I was constantly in contact with people through my phone. But the fact that it’s in my head, that’s just a different level you know. I made me kind of paranoid.”

“I felt trapped; like I could never really be alone.”

Barbara is not alone with these concerns. Privacy has become a main focus of discussion again in the recent years, precisely because of BCIs such as NeoTouch. While many are surprised that anyone might still consider privacy of any importance [38], others wonder why we still need to fight for this right. After all, every decade or so lawmakers are pushed to update regulations to protect our data. [39]

“A main reason for the continuing debate is the question of how to define privacy” says lawyer and journalist Margot Bloom. “In the most basic sense, it can be defined as the control over aspects of our personal life such as our body, home, thoughts, and feelings as well as our identity as a whole. It gives us the right to choose which of these ‘private parts’ of ourselves we allow others to access. [40] In this way, the idea of personal privacy shaped the idea of data privacy.”

Our relationship to privacy has continuously evolved throughout history in line with changing societal norms. [41] Historically, the more people we are surrounded by and connected to, the more we rely on privacy to carve out a domain where we feel safe. [42] But we also have an innate need for connection. Bloom links this to our origins as a tribal species. “Humans have a fundamental need to be social and close to others. We depend on each other for survival, so we physically and emotionally crave connections. We instinctively want others to know what we are thinking and doing, and we want to feel ‘in touch’. [43] That need is only heightened in a world where we are often spatially separated from our ‘tribe’. So we share our thoughts and our bodies online to feel connected. But at the same time, we need a space to be ourselves protected from the judgment of others, and have the freedom to express ourselves without the need to perform according to societal norms. [44]”

Since the beginning of the digital age, however, we have been sold the idea of transparency as a means to national safety and visibility as a measure of popularity and success. Now, this personal space is at stake more than ever. On one side, this is because of technologies like NeoTouch that keep us constantly linked to others. On the other, it is the access we give companies to our most private data, our thoughts, and feelings, our intimate interactions.

Psychologist and researcher Melanie McLeod has been very outspoken about the dilemma faced especially by young people in trying to find a healthy balance between their private and public selves. “When being seen or felt digitally is desirable not just for the experience itself but because it equates to being popular or successful, privacy in the form of anonymity becomes an obstacle. There is a societal expectation on what we reveal of ourselves. Or more precisely, these societal norms affect how much we want to and feel comfortable revealing. That stands at odds with our natural need for privacy. So we perceive it as less relevant. This trade-off is known as privacy paradox. [45] And it completely undermines the concept of consent. Your desires are subconsciously used against you in a way that you don’t even want to say no anymore. [46] You’d rather pay the price than feel alone.”

Image by Christine Wuerth

This means that any demands for more privacy are so at odds with our present social norms that they don’t find much support. The majority of us are now increasingly comfortable with exposing ourselves online. While the rest of us might still feel troubled about it, we are resigned to the fact that to function in our society we need to exist online, and aware that any data collected and saved about us is a commodity to be traded and exploited. [47]

To Bloom, the issue lies with people in power that look at privacy from a purely economical perspective. [48] “They just see the money they can make from your data. Privacy in any sense means a loss in profit and so they weaponise our need to share to silently undermine our rights to privacy.”  [49]

Every year more details are exposed on the kind of data that is collected and used to manipulate us without us giving explicit – or sometimes any – consent or even knowing about it. [50] Bloom is currently leading the campaign ‘Feel Safe’ that aims to change regulations on how companies like Somas Technologies are allowed to use the data they collect from our brains. [51] “I’ve been lobbying for this for ages but the final straw was when it was leaked that ST had sold information of our interactions to health insurers.”

 

Figure 05: NeoTouch

But what is it particularly about NeoTouch that rekindled these debates?

McLeod explains how this has to do with the way NeoTouch merges our physical body and our data bodies in an unprecedented way. “Accepting that NeoTouch creates a felt presence of another person also means that that person intrudes on my personal space and of course my body in a way that was impossible through messages and calls. The fact that I can physically experience an infringement on my digital self also makes any harassment or attack much more threatening. [52] This makes NeoTouch an unprecedented weapon for cyberbullying. [53] And lastly, the fact that the interface has access to my brain completely exposes certain layers of my data, experience and even control over my physical body to external companies and anonymous individuals.”

This gets us onto the threat of security breaches. Last year saw a wave of hacker attacks on the NeoTouch system. Even though it seems like ST reacted quickly and there haven’t been any issues since, the incident caused an uproar about the safety of the NeoTouch network and many people decided to deactivate their devices. [54]

For an article about the emotional repercussions of the incident, I talked to some of the victims several months ago. Mun Wei Chan reported how someone had intersected the link between him and his husband Rick, who was away for work in Australia at the time. “I was oblivious to the imposter until I woke up one night from the feeling of hands wrapped around my neck.” He has been in therapy since the incident and is currently part of a larger group of victims suing Somas Technologies for compensation. [55]

“I woke up one night from the feeling of hands wrapped around my neck.”


  • 38: Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, talks in an interview at TechCrunch in 2010 about privacy not being a social norm anymore (Pub Lius, 2016).
  • 39: A most recent example of this is the introduction of Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). (Hern, 2018, B)
  • 40: Onn et al. (2005)
  • 41: “The magic age is people born after 1981… That’s the cut-off for us where we see a big change in privacy settings and user acceptance.” Loopt Co-Founder Sam Altman quoted in Ferenstein (2015)
  • 42: Ferenstein (2015), Brandeis and Warren (1890)
  • 43: Tamir and Mitchell (2012)
  • 44: Turkle (2015), Greenwald (2014), Greenfield (2015), Westin (1967)
  • 45: Barnes (2006), Norberg, Horne, D.R. and Horne, D.A. (2007)
  • 46: Lee, Im, and Taylor (2008)
  • 47: Brichter (2017)
  • 48: On economic aspects of personal information control see: Posner (1981)
  • 49: Weigel (2018)
  • 50: A recent example of this are the data privacy debates around Facebook (Torres and O’Brien, 2012), (Hern, 2018, A).
  • 51: A recent example for this is the fight led by Gina Martin for the Upskirting Law (Notelovitz, Toussaint-Strauss and Shearlaw, 2018).
  • 52: On current concerns around online harassment see: Caroline Sinders (2018).
  • 53: Cyberbullying describes any digital forms of harassment and bullying.
  • 54: Current examples of data security breaches: IoT devices (Shwartz et al., 2017), sex toys (Burgess, 2018), elections (Kuchler, 2018), self-driving car (Solon, 2016), Grinder (Coldewey, 2018), DNA website (Brown, 2018).
  • 55: In 2017 a teledildonics company was sued for collecting sensitive data of their customers were using their devices and linking the data to their user email addresses (Kobie, 2018).

 

Modern intimacy

“We don’t even have to go as far as anonymous hackers to seriously examine the question of who can touch whom” argues McLeod. “I’m much more worried about our general desensitisation on personal boundaries when it comes to touch. The great ease NeoTouch created to access another’s body seems to make people very blasé about the impact of touch, and the value of intimacy. [56] Young people don’t learn to say no anymore. We don’t know if it is the physical distance that dilutes the sense of agency over their own body or something else, but I’m worried about this development.” [57]

Barbara’s story seems to validate McLeod’s concerns. “Shortly after I got NeoTouch I started dating Aaron. He seemed to be a nice guy, but he would always expect me to have my NeoTouch connected to his. [58] Not that I don’t like that, but if I’m spending time with my friends or my parents it just feels wrong. And sometimes I just wanted time for myself. But he’d get really upset and annoyed and accused me of not wanting to be in the relationship. I felt like I had to be on NeoTouch to prove to him that I like him. Then, when I ended up using NeoTouch less and less he started telling people at school that it’s because I’m frigid.”

This hits a nerve on the ever-present question of gender in the design and experience of digital technology. [59] There is a difference in the online behaviour that society allows and expects from men compared to women. This, of course, goes right back to general gender norms. But the physical distance and anonymity online heighten the expression of these expectations. [60] Questions of safety for women online have been raised from the very beginning of online life but have yet to be resolved successfully. Women are much more often victims of cyberbullying and particularly of sexually charged remarks and threats. [61] They are expected to share pictures and give access to their bodies. [62] Simultaneously their pure presence online is often taken as an invitation for objectification and even abuse. [63] NeoTouch brought this to a new physical level that poses a very physical threat to women’s bodies.

Image by Christine Wuerth

NeoTouch has also changed who we feel comfortable touching. A new study conducted by the British Government Office for Science shows that we spend 50 minutes on average in digital touch interactions per day, compared to just 10 minutes of physical touch. This might make us worry about digital touch replacing physical closeness, but at the same time, this is a vast increase of overall touch compared to the amount of touching before NeoTouch. [64] The number of people we would be happy to touch as increased greatly. These are mainly people in our social circle; online and offline. In the same study, people reported having developed a much more physical bond with family members. And, just as specialists had predicted, the most positive feedback has been from people in long-distance relationships.

Samantha Fry and Jacob Lundt have been in a long-distance relationship for the last three years and love the way NeoTouch has enabled them to keep up a physical relationship despite the distance. “We actually didn’t have NeoTouch before that. We got it specifically for this time apart and don’t use it to interact with anyone else” explains Jacob. Both of them are aware of the pitfalls of online life and weighed up all their options before giving NeoTouch a go. “I think, like with everything else, you need to have a healthy reflected relationship to technology. Especially if this tech facilitates your human relationships. I see how this can be challenging for people.”

Despite this, they both agree that NeoTouch has been an invaluable asset to their relationship in the recent years. “It’s not just about sexual intimacy” assures Samantha, “It’s about all those tiny everyday interactions through which you show your affection and attention. Stroking your partner’s arm or hair, hugging, falling asleep together… Honestly, if we didn’t have this, I’m not sure our relationship would have survived the last three years.”

McLeod, however, is concerned about relationships where digital touch is being used not to bridge a distance but to create one: “NeoTouch changed the expectation of emotional and physical availability. Even sexual availability. At the same time, it shields us from real intimacy. [65] This creates a strange paradox. We don’t recognise how lonely we are, nor how we’ve slowly lost agency of our own body, physical, emotional and digital.” [66]

“NeoTouch changed the expectation of emotional and physical availability.”

Seymore warns that spending time in digital interactions to avoid real-world issues might only intensify these issues. [67] “It is the same for haptic technology as for any other kind of digital communication. People don’t get to practice basic non-verbal communication, so they are bad at it and then more insecure about interacting in person.68 This is most prominent in young people. [69] Lacking these skills makes it harder to empathise, and to be truly intimate. We settle for digital intimacy which cannot replace true intimacy.[70] I’m really worried about how this is changing the perception and value of intimacy. Where our society was suffering from a hyper-vigilance of personal boundaries [71] only 20 years ago these boundaries seem to have all but disappeared now and touch has become superfluous and banal. Some see these numbers of increased intimacy through NeoTouch as a positive result but I’m more concerned that this is actually a symptom of the way we devalue touch through this lesser, more casual substitute. [72] This could be affecting the way we value intimacy as a whole. If I don’t care who has access to my data and my body, how can I ever truly feel close to someone?” [73]

“If I don’t care who has access to my data and my body, how can I ever truly feel close to someone?”

McLeod spoke about the effect this has on the development of teenagers in an earlier interview: “I’m actively supporting the efforts to raise the age restriction on NeoTouch. We are already seeing a shift in behaviour in the younger generation. I’m sure we all remember how difficult and awkward it is to be a teenager. To have to deal with this new body and all these hormones and figure out how to be intimate with others. But to sidestep that development by interacting only through digital touch, at a so-called ‘safe distance’ is creating so many problems. [74] Teenagers are not learning to emotionally connect, let alone to understand their own boundaries and needs, and those of others.” [75] (NeoTouch. An IA Lab documentary, 2037) [76]

She is also interested in the connection between digital intimacy and loneliness. “In modern times – and especially in urban life – we retreat into our homes, and capsule ourselves off from other people [77]. As a result, we feel more lonely and create evermore technologies to connect ourselves to each other in increasingly immersive, realistic ways. In return, the fact that these connections happen in a digital space means we have fewer incentives to seek out physical spaces to connect.”

If we do leave our homes, many of our interactions still happen in a digital space and remove us emotionally from our physical environments and interactions. We might be out with friends but we are not really present because we are simultaneously hooked up to all these other connections and potential interactions waiting for us on our devices. This kind of multitasking created by technology doesn’t just take our attention away from our real life interactions but the digital ones, too. [78]

You’re in touch with someone but often you are at the same time continuing with your real-life activities, only partly paying attention to the digital interaction. This seriously affects how much we connect to the person at the other end of that connection and how much we can ‘profit’ from the experience. [79]

Bloom insists that there is no way to truly avoid the influence technology has on human interactions. “We need to educate young people, not just in digital literacy but also in a new literacy that bridges the digital and the physical. And beyond that, we need to have more of a debate around the social and ethical implications. [80] After all, changes in mindsets of the individuals result in changes in society as a whole and therefore concerns all of us, irrespective of age. [81]” But what numbers would make us understand these complex issues? What studies and experiments would deliver them? So far we have no hard proof. The effects are so layered and varied that it is hard to study. Research and findings occur in various disciplines making it difficult to see the bigger picture. It’s hard to show the exact correlation of changes in phenomena spanning from empathy and understanding to identity and willingness to take risks. [82]

In the meantime, Barbara is happy, and certain about her decision to have NeoTouch deactivated. “I guess I had to find out for myself what it is like and it was kind of hard to really have it switched off. A lot of my friends don’t understand my decision. The first few days after, I felt kind of isolated. But more than that it was just a relief. And now I don’t miss it at all.” She does, however think, that it did make her more aware of touch. “I’m more strict with who I let touch me, yes. But I think I’m actually more physical with my family now. My close friends, too. I hope that maybe they’ll slowly realise how much better the real thing is.”

 


  • 56: Turtle (2017) talks about technology as the architect of our intimacies. And describes the way we interact and expose ourselves online as ‘technological promiscuity’ (p.10).
  • 57: I am basing this loosely on current studies on the effect of sexting on sexual behaviour of teenagers (Ringrose, Harvey, Gill and Livingstone, 2013), (Lenhart, 2009).
  • 58: Lewis (2017)
  • 59: Sinders (2018)
  • 60: Shaw (2014)
  • 61: Dodge (2016)
  • 62: Ringrose, Harvey, Gill, and Livingstone (2013)
  • 63: Filipovic (2007)
  • 64: Cocozza (2018)
  • 65: “(…) when technology engineers intimacy, relationships can be reduced to mere connections. And then, easy connection becomes redefined as intimacy. Put otherwise, cyberintimacies slide into cybersolitudes.” (Turkle, 2015, p.16)
  • 66: Wuerth (2018, A)
  • 67: Anderson, Fagan, Woodnutt and Chamorro-Premuzic (2012), Oldmeadow, Quinn and Kowert (2013), Greenfield (2014)
  • 68: Engelberg and Sjöberg (2004)
  • 69: Greenfield (2014)
  • 70: See n.58
  • 71: Cocozza (2018)
  • 72: Turkle (2015) questions wether virtual intimacy degrades our experience of real life interactions.
  • 73: I based this loosely on the issues created through online dating. Digitally mediated relationships mean that we create misunderstandings through text-based communication, struggle to connect offline and knowing others only digitally creates a lack of motivation and effort. “(…) online dating is like a candy store with thousands of profiles to choose from. (…) it changes the way we look at people. People have become disposable and replaceable.” Lord (2013)
  • 74: Many teenagers behave differently online than in real life and feel more powerful and confident in digital interactions where they are anonymous and can just exit an uncomfortable situation (Greenfield, 2014).
  • 75: See n.57
  • 76: Wuerth (2018, A)
  • 77: “The triumph of headphones is that they create, in a public space, an oasis of privacy” The Atlantic’s libertarian columnist, Derek Thompson as quoted in Ferenstein (2015)
  • 78: Turkle (2015), Lewis (2017)
  • 79: See n.72
  • 80: Flores and James (2013) studied the social and ethical considerations in teenagers’ thinking when acting and interacting online and increased consideration of personal consequences and less consideration for the impact their actions have on others. “[They] failed to recognize or trivialized the moral or ethical dimensions of certain online activities.”
  • 81: Greenfield (2014)
  • 82: This reflects our current debate around the unclear effects of our relationship to technology and social media on our brains and society as a whole. (Greenfield, 2014)

 

 

Conclusion

The article that forms the main part of this paper was written as a futuristic piece of fiction, but the arguments presented are all ideas strongly based on current issues, supported by historical and scientific evidence. Even though the research question is of a speculative nature, the answers to it bear strong statements on the effects of current technology on our learned interactions and societal norms. In this part, I want to draw conclusions on both, the information presented to answer the research question, as well as on the unusual format I chose to do this.

 

Content

This paper has presented a correlation between the evolution of social norms, technological developments in computer-mediated human interaction, and the perception and conception of privacy and intimacy. It has shown that these concepts are constantly in flux and that our relationship with technology, and through it, with each other, is reframing our sense of privacy and intimacy.

Fuelled by our desire for human connection, societal norms create expectations on our availability and accessibility through and for digital communication. This social and emotional need is used by individual and companies in a way that undermines the concept of consent. We become increasingly comfortable exposing ourselves online and accept the trade-offs, even while we are aware that our data is a commodity to be traded and used to manipulate us. Privacy is seen as less relevant and less desirable as a consequence.

At the same time, increasing reliance on digital interactions comes at the cost of face-to-face social skills, which in turn, creates insecurities about real-life interactions. Lacking these skills makes it harder to empathise, connect emotionally, and to be truly intimate.

The way in which these technologies fit seamlessly into our daily lives facilitates a kind of multitasking that keeps our attention constantly split between the real and the virtual. This affects how we can experience these interactions, and therefore, how deeply we are able to connect with others. Digital interactions are further impacted by the way communication channels filter out non-verbal cues which we unknowingly rely on in real life. In this way, the design of current communication technologies does indeed reshape how we connect and are intimate with each other.

Projecting these developments onto a futuristic technology creates a fact-based foundation for the speculation on the potential effects of haptic technology for human-to-human communication. The two essential aspects of the suggested device, NeoTouch, are the realistic experience of human touch through haptics and the fact that this is created using a brain-computer interface. Both of these technological elements are not currently aspects of digital communication. The fictional article explored how such a technology might impact the way we perceive human touch outside of its natural context, and in turn, conceive privacy and intimacy.

The premise is that NeoTouch merges the physical self and the digital self in an unprecedented way. This is presented as critical for several reasons that factor into our understanding of privacy and intimacy.

The interface has access to my brain and therefore to certain layers of my data, experience and even control over my physical body in a way that current technology does not. This makes insufficient data safety and the threat of hacker attacks a much more invasive threat. If a harassment on the digital self equates to an attack of the physical self, the offence instantly becomes much more threatening. Seeing how women are currently still more at risk of online harassment, it can be assumed that a device like NeoTouch could pose a very physical threat to women’s bodies in particular. These speculations have serious implications for privacy, safety, and consent. Considering early statements on the trade-offs we are prepared to make for the sake of connections the questions are: What becomes of privacy? And is it worth the cost?

The developments described in this paper imply that the idea of privacy would continue to lose societal relevance, while the underlying opinion in the ‘opinion piece’ is, that it is not worth the cost. This is reflected in the concerns of the specialist and most prominently in the story of Barbara who decided for herself that ‘the negative effects greatly outweighed the benefits’.

Additionally, a general desensitisation regarding personal boundaries would reshape our concept of privacy. This in turn would have an impact on the understanding and value of intimacy through devaluing the experience of touch by a more casual substitute. The great ease of access would also change the expectation of emotional, physical, and sexual availability while using this to circumvent real-life interactions would prevent us from experiencing true intimacy.

Ultimately, this paper suggests that digital touch, and consequently digital intimacy would not be able to replace real-life intimacy. It would however change how we think of intimacy as a whole. If I don’t care who has access to my data and my body, how can I ever truly feel close to someone?

 

Form

The format of a speculative piece of fiction – a futuristic magazine article – was chosen to work in tandem with an equally story-driven speculative design project. Despite this speculative nature, this story represents current issues around technology. The implications of our relationship to our devices, however, are so varied and complex that they are hard to pin down. There is much worry and fear around these topics, mixed with a sense of being overwhelmed and powerless as we often understand neither how exactly these technologies work nor what their effects are. Additionally, for many of the questions raised in this paper, there is little hard proof even of how our current technology impacts our lives, minds and relationships. To predict their future effects is even harder. Consequently, new technologies are released onto the market with no clear understanding of the repercussions. Only one thing is for certain, we cannot escape technology.

To sidestep the limitations of scientific proof on these matters, this paper uses the advantages of a story; an ‘unreality’. A story is able to express an idea, beyond bare facts, in order to spark a debate. A debate about tech, our choices and our behaviours as users and consumers. At the same time, this story is a critique of the industry’s uncritical approach to technological development. Such scenarios aim to jolt people out of their naive trust in technology, the allure of its promise for the future, to create a wider space for imagination and shift in perspective.

To still place this story within the framework of an academic paper also highlights the potential of such future scenarios to be securely rooted in facts and scientific research despite their speculative nature. This increases the chance for these narratives to be taken seriously by the people that do shape our technological future.

The hypothetical product helps to explore a potential future in which technology would gravely amplify current issues around lacking digital privacy and safety, around pressured consent and a warped sense of intimacy. As is the case with many examples today, this tech is portrayed as a neutral device, designed with good intentions. All the same, it suggests unconsidered or naive design choices with severe consequences. This is why this discussion is extremely current and relevant to engage people into a discussion about the kind of technological future we want.

Tony Dunne said in an interview with Felix Salmon (2018):
“As tech companies become more powerful, and as the scale and complexity of their technologies mean there are many more possible unforeseen outcomes and implications, perhaps companies should be obliged to explore and make public any potential implications of the technologies they are developing.”

This highlights the responsibilities of designers and technologists. My own role as a designer and critical thinker in a tech-focused design course makes me question the impact of our creations. As design is seen as increasingly valuable and designers are part of multidisciplinary teams creating new systems and technologies that shape our lives, I believe this should be considered more.

“It is too late to leave the future to the futurists.” (Turkle, 2015, p.17)

As repeatedly suggested in the article, the issues in question have the strongest influence on young people, that learn all their social interactions within the given technological context. It is this aspect of ‘learning’ that the article also points to as a possible solution. I strongly believe that it is within the power and responsibility of education – on a personal, institutional, and societal level – to create a society of digital natives that have the skills and critical mindset to make educated choices on the way they incorporate technology into their lives and let them mediate their relationships and identities. That is why this paper’s aim is to offer a critical view, educate and start a discussion on the kind of future we want to shape.

 

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