Once more with feeling

'Drones kill people in wars, bad.
Drones deliver burritos to your house, great.'

Writer and journalist Maurits de Bruijn (32) gives us an insight in his daily life with technology.

I have a confession to make. Until not so long ago, I carried a very old smartphone with me. Its’ touch screen had long before turned into countless grainy pieces of glass. What once was perfectly shiny and smooth, had turned into pointy and sharp icicles. Whenever I would stick out my hand to open a message my fingers would brace themselves for the hurtful landscape they were about to land upon. By the way, most of those messages my hands so fearfully opened, came from my mother.

A lot of people would comment on my broken screen. It needed fixing, they said, as if they were talking about a chipped tooth inside my mouth. But I didn’t want to repair my lousy screen; these dangerous splinters were a very helpful tool in trying to control my obsession with my phone. It created distance between me and the machine, a kind of protection were that was none.Last week, after months of staring at the broken screen, I got myself a new phone. It was as if I had been given a brand new pair of eyes. Everything the screen showed me was so much clearer, unburdened by the irregular pattern of broken glass.
With this phone, it felt like I would be able to accomplish more, be better at maintaining my friendships, be able to finally return those messages my mother sent me, listen to more podcasts, I would finally understand what was the big deal about S-Town and I would get to know everything there is to know about foreign politics.

I actually thought the new phone would change me, would leave an imprint. And more and more, modern day technology does change our lives, sometimes the impact is very obvious, other times not so much. Google’s mother company Alphabet is about to build a tech-neighbourhood in Toronto. In that Google town, the buses will be self-propelled, bike lanes will be heated, and trucks will travel underground.

The digital age also impacts our legislation. Our new coalition actually talks about cyber hygiene in their recently published coalition accord.
When we zoom in once more, like two fingers on a touch screen, we see that also our bodies are subject to these changes. Wearable tech is slowly but surely turning us into real life cyborgs.

And it’s not just about what we carry around, the way we carry our bodies is also changing. Our heavy usage of phones is altering the natural curvature of our necks, causing pain, but not just that, by lowering our heads and resting our chins on our chests to read our Whatsapp messages, we are restricting our lung capacity, making our hearts work much harder to manage to pump enough oxygen through our bodies. That’s what makes using Tinder so very dizzying.
The way that we communicate has undergone a revolution in recent years. It doesn’t just change the curve of our necks, but also impacts the way we think. And all of these changes and developments, whether they’re clear or unclear to us, whether they are worrying or not, they just happen. We seem so very defenceless against these transformations.
Because we seem to want them so badly. Right?

Wearable tech is slowly but surely turning us into real life cyborgs.

Maurits de Bruijn


On YouTube you can find a video that seems much older than it actually is. It is filmed in 1999, a year so close to the now that most of us have specific memories from the time.
But right then, in a year so close we can almost taste it, a reporter went out into the streets of a middle large Dutch city, interviewing people about an exciting, relatively new technological advancement: the mobile telephone.

The people who were interviewed were pretty adamant about this invention. They didn’t like it one bit.
Why not, the interviewer asked?
Because they simply didn’t think they’d need them.

Fast forward to 18 years later. Yesterday I saw a picture that was posted on Twitter. It was a photograph of a cell phone photographing another cell phone photographing the Mona Lisa. That’s what it has come to. Somehow, the phones we never really thought we needed have become an end in itself. We have phones because others have them. And because they are addictive. And because they look so very great. And because we think we need them. It’s a desire without origin. A constant hunger for something that didn’t taste very good in the first place.

Back to the past, when the first data people obliviously shared through their first crippled internet connections, were the countless innocent chats and incredibly long and sad blog posts of the mid ‘90’s. Then came the pictures we uploaded, even though it then still took a while for them to load. These photos were followed by the data of our bank accounts, then came our whereabouts, our locations, and then our online behaviour was analyzed which lead to targeted commercials, and each new development was accompanied by it’s own specific bag of fears.

The latest data to be added to this long list of sharings are our most intimate of possessions: our emotions, our loving smiles, angry stares and confused frowns.
The same technology we so innocently used so that Snapchat and Instagram were able to measure the dimensions and movements of our faces, just so that we could plant an animation of a dog’s head on top of our own, has now further developed into emotion-reading recognition. Yes, it sounds kind of creepy.
What started with face swap and stupid halo’s of flowers has now turned into a technology that identifies a human face, an algorithm that analyses key landmarks like the corner of our eyebrows, or the tips of our noses. Then these pixels are classified as facial expressions. Finally, combinations of these expressions are mapped to emotions.

We often talk about technology as if it’s something we can isolate, something we can still deduct from our everyday life, choose not too engage with, like throwing away our phones. But I think it’s safe to say we no longer can. Technology is weaved into the carpet of our everyday lives, in countless ways. And it makes most people definitely worry, the inescapability of the digital age creates a specific type of paranoia and anxiety.
And that worry becomes apparent when we look at the tone we apply when we discuss technological advancements. There is a certain language people use, one that is either dystopian or utopian, hopeful or dreadful. There seems to be no in between, no grey area.

Drones kill people in wars, bad.
Drones deliver burritos to your house, great.

Microsoft laptops now have even bigger screens, great.
Microsoft Windows 10 breaches certain privacy laws, bad.

Security cameras on Schiphol can now read emotions, great.
Security cameras mistake people for terrorists whenever they act nervous in an airport, bad.

Users of VR Headsets have the time of their life without ever leaving the house, great.
Users of VR Headsets lose touch with reality, bad.

When we look into the future, we tend to adapt the narratives of sci-fi novels and movies. The latest advancements that come at us are put into boxes, labelled good or bad, promising or frightening, but never both.

Emotion-reading technology has all the ingredients for a perfect sci-fi disaster movie. All it needs is Scarlett Johansson in the lead. The script practically writes itself.

Let’s start with how we often don’t even know which emotions we’re sending out into the world, we might be able to control what kind of pictures we upload to our iCloud, or what messages we send to our friends, even though we sometimes even manage to send them the wrong photo. But what about our emotions? How can we possibly control which smiles we keep to ourselves, what anger we do send out?

And this technology is above all invasive. Emotions belong to our most private, intimate and perhaps most priced possessions.

Also, this technique sounds impossible to understand and unknowingness happens to be the mean ingredient for fear. And how can this technology be contained? If you are promised that your smile is being monitored, how can you ever be sure of that? If a camera can detect your smile, can they not detect your shame? What about your secrets?

What if Nestlé knows when we’re sad and in need of chocolate?
What if MasterCard knows we’re celebrating and haves us splurge on clothes in the middle of our euphoria?

What if it’s easier to teach students because there’s software that can detect whether someone’s bored or not?
Are women more prone to fall victim to this technology because their faces happen to be more expressive? What about children?
Will we be wearing facemasks to protect ourselves? Or botox? That doesn’t seem to be such a bad idea after all. Maybe a frozen face is the only way to break free from this frightening new technology?

Will we be wearing facemasks to protect ourselves? Or botox? That doesn’t seem to be such a bad idea after all.

Maurits de Bruijn

But this new technology might just as well be utopian.

It might make us more connected. It might actually give us back something we lost in the constant search for more and more communication.

Over the past twenty something years, we have let a big part of our human contact become simplified into text and emoticons. We left hours of home visits and phone conversations behind us and traded the warmth and familiarity of our voices for a few pixelated words.
The willing or unwilling exchange of our emotions that this new technology will lead to, can uncover our true selves instead of the lies or carelessly fabricated feelings that go behind the messages we type and send.

We’ve reduced our emotions into emoticons, but now they can once again flourish, return to their our old human, messy self. Together with all of our hopes, pain, joy and last but not least: our fears. 

 

This column was written by Maurits de Bruijn for the 'We Know How You Feel' project of the VPRO Medialab. 

 

'Drones kill people in wars, bad.
Drones deliver burritos to your house, great.'