Synthetic Bodies and Feeling Generators – Michela De Carlo

In his book Foams – Sphere III, German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk refers to our society as a “pluralism of spherology”, a “foam architecture”, a multi-lens community characterized by the co-existence of a big messy multitude of clusters where people lives in. These clusters have different shapes and are placed one upon the other and side by side, in a tridimensional deformed matrix that brings humans to act simultaneously on different, non-linear layers. Sloterdijk also states that this plural spherology allows a decentralization of the points of view on our society, and brings us to observe our existences using different perspectives.

 

“In the foam worlds, however, no bubble can be expanded into an absolutely centered, all-encompassing, amphiscopic orb; no central light penetrates the entire foam in its dynamic murkiness. Hence the ethics of the decentered, small and middle-sized bubbles in the world foam includes the effort to move about in an unprecedentedly spacious world with an unprecedentedly modest circumspection; in the foam, discrete and polyvalent games of reason must develop that learn to live with a shimmering diversity of perspectives, and dispense with the illusion of the one lordly point of view.” [1]

 

The cells of the foams loose the perfect shape of the sphere, and even if they are one attached to the others, forming an ephemeral net, they are not truly connected.

 

Beyond the Cyborg Body: Machine, Body and Feelings

 

The social architecture described by Sloterdijk fits perfectly with the idea of the digital society in which we live. Digital media have changed the structure of our world, putting our existence on different stages. Yet,  the physical borders of our virtual life are still well defined: we don’t surf the web through neural implants yet, and the main shift so far has been from pressing keys on a keyboard to touching a screen with our finger. Except for the rare cases in which it occurs to be necessary for survival, we do not integrate technologies into our body, but we adapt our body to the way  technologies work.

Our body – the means by which we experience the world and through which we externalize our mind’s processes – has been changed by the encounter with the digital sphere, too. Since the Sixties, the paradigm of the “cyborg body” emerged to describe a body extended and “augmented” by digital technology; we could also refer to post-human theory and to the concept of the virtual body, projected and rebuilt inside the flows of information.

Today, we live in two worlds: the real one and the one in which we decide to enter every time we switch on a device. A big part of our life takes place with our eyes turned towards a graphical interface, a parallel space. Hyper-connectivity and new forms of communication influence our feelings, emotions, lifestyle and the way we perceive our bodies. Applications that improve or mask our appearance have been designed, as well as AI ChatBots that pretend to be the perfect boyfriends and virtual environments in which we can reinvent ourselves and meet other people; but we can also think about sensory ASMR videos, or about those applications which trace our dream activity or help people to fall asleep; etc.

Advances have been made in the medical field, such as the creation of artificial organs and the transplants carried out by robots. However, from this point of view, actual evolution has followed different paths than those imagined by science fiction and by the media theory of the last century. Today’s technology affects the body and the feelings and sometimes it integrates with the body itself to allow it to survive, more often it reshapes it to adapt it to contemporary aesthetic values; but rather than changing our body in an intrusive way, technology adapts to it in a symbiotic way.

 

Me, My Clone and My Avatar

 

As a consequence, a question arises: If people can live with a 3D printed silicone heart, why can’t they have feelings obtained by their virtual experience or social media life? They can, and they do. In some cases, social media try to reproduce these feelings, Facebook’s “reactions” being a common example: six emoticons that allow people to better express how they feel about a specific content displayed on their wall – if compared to the emotional neutrality of the “like” – and that allow the system to better profile us. It’s a pretty basic approach, but it works. The awareness of a wired existence opens up the question of self-representation in the online environment.

The perfect projection of ourselves becomes an important issue in our digital sphere, and people can obtain it by combining three elements, that I enumerate like this: virtual representation, feeling generators and AI – machine learning system. To exemplify them, let’s briefly consider one of the first works of art to reflect upon these topics: Ryan Trecartin’s I-be Area (2007). At the beginning of the movie I-be, a self-proclaimed clone (“I exist because of Command V. Copy and paste some guy’s DNA”), has a conversation with his avatar. Here, I-be explains his avatar – who wants to assign him a paper – that it can’t assign anything to him, because “I created you”. I-be Area raises various topics at stake in this paper, from genetic manipulation and cloning, to online self-representation and artificial intelligence. I-be’s avatar is his own online projection, but at the same time has evolved into an “independent avatar” (IA), an autonomous intelligence who writes papers and has its own emotions. But I-be refuses to recognize and accept his avatar’s independence,  so far to decide to delete it: “You can just go cowboy some abandoned files in my trash can. Swup drag to the trash, empty it, empty it, I emptied it. Empty.”

 

Social Media and Self Representation in Online Environments

 

Let’s start from  virtual representation, or the representation of the self. By posting pictures, sharing articles and thoughts, or composing 3D avatars, we are always trying to create the ideal projection of ourselves in the virtual realm. The idea of the body is extended and “users” can become everything they want, or just idealize themselves showing only their best – like a smooth 3D face with no imperfection. It’s important to highlight that – by examining the representation of the identity in the social media era – we don’t talk anymore about a specific shape, as it could be human body or human face, at least not in an absolute way. The focus is more around the deformation or the mask of the traditional form, and in some cases its absence. For this reason when we consider the virtual portrait, we don’t refer to the body, rather we deal with the self.

To explain this shift – from the body to the self – let’s refer to Zygmunt Bauman. In Liquid Life (2005), Bauman affirms that the acceleration of our contemporary life forces us to new beginnings and consequently new losses repeatedly.

 

“[…] in varying degrees they all master and practice the art of liquid life: acceptance to disorientation, immunity to vertigo and adaptation to a state of dizziness, tolerance for an absence of itinerary and direction and for an indefinite duration of travel. [..] Looseness of attachment and revocability of engagement are the precepts guiding everything in which they engage and to which they are attached.” [2]

 

In order to survive this lifestyle, you need to be able to let things go, to eliminate the past. Then, Bauman assumes that the same concept works with identities, that means that we have to be able to rebuild ourselves in an easy and fast way, without the fear to leave the past behind. Like a story on Instagram, that last only 24 hours.

In 2009, in his interview “Talking to myself about the politics of space”, Peter Sloterdijk played around this concept too, writing about multiple personality in relation to online activity:

 

“From my point of view, the multiple personality is nothing other than the individual’s answer to the disappearance of his real social surroundings, and is thus a plausible response to the chronic lack of social stimulation. The second possibility relates to the modern practice of networking. The horde returns in the guise of an iPhone address book. Close physical togetherness is no longer a necessary condition of sociality.” [3]

 

Feeling Generators

 

The second element, that I call feeling generators, is divided in two section. I define feeling generators those tools, applications, online experiences, digital simulations that provoke emotions which are close to the ones we feel in our physical-real world, but are born in a virtual context mediated by the use of devices, interfaces, hardwares; and those tools, applications, online environments, digital simulators that allow us to share our feelings in the virtual sphere. The online projection of emotions becomes in turn a generator of emotions for the feeling of empathy that it causes in other people. As a corollary to this definition, we can distinguish the feeling generators into two different groups: the passive and the active. The passive feeling generators are characterized by the possibility to feel emotions produced during and through our online experience without any active interaction on our side: we just have to open an application, press play, etc. Some examples are: the state of anxiety generated by the lack of response from a person who you know is online at that time; the desire to find out the content inside a box when watching an unboxing video; the combination of positive feelings and a distinct static-like tingling sensation on the skin while watching an ASMR video, etc. The active feeling generators are those which allow us to externalize our feelings online: so, we can use default tools provided by social networks to communicate our emotions, or share statements upon specific issues on blogs etc. Some common feeling generators are characterized by  a co-presence of both aspect, active and passive. Just think about online sexual gaming, or every application based upon the structure of the video games, in which the turnover of an active interaction by people with a generative feedback by the machine and viceversa is at the base of the game-simulation-system.

Juliette Goiffon and Charles Beauté describe this attitude of sharing emotions on blogs in their video Does anybody know? After passing two years observing and studying the behaviors of people on medical blogs, they selected part of the conversations and statements they considered relevant for their research. In this artwork the viewer is subjected to a continuous flow of 3D scans of different parts of the body. Each organ appears accompanied by a question, expressions of anguish, fragments of testimonies stolen from the medical forums. This hypnotic experience reveals the concerns of our society about medical issues and the need to share these worries on the internet. Does Anybody Know? also shows our paradoxical vision of medicine, of its highly technological universe which is at the same time intrinsically human. This succession of visual and textual points of view brings a double experience of indiscretion and projection on the side of the spectator, nourished at the same time by the observation of the body and the expression of the human thought.

 

Manipulation of Datas, Machine Learning and AI

 

“you mean machines are like humans?”

I shook my head. “No, not like humans. With machines the feeling is, well, more finite. It doesn’t go any further. With humans it’s different. The feeling is always changing. Like if you love somebody, the love is always shifting or wavering. It’s always questioning or inflating or disappearing or denying or hurting. And the thing is, you can’t do anything about it, you can’t control it.” [4]

 

The third factor that influences our projection on social media is represented by the the conscious passivity of the individual to the algorithmic manipulation of personal contents and desires. Data’s elaboration of personal informations allows machine to calculate our preferences during our online experience. This mechanism is mainly used by companies to better profile our needs and focus our attention to the proper advertise. It is also used by social networks to highlights contents that could interest us. As a consequence, the interface we live in becomes a container contaminated by our preferences, our personal sphere.

Machine learning system and Artificial intelligence use big amount of datas in order to make predictions of our future behaviours. They learn from us, and reflect us in a more polite and non-empathic way.

 

Image: Juliette Goiffon and Charles Beauté, Does Anybody Know?, video 4K, 18 mins, 2015-17. Courtesy the artists

 

Footnotes:

[1] Peter Sloterdijk, Bubbles – Sphere vol I: Microspherology, The MIT Press, 2011, p. 75.

[2]  Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Life, Polity Press, 2005

[3] Peter Sloterdijk, “Talking to Myself about the Poetics of Space”, in Harvard Design Magazine, No 30 – (Sustainability) + Pleasure, Vol. I: Culture and Architecture, Spring – Summer 2009.

[4] Haruki Murakami, Dance, Dance, Dance, Vintage Books 2003 (1988), p. 120.

 

References:

Peter Sloterdijk, Bubbles – Sphere vol I: Microspherology, The MIT Press, 2011

Peter Sloterdijk, Globes – Sphere vol II: Macrospherology, The MIT Press, 2014

Peter Sloterdijk, Foams – Sphere vol III: Plural spherology, The MIT Press, 2016

Antonio Caronia, The Cyborg, Meson Press, 2015

Donna J. Haraway, A Cyborg Manifesto, 1985. In Donna J. Haraway, Manifestly Haraway, University of Minnesota Press, 2016

Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Life, Polity Press, 2005

Jonathan Crary, 24/7 – Late capitalism and the end of sleep, Verso Books, 2014

Jeri Fink, Cyberseduction: Reality in the Age of Psychotechnology, Prometheus Books, 1999

Massimo Recalcati, Ritratti del desiderio, Raffaello Cortina Edizioni, 2012

Patrizia Maglia, Il volto e l’anima, Edizioni Bompiani, 1995

Peter Reuell, “For teens who feel it all, a research-backed explanation”, in The Harvard Gazette, September 21, 2018, online at https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2018/09/harvard-researchers-examine-evolution-of-emotion-differentiation/.

Peter Sloterdijk, “Talking to Myself about the Poetics of Space”, in Harvard Design Magazine, No 30 – (Sustainability) + Pleasure, Vol. I: Culture and Architecture, Spring – Summer 2009, online at www.harvarddesignmagazine.org/issues/30/talking-to-myself-about-the-poetics-of-space.

 

 

4 Comments

  1. Hi Michela. Thanks for your interesting post.
    I have a few questions to spark discussion.

    1/ On your application of Sloterdijk’s ‘foam architecture’: Would computational agents (such as e.g. the AI chatbots you mention) be considered individual (and autonomous) ‘bubbles’ in this approach, or how do such agents (i.e. non-humans) fit into your theoretical frame?

    2/ Could you elaborate on your somewhat dichotomous separation of ‘physical’ and ‘virtual’ life? As you e.g. highlight in your concept ‘feeling generators’, it seems that there is a high degree of entaglement between these two categories, yet you maintain the dichotomy. What (if anything) would happen to your argument if the two were not so distictly separated?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Michaela, Thanks for your blog entry. I have a question which pertains to your following claim “Except for the rare cases in which it occurs to be necessary for survival, we do not integrate technologies into our body, but we adapt our body to the way technologies work.”

    It seems that your argument, as the commenter above has indicated, is about separating the virtual domain of technology from its material dimension, and so you maintain that this integration does not occur because we do not routinely introduce the matter of technologies into the body–for example, by surgical implantation, except in those “cases necessary for survival”, like cardiac failure. I wonder how you might reconcile this position with something like wearable technologies, which peer into the body and attempt to convert its mysterious rhythms into discrete and calculable patterns of information? What about all of the ways that technology informs our understanding of the body in an “a priori” state? For example, the development of new imagining techniques of the body like sonogram, x-ray, endoscope etc co-evolve with new ways of describing and constituting the “body as such”…

    Furthermore, I wonder if you’re familiar with the concept of interpellation and if it might be useful here–i.e. Althusser’s formulation of the subject as someone whose subject-hood is constituted in the very act of responding to a call which positions them as an already-realised subject. I am thinking of the way that technology needs to posit and position a subject (or user or player or whatever) in the act of its construction. The entire field of UX design, for instance, much imaginatively generate its ideal user and predict this user’s behaviour in order to design technological interfaces that accord with and respond to this putative user’s expectations about how technological form follows technological function.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Altusser’s interpellation! Thank you for bringing this into the discussion, Carleigh. (And I imagine this might be what you were trying to delve into, in our dialog around my paper. Sadly, I did not articulate on that.) I read an emphasis on sociality (networked interactions) in Michela’s paper. Wonder how vital it is to her conceptualization of feeling generators; and how that relates to interpellation… Another thread of interesting discussion ahead!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you, Michela, for your paper. Interesting introduction to Sloterdijk’s “foam architecture”! Much to learn about there, I imagine. To hop on the discussion which Malthe and Carleigh started, with again insightful questions, I would like to share some initial thoughts:

    Regarding the (seemingly distinct) divide between real and virtual, I find “entanglement,” as Malthe proposed, a more nuanced and accurate vocabulary. In specific relation to your concept of feeling generators, and the importance of networked sociality alluded in your essay on several occasions, the blurring of real-virtual boundaries seem more constant.

    We find support from Carleigh’s example of wearable technologies and even, on a seemingly more straightforward case, Facebook options of emotional reaction. Perhaps we could re-phrase the notion of such options on social media as attempting to “reproduce” feelings. It implies a rather linear progression that eclipses some contextual factors involved and their dynamic interactions. As a non-avid Facebook user, I find the diversified emotional reaction options double-edged; and may even amplify the all-on-positivity attached to the infrastructure of Facebook.

    Cursory notes here. I imagine there will be abundant opportunities to discuss further at Cambridge. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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