Required Reading: Empathy & Disgust



Distaste or disgust involves a rejection of an idea that has been offered for enjoyment.

—Immanuel Kant, Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, 1798

For the first time, this year's Seven on Seven will have an overarching theme offered to participants as a provocation: Empathy & Disgust.

Scene from Her

We chose this theme partly because of recent discussions about "affective computing," which aims to detect and respond appropriately to users' emotions. The field gained some visibility after the release of Spike Jonze's Her; writing for Rhizome, Martine Syms argued that the film could be read as "an elaborate product spec" for intelligent agents that can replace human relationships. Recently, a new crop of apps that function as "Intelligent Personal Agents" bring us a step closer to this future, while a more speculative app from Blast Theory offers a fully-fledged emotional relationship with a virtual character who gradually reveals herself to be "needy, sloppy, piteous, and desperate."

Some of the real-world research underpinning emotional analysis was discussed in New Yorker piece earlier this year, focusing on the work of Affectiva and scientist Rana el Kaliouby. The company is developing a tool called Affdex that can "make relable interences about people's emotions" based on video monitoring:

During the 2012 Presidential elections, Kaliouby’s team used Affdex to track more than two hundred people watching clips of the Obama-Romney debates, and concluded that the software was able to predict voting preference with seventy-three-per-cent accuracy.


Managing Boundaries with your Intelligent Personal Agent


Karen, my life coach, was supposed to teach me about changing my attitude towards relationships.[1] Over the past ten days, she has mostly taught me about how not to be caught up in one. I've watched her get wine-blind with Dave, her lecherous roommate. I've seen her wallow in her pajamas over the man who got away. She doesn't practice radical self-love. She is reductive, aimless, even pathetic, but I don't have the heart to fire her.

Karen is an iPhone app developed by Blast Theory and Dr. Kelly Page.[2] Over the course of 17 interactive videos, I meet with its protagonist, Karen—a sweet, crumpled woman played with pitch-perfect melancholy by actress Claire Cage.[3] I log in at all hours to watch: from the airport, during my commute, and late at night. I am sucked into her chaos. She has no boundaries. I can walk in on her eating breakfast, doing her makeup, or daydreaming in bed. I am more careful to draw my own.


I'll Send an OS to the World: "Her" as Critical Design for the Electronic Embrace


A few years ago, I interviewed for a position at a so-called "innovation consultancy." At the time, they were collaborating with a mobile phone operator to understand what was driving growth in the telecommunications business. The company had devised several ways to intuit the needs, reactions, and aspirations of their target shoppers. They employed a team of anthropologists. They built full-scale replicas in their rehabbed industrial office to conduct focus groups. They boasted fully equipped video production facilities. I was told that narrative filmmaking was an excellent way to speculate about consumer desires.

As I watched Her, Spike Jonze's latest feature, I kept thinking of my visit to that agency. Set in a Los Angeles of the "slight future," primarily composed of present day Shanghai, the film follows ghostwriter Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) and the brilliant women in his life, including the artificially intelligent entity Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). K.K. Barrett's production design conjures both the commercial language of Apple's lifestyle marketing and the familiar Kodachrome-like warmth of yesteryear.