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.


Business Fish, or, Emotion Under Late Capitalism


I can't always articulate what it is like to be a worker, writhing in muted panic in the net of late capitalism. But I have found a fine outlet in Business Fish, a surreal family of sticker sets on Facebook Messenger, which I use to illustrate many of my exchanges.

Business Fish has struck a nerve since his introduction last year: he has many vocal fans (3200+ on his Facebook page) and he's been profiled in the mainstream news. Inspired by the Shinto belief that divinity resides in animals, his creator—an artist at Tokyo-based studio Quan, Inc.—gave him a pink fish head capping a human body in a boxy blue suit that, in today's workplace  fashion parlance, reads as "male business casual."

At first glance, Business Fish seems like a composite of Gordon Gekko and Jordan Belfort, ruthless hunters of success, profit and glamor. Closer examination of his sixteen, hyper-expressive graphics reveals a more complex narrative.

He wakes in shock, sweaty, the sun at his head. He gets caught in a subway turnstile. He struggles, briefcase in hand, coughing and shaking, knees buckling. After a setback, he slumps in shame against a wall. He bows, and weeps, and clenches his fists in rage. He grovels on the ground, possibly begging for the privilege of working another day.

Created with Japanese office culture in mind, but meant to represent workers worldwide, Business Fish is a pressure-crushed employee, shot through with anxiety and anguish. If strong emotions, particularly dysphoric ones, are "the psychic fuel on which capitalist society runs," Business Fish is a resource burning at both ends.


Her Quantified Self


Courtesy of Natalie James at

The alarm on her FuelBand pulses at 5:30 am because she wants to be a better person. Studies show that early risers are more proactive, more likely to anticipate problems, and more optimistic than those who sleep in. She wakes up two hours later because no one is expecting her to be anywhere. She slept for 12 hours and worries for a moment that it means she is depressed. It's still early, she thinks aloud.

From bed she scrolls through news, links, baby pictures, and other pieces of life. She composes an update to share and deletes it. She writes something else and deletes that too. She looks around the room. She's happy to be home even if it doesn't show. She chides herself for forgetting to practice gratitude. She closes her eyes and thinks about her family with gentle love and appreciation. Thank you, she whispers to the universe. Her goodwill quickly evaporates as she hears Deb, her mother, making a morning racket in the kitchen. She decides to wait until Deb leaves to get out of bed.

Lately she finds herself eating almost exclusively from Trader Joe's because it's easier to track in MyFitnessPal. She thinks they probably have some kind of deal. She eats every three hours beginning an hour after she wakes up. Right now she's consuming 1500 calories a day, but she hasn't been counting. She might need some encouragement.