Review: Intimacy at the Dublin Science Gallery

“All those relationships can be overwhelming,” announces the advertisement for PPL KPR, an app that promises to optimise your social life. Using a heart rate tracking smartwatch, it monitors your physical and emotional responses to the people around you. Its algorithm can then schedule meet-ups, compose text messages or even block contacts on your behalf.

If the idea of handing your social life over to an algorithm on your phone sounds a little too Black Mirror, that’s because it kind of is. It’s similar to the premise of “Nosedive”, an episode where people use an app to rate social interactions, the resulting ratings determining a person’s socio-economic status and access to amenities. But PPL KPR is a real app and can be downloaded on the Apple app store, free of charge, though it doesn’t quite limit people’s access to resources…yet.

The Science Gallery’s latest exhibition explores many of the same questions as Charlie Brooker’s unsettling TV show: is modern technology enhancing or jeopardising our relationships? Can technology alleviate the pain of losing a loved one? How do we connect with other people in an increasingly automated world? Spread over two floors, the exhibition consisted of art, technology, interactive installations and speculative designs, which each investigated our understanding of “intimacy” in the modern world.

Some of the exhibits explored how technology can be used to reintroduce physical intimacy into a long-distance relationship. Pillow Talk used a wristband to listen to your partner’s heart and send it to a speaker under your pillow; while Kissinger, a device that looked like an asthma-inhaler with a phone mount, promised couples the opportunity to share long-distance kisses. My boyfriend and I will soon be living in countries on opposite sides of the Atlantic, so technology promising long-distance physical intimacy should have been an attractive prospect. However, looking at the plastic mouthpiece of the Kissinger made us grimace and feel uncomfortable.

“Being able to experience a sense of togetherness with our loved ones far away should be a wonderful prospect, so why does it make us feel so gross?”

Rachel McDonnell, a Trinity College professor whose research involves using virtual avatars and performance capture technology, argues that soon we’ll be using virtual and augmented realities to be able to see, hear and even touch digital representations of people on the other side of the world. Surely, being able to experience a sense of togetherness with our loved ones far away should be a wonderful prospect, so why does it make us feel so gross? Perhaps it’s the sense of artificiality, or the prospect of the uncanny valley in our digital avatars, but whatever the reason, it’s hard not to feel slightly unnerved by the idea of being able to reach out your arm in Ireland and touch someone in America.

This and top image are credited to Dublin Science Gallery

Kissinger wasn’t the only exhibit that made us squirm. Physics Does Not Crash in Soft Time was an installation that invited you to browse the files from the artist’s deceased brother’s hard drive. It was unnerving. I reached for the mouse to scroll through, but I found I couldn’t do it – it seemed too much like an invasion of privacy. After a while, I noticed that nobody in the exhibition seemed willing to open the files either. The questions this exhibit raised about who owns our data when we die and how traces of our lost loved ones can be digitally reserved made me think of Black Mirror again. In “Be Right Back”, a grief-stricken woman buys a clone of her deceased boyfriend with a personality based on his social media data. Of course, we’re still a long way off being able to do this, but “Griefbots” (artificial intelligence modelled on a dead person’s data) are already in development and could revolutionise the way we think about grief and posthumous data.

While many of these installations provoked discomfort, some were surprisingly sweet. The Companion Cat, for example, was a robotic animal designed to promote the mental health benefits of companionship for the elderly and dementia-sufferers. Using technology to alleviate the increasing epidemic of loneliness amongst the ageing population seems like a good idea. However, the implication that robots are increasingly required to offer fellowship to the elderly that other humans fail to provide paints a very sad picture of society. Go hug your grannies, people!

“The implication that robots are increasingly required to offer fellowship to the elderly that other humans fail to provide paints a very sad picture of society”

The strangest experience of all was with The Machine To Be Another, an interactive VR experience to trick your brain that you’d swapped bodies with a partner. My VR headset played the feed from my boyfriend’s camera and vice versa, and by mirroring each other’s movements from different rooms we convinced ourselves we’d swapped bodies. Even stranger was when the panel between us was removed and I was able to walk forward towards my own body, looking down from his slightly taller perspective. Convincing our brains that we’d swapped bodies may just seem like an entertaining illusion, but it’s a technique already being used all over the world to promote empathy by literally allowing you to see from someone else’s perspective. It’s a strange way of trying to make people more understanding of each other across racial, religious, age or gender differences, but I liked the creativity behind it.

As I was leaving the exhibition, I wondered whether I’d approached some of the exhibits too cynically. On the surface, many of the technologies promised a more interconnected and intimate world by seeking to alleviate loneliness, promote empathy and cultivate better relationships. Perhaps my initial association of some of the exhibits with Black Mirror had caused me to see a latent sinister element. Or, maybe we simply have a tendency to distrust new and unfamiliar technologies, a concept that anyone who has ever had to teach a grandparent how to use an iPhone will be familiar with. But whatever our feelings about it, we can’t deny that we live in an era where the word “connection” can just as easily refer to our Wi-Fi as to our relationships. It’s important to think about how intimacy fits into this period of rapid technological advancement, and the Science Gallery’s latest exhibition did an impressive job of exploring these big questions.