Intimacy: Version 4.0

On: March 27, 2011
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About Natalie Dixon
I’m a new media thinker, strategist and writer. My current research focus is on the ‘affective bandwidth’ of mobile-mediated communication. My research interests include affective computing, HCI, biomapping, emotion, the impact of mobile phones on social behaviour, analytical design and information visualization. I graduated from the new media track of the Media and Culture masters programme in 2011.


Plenty has been written about our loss of social cohesion due to the Internet (see James Katz) and how mobile phone technology has contributed to blunting our social competencies (see Hans Geser). Like it or not we are often rendered limp at the DVD rental shop or supermarket isle calling our husbands or girlfriends asking: “So what did you say you felt like eating for dinner? Or “Have you seen the latest Woody Allen?”
Rich Ling and Mizuko Ito would have us believe the opposite is true though: that all this mobile telenesting or telecocooning and the time we spend micro-coordinating our lives (“I’m 10 minutes late, let’s rather meet at the other place”) is actually contributing towards even greater social cohesion and strengthening our strong ties. Despite what we imagine, mobile phone usage hasn’t made us accessible to absolutely everyone, in fact most people only call or text their 10 closest contacts over and over again.

Mobile phones are not only the most ubiquitous computing devices around but also undeniably the central cog in most people’s never-ending communication loop. It’s not just our phone any more, it’s also our best friend, our news agent, our time filler, our watch, our alarm clock, our mediator and the device we share our most intimate moments with. Leopoldina Fortunati and Jane Vincent who cover electronically mediated-emotion in the book Electronic Emotion comment on the ways respondents often looked at their phone in a loving way, even stroking it when they remembered a tender moment. It’s as if feeling alone or awkward in a public space without something to do has been relegated to the past. Arguably mobile phones have also become the most affective technology we own.

But do mobile phones do a good enough job of mediating affect? Prototypes coming out of Design Research Lab (part of the Deutsche Telekom Laboratories and Technical University Berlin) include phones that transmit moisture (that’s a kiss to you!) and a phone with virtual vibrating “heartbeat” that can be calmed with the right stroking and calming gestures. But do these eccentric prototypes hold the key to improving the emotional bandwidth mobile phones offer?

What if future text messaging applications performed a real-time sentiment analysis and when your text was delivered to the recipient their handset lit up in a colour representing the emotional content of the message: red for angry, yellow for humorous etc…? Or what if mobile phones had built-in lie detector tests (heart rates are monitored via the back of the handset) that allowed callers to test the validity of conversation in real time. “Are you excited to hear from me?” could take on a whole new dimension. But perhaps this new mobile honesty is more brutal than honest and will put callers in supremely awkward positions (“Why don’t you have the lie detector app turned on honey?”). This conundrum might only be truly solved when mobile phones become fully grown affective computers and can understand how awkward the situation might be for you and anticipate the correct response.

Imagine a mobile phone that sensed your mood at the end of a long day and knowing how stressed you were started screening your calls for only your favourite contacts with good sentiment analysis ratings. What if, in your stressed state you started composing text messages you’ll regret sending the next day; sensing that danger imagine the phone established one more step in the interface asking you “do you really want to send this now?” Could this be the more reflexive and responsive solution we need in our mobile phones?

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