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Confession Devices Mirror Our Google Search Autocompleted Yearnings

Confession Devices Mirror Our Google Search Autocompleted Yearnings
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A British artist explores the ways we let off steam online through touch devices

Rachel Pincus
  • 6 february 2015

The highly personal, and at the same time completely unsecured, universe of Google’s autocomplete system suggests searches to you that are in fact the product of some distant person’s yearnings. Over time, it becomes sometimes reassuring, sometimes funny, and at other times intimidating that many people have searched for the same thing, to the point that it comes up as a suggestion when you’re searching for something else. But our connection with these little moments of contact with a collective human soul is still through the cold medium of typing, in an environment that favors rational results, not to mention financial returns.

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British artist Penny Webb, on the other hand, decided to explore these issues differently by creating various Magic 8 Ball-like confession devices that are sensitive to galvanic skin conductance as a superficial measure of human emotional states. In the project, called Surface Connection, information retrieval services generate responses befitting the emotional state determined by the device. The goal, in the end, is why people type things like “Why am i so tired?” into Google Search: to reassure themselves that they’re not alone.

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The crudeness of the measurements, Webb indicated in an email, is intentional, leading us to think about the disconnect between our internal and external states. Sweaty skin, instead of typing fingers, confess. “The devices aren’t necessarily for confession, they’re more about the concept of physiologically connecting yourself to a network,” she wrote. “Letting your body speak for you, and in return, creating an emotional connection with strangers who you will never meet. The devices are just an alternative medium to the network.”

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surface connection

Webb also produced several different prototypes in search of a shape, size, and color that people could connect emotionally with. Ultimately, just making an art project about this is a stand against the increasingly manipulative tailored advertising that, in part, is enriched by such online ‘confessions.’

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“In conceiving this project it was important to me to move emotional response technology out of the hands of marketing agencies and into the domestic realm,” she said on her website, adding in an email that she wanted to focus on designs that people could feel intimate with.

In this world of “Alone Together,” it’s heartening to see someone thinking seriously about the power of touch.

Penny Webb

Lead image: Gord McKenna // CC // Image altered

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