Archive for the ‘Identity’ Category

Talk To Me

October 20th, 2011 No Comments

At the Museum of Modern Art in New York I recently visited a remarkable exhibit called Talk To Me, designed to explore the different ways that objects communicate with us or for us, or express things, such as frustrations or desires.  There was a lamp one could turn off by strangling it, and an auto-erotic asphyxiation collar that tightened every time someone called the wearer’s cell phone.








The items in the exhibit that really  stuck with me, though,  were the ones that enhanced our ability to empathize.

The  Japanese designer Sputniko! manufactured a remarkable belt that allowed a man wearing it to experience what it was like to have menstrual cramps.

It’s a ghastly contraption, and while it won’t help men experience the depression that accompanies that time of the month, I thought it was a great attempt.  Next up, I hope for a device that allows women to experience what it’s like to have your penis get hard.

Another exhibit that fascinated me  was Geoffery Mann’s  Crossfire a table setting where the crockery responded to speech vibrations.  The soundtrack was a vicious argument between a married couple, the argument from the beginning of  “American Beauty” after Kevin Spacey quits is job and Annette Benning berates him.  The museum audience observed  the harsh tones disfiguring the stark white table setting, particularly the large teapot, as the voices traveled over the tabletop on their way to wound a loved one.

In “The Things We Keep” the Christian Svanes Kolding dragged his camera simply over the objects in his home and posted above them legends where they came from and who gave them to him.  Seems like a bland survey of possessions, but the impression it left on me was of a life story.  After viewing all these precious objects and their history, you got a sense of Christian that was more than just his taste.  You knew where he’d traveled, who he’d known and had a more intimate sense of his values.






One of the last exhibits where I lingered was Happylife, which is explained well by it’s creators:

Reyer Zwiggelaar and Bashar Rajoub have been developing new profiling technology based on biometric data, in which a camera equipped with sensors detects changes in a person’s mood and emotion by taking thermal images of his or her face. By analyzing facial expressions, eye movements, pupil dilation, and other physiological changes, the camera may be able to predict future criminal activity. With Happylife, designers James Auger and Jimmy Loizeau have adapted this technology for keeping the peace at home. The designers added a visual display with facial-recognition software, so that the camera could differentiate between members of a family. A dial, one for each family member, registers current and predicted emotional states, based on data accumulated over the years by the machine. The designers have imagined complex scenarios in which the Happylife system might have a significant impact on a family’s life, and with writer and poet Richard M. Turley, they have created vignettes to illustrate such situations: “It was that time of the year. All of the Happylife prediction dials had spun anti-clockwise, like barometers reacting to an incoming storm. We lost David 4 years ago and the system was anticipating our coming sadness. We found this strangely comforting.” The designers hope to install the system prototype in an actual family’s home to further their research.

I admire the way the curators led us through the exhibit, starting with something crude like the collar.   I suppose this increases connection between people in one way; it shows that your friends are thinking about you.  The menstrual cramp belt was the next step forward, a device that increases a man’s  ability to understand a woman’s pain. This was similar to other items in the exhibit that allowed you to experience the world through an animal’s point of view or someone who has a physical handicap.  Once you’ve felt what another has felt, it’s not so easy to dismiss them. Just like understanding the story of someone’s treasured objects makes you less likely to see those things as junk.  All of these devices increase our ability for empathy, and broaden our point of view.

The ones that really stuck with me, though, were those that increased family intimacy.  I watched Crossfire several times wondering how it would be in a family if the crockery actually could reflect the tone of voice.  If you could see how your harsh words ripple across the table, would you suddenly understand how much impact they were having?  Or rather the kind of impact they were having, which might not be what you wanted.

Also, with Happy Life, the example the designers used was brilliant.  The anniversary of a family member’s death, the whole family was sad, yet no one wanted to talk about it.  The fact that they could read the dials and understand that they shared this experience, even if they couldn’t find the words to talk about it, was a way of observing the event, connecting to the sorrow, without counseling or group tears.

On the other hand, could knowing that you were being observed by this thing start to train your behavior?  If you were conscious of being watched, then would you try to slap on a smile, and be more animated?  And if you were doing this, would you actually be happier?  You know how they say that just smiling can improve your move, whether or not you feel like smiling. So too, could knowing something was watching, even if that thing was a machine, make you feel better?  My first feeling is that you’d just be creeped out by the idea that something was always watching, but then one thing this exhibit showed me was that my approach to this intimate kind of technology must be pretty old school.

O.I.N.K Update

March 9th, 2011 No Comments

A week ago, I changed my profile information on Facebook to identify me as a plus size model who lives in Japan. Facebook’s advertising bots haven’t caught up with me yet. I’m getting ads for low cost high heel shoes (which would appeal to the me in Japan) and real estate opportunities and home decorating services in Wyoming. This means that somewhere in the massive Facebook computer database, I’m still comprehended as my previous identity: a gay cowboy who lives in Wyoming. I think the only intelligent ad directed at me in this current bunch is for moving services. Placing that in the narrative, this gay cowboy had decided to change his life in a big way and is moving to Japan. But what will he pack for his new life? Maybe he should buy a whole new wardrobe for his new persona. And, I think, plastic surgery is also something to consider.

Saying O.I.N.K. to Facebook

March 3rd, 2011 No Comments

Last night I changed my Facebook identity from that of a gay cowboy who lives in Wyoming to a plus size model who lives in Japan. The new me is a fan of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton because if you were a plus size model in Japan, you’d probably be suicidal.

This frequent morphing of my identity is an act of rebellion I started a few weeks back when Facebook changed its format to reflect the data it had collected on me in a strip across the top of my Facebook page. (earlier blog post: Who Am I On The Internet?) Tuesday night while on Facebook, I joined a small knot of renegades who are angry in the same way I am about how the Facebook overlords are making billions from little pieces of us that they do not own and that we didn’t initially realize we’d given them permission to manipulate.

One of the members of this modest revolt, the author Walter Kirn, said it best on a post on his website yesterday.

“. . . it occurred to a few of us at once in that spooky quantum new way that there was something cowering and servile, something just plain slavish and depressing, about chatting and mingling with our ‘friends’ inside an environment and in a manner that had both been specifically engineered to yield up salable, packageable marketing data for the super-rich masters of the site. It felt to us, suddenly, belatedly, like we were in the position of young children whose supposedly spontaneous play is also, thanks to tiny dynamos attached to their little legs and arms, a profitable energy-generating scheme. The more we shared our ‘likes’ and made new friends and linked and updated and built communities and did all that other cool connective stuff that purportedly adds up to a Great Leap Forward, the faster we made those data windmills spin and the more juice we fed back into the grid for the grid’s owners to broker and redistribute.”

Our late night comment thread produced only one collective action: that we would post the acronym O.I.N.K. at the end of our status updates on Facebook and encourage others to do the same. It’s such an early stage in this that we haven’t even figured out what the initials of O.I.N.K represent. Since then, I’ve done so, but irregularly and only one of my Facebook friends took up this cause.

My personal pint-size rebellion continues, however. I’m not going to be myself at all on Facebook, so it has no way to market to me.

It started a year ago when I realized that they were advertising to me based on my martial status as divorced. I’m over the age of 50, so the ads on the side of my page were for senior dating sites. (Even if AARP thinks I’m a senior, I don’t consider myself one.) And I occasionally look for solutions to my weight issue on the web, which for some reason Facebook also knows. (I guess they’re in cahoots with Google.) Then I started getting ads proclaiming fat senior singles wanted to date me. Looking every day at a page that said fat old guys were after me really brought me down. All of this abruptly ended when I changed my martial status to widowed. I guess no one knows how to market to widows, or thinks that they’re too depressed to spend money. Or that fat old guys aren’t interested in fat old widows.

That was the first identity manipulation. How Facebook gets you to sell yourself out, however, is via your own greed and ambition. We’re all supposed to want to build or brand, right? I’m well connected enough as a writer that Facebook often offers up nationally known authors, journalists and media figures for me to “friend” saying that we have fifteen or more “friends” in common. These are people like Susan Orlean, Kathryn Harrison, Barbara Ehrenreich, Robert Greenwald and Michael Wolfe.

Now that I am a plus size model in Japan, will these people accept my friendship? Once they take a look at my Facebook picture.

The bodacious Japanese plus size model

Will they want to know me?