Can a robot become your best friend?

There is no escape: our futures will be more and more digitalised. What position are you taking towards the fast growing digital world we live in? While technology seems to be something we can’t escape from, we are able to re-think our position towards it. The role of technology in our lives is food for thought – and that is why STBY participated in a Digital Detox.

The Digital Detox workshop

In this workshop, hosted by artists Ruben Baart and Roos Groothuizen, we were triggered to take a different look at the digital world. At STBY we tend to embrace technical and digital developments, since they give us lots of possibilities in conducting research. However, we also think it is important to critically reflect on how we use our digital devices. Baart and Groothuizen are artists in residence at Spring House, the workspace of STBY in Amsterdam. With their work, they aim to promote a conversation about the use of digital products.

In the workshop we reflected on the effects of the use of digital devices in our daily lives and explored ‘data detox products’ from the artists’ ‘clinic’. We mapped current and most likely emerging diseases, due to the use of digital products and devices. Together we discussed possible medical resources that could be invented as a cure to those futuristic diseases.

New kinds of medicines

Baart and Groothuizen take an interesting position towards the fast growing digital world we live in. They fully embrace technology, though also look for ways to enrich the conversation about technology in their work. One of the questions they ask themselves is how we can adjust our bodies towards technology. In other words: can we change our bodies in order to fit better in an increasingly digitalised world? As an answer to this they created different kinds of medication – as a metaphor for how we can optimally use our digital devices. For example: they turned ‘Strepsils’ (a common cough relief tablet) into ‘Strepsiri,’ which offers a medicine that will make your voice monotone in order for Siri to always understand what you’re saying. They also turned ‘Tijgerbalsem’ (a common ointment against rashes) into ‘Timerbalsem’ which offers the ultimate selfie relief.

Mixed experiences to digital tech

As the digital age is a hot topic to talk about, from both a positive and negative perspective, framing it in a different way like the two artists do, can help enrich conversations and change attitudes .

“Do you mentally, or physically experience advantages or disadvantages using the digital devices you have within your daily life?” was one of the things we discussed. The experiences of the participants in the workshop were both positive and negative. Some people experienced advantages, such as the fact that specific digital tools, like phones and laptops are very compact, always closeby,  and user friendly. Thanks to these mobile devices we’re able to stay in touch with people on the other side of the world. Other participants described disadvantages, like getting headaches from screens, bad eye sight, or a feeling of unrest.

Robots to alleviate loneliness

During the workshop Baart and Groothuizen gave everyone two cards: a Disease Card and a Technology Card. These cards helped us to think about how we could possibly cure a specific disease with a specific technology. This sparked some really interesting ideas and ways of re-thinking our attitudes towards technology. For example, we received a card with “Robot”, and one with “loneliness” written on it. We had two minutes to individually come up with ideas. The next step was to pass along our idea to our neighbour. He or she could re-write the  idea and make it more specific.

One of the outcomes of this exercise was an idea for an app that could be used when feeling lonely. The idea is that the app summons a physical robot to walk into your life and becomes your best friend. The robot will be there for you until you don’t need the support anymore. The robot looks like a normal person and it would just feel like a normal friend you can meet in a bar. Another idea was a pair of earbuds that are  connected to your heartbeat and play music related to your exertion, in order to avoid stress.

Food for further thought

Using the cards during the workshop opened up a lot of possibilities for the participants to come up with ideas they would normally not consider. It opened up the minds of the participants. Thanks to the approach of the artists we were  able to reflect on how we use technology, and how we can possibly adjust our bodies to it in the future. If you would take this one step further, it is interesting to raise the question if  our bodies will become part of technology in the future. Some food for thought, let’s see what will happen!

This workshop was not the first time the artists hosted a Data Detox. They have also been shown their work during Dutch Design Week 2018.

(Written by Willeke Segers)