Reflection on ‘Creating and Exploring Digital Empathy’ Symposium

Empathy, or rather the lack of it, is something that comes up in my research project regularly. Looking into assistive technologies for people with dementia with a focus on monitoring technologies, I consider that the rigidness and ‘invisibility’ to stand in the way of empathy. There technologies have been framed as dehumanising as they are used ‘on’ people with dementia rather than by them in an active and engaged way.

I therefore attended the ‘Creating and Exploring Digital Empathy’ event organsied by the CEDE study group, consisting of members of UCL Casa, University of Sheffield InstEAD and Lancaster University Speculative and Game Design. In various talks throughout the day, the connection between empathy and the digital world have been introduced, while prototypes and design concepts that came out of this project have been displayed for people to explore.

In “Digital Systems for community empathy” the speakers introduced a design prototype that allows visitors of a church to display a prayer publicly. The idea has been tested in two very different churches and design recommendations came out of it as well as insights how the ‘making public’ of formerly private prayers, could create empathic connections within the community. The project will be taken further by 5 “sets” than will be tested and displayed in other churches. What I found particularly interesting was the notion not only to design ‘with empathy’ but in a way that designs ‘for empathy’, giving users the oportunity to connect through the use of technology. This involves a step away from designing user-centered, but rather in a community-centered way. While the project has generally been considered quite interesting, some discussions during lunch questions whether introducing technology into something as personal as prayer is not a step too far and sign of an overly technological society.

In ‘Voight-Kampff: A machine from the future’ Paul Coulton introduced his speculuative design project with the question: How and why would you develop a machine that measures empathic responses today? Developed for the film BladeRunner, this machine was introduced to detect Cyborgs, which would not be considered useful in todays society. But developing a ‘Kickstarter’-style video, a design prototype and other forms of communication, the idea has been transformed into something that makes machines more empathic to our needs. Even though not functional, though believable, these objects pose questions about the way our technologies might interact with use in future and pose the question whether  users want to engage in this way. Design ficition in this way can pose questions about technology before they exist.

‘Out of the eye of the beholder’ was a more applied talk which dicussed how a similiar technique could be used for interrogation purposes. Understanding what someone is thinking even before he might by aware might be possible using ‘implicit Associations Tests’, physiological measurements and machine learning.

Looking into the relationship between Empathy and Economics, Philip Powell introduced four studies they have undertaken during this research project. Even though only proliminary results could be shown for some of them, the areas are nonetheless interesting. They looked into the determinants for digital empathy and found that different contexts and media evoke different kinds and levels of empathy of empathy. Being given biofeedback of ourselves or someone we play against can make a difference in who we interact in economic games.

In ‘Sensing and Communicating Emotions’ a range of different protypes have been introduced that do exactly as the title says. The speakers made the point that the new sensor technologies offer new ways of measuring empathic and emotional responses. Not only does it not rely on self-reporting, it also can be done less introsuce over a longer period of time. These prototypes can be used to pose social questions rather than answering questions.

In ‘Interaction Design and Empathy’ projects from agency Soda have been introduced which engaged people and invited people to share emotional context and evoke emotions in the viewers of the project.

Even though other definitions of empathy have been introduced during the day, the panel disussion focussed on empathy as making a connection between people as a working definition. Which sums up one of the points I take away from the day as really important: User-centered design may not be a good way to address empathy, but it rather needs a wider look into the whole network. The other thing I take away is that speculative design can break up arguments about technological determinism, but rather introduce alternative technologies and futures.





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