Bodily contact from afar

Like-A-Hug sketch from designer Melissa Kit Chow

The Internet has been abuzz in the last couple days about this social media vest, though some have taken it as more technological and less artistic than the original intent.  PC Magazine has a good summary:

Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a vest that lets Facebook users hug each other, from any distance.

The fashionable technology, dubbed Like-A-Hug vest, is being touted as “wearable social media” – it inflates to embrace wearers whenever Facebook friends “Like” items they post on the network, according to the website of designer Melissa Chow.

She worked with Andy Payne and Phil Seaton at the MIT Media Lab to build the puffy black vests, which, according to Chow’s website, allows the wearer to “feel the warmth, encouragement, support, or love that we feel when we receive hugs.”

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about virtual embodiment lately and don’t want to write my capstone paper here on the blog, but consider this for a moment. There are a lot of reasons why someone may not be in physical proximity with those who could supply a needed hug.  Is the tactile sensation of “warmth, encouragement, support, or love” important? Could a product of this sort be therapeutic? I can’t help thinking of Harlow’s monkeys or Temple Grandin’s squeeze machine.

What does it mean when a machine takes the place of human contact?

Pardon my romp into the theoretical, however: if I could Like my friend’s Facebook post and know that she’s gotten a “hug”, would I be less inclined to follow through with other supportive friendship behaviors, like holding a conversation or spending time face-to-face (if possible)?  Perhaps it would be like slacktivism, where one can feel accomplished and involved by hitting a button or sharing a video.

On the other hand, maybe it would be a way to extend physical relationships and transcend space as a supplement rather than a replacement. A Facebook Like as the trigger for a hug might be too facile, but personally, I see the value in intentionally delivering a sensation of comfort and affection at a distance.  During times of isolation or loneliness, the pain of not being touched can spread from the emotional into the physical; could a mechanical hug from a remote friend dull that ache?  There might be value for an implementation in patient care or for people with autistic spectrum disorders; not quite the disconnected technology of the squeeze machine, but a hug that has an autonomous, caring human being — albeit not skin-to-skin — as the initiator.

In a world where methods to deliver and accept remote mechanical hugs were ubiquitous, how long would it take before biopolitics came into play?  It seems likely that mores of acceptable hug timing and the ability to block hugs or only accept hugs from certain friends would emerge quickly — that would be no different than texting and wouldn’t imply that the hugs were an extension of the body.  However, would prisoners be allowed to receive and/or send hugs, or would allowing pseudo-physical contact be seen as an indulgence for the incarcerated?  Would some classes of ex-convict be banned from virtual hugs for life, as we already severely limit the rights of sex offenders in many areas?

Humans being what we are, there are already sexual devices that can be controlled remotely by a partner (for one slightly NSFW example, there’s this USB adult toy that to a limited degree replicates in the real world what is happening in Second Life… and no, I’ve never met anyone who has tried this, I’ve just seen it in the store).  And of course, to close with a bit of humor after all those hypotheticals, we can’t overlook Howard’s Kissing Machine.

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