Lili Golmohammadi

Working Title: Loneliness and Digital Touch Communication Technologies

I am currently in the exploratory stages of the first year of my PhD, familiarising myself with the literature to date on the areas of loneliness, touch and digital communication technologies. In order to consolidate my focus, I have been mapping these at different levels – exploring some of the ways they have been conceptualised and researched, both as separate topics and in relation to each other. Although much has been said about each individually, research connecting the three is still rare.

One of my starting points has been to unpack recent media discourses that suggest we are experiencing an exceptionally high level of loneliness in the UK, as reflected in headlines warning of a ‘loneliness epidemic’, ‘crisis of loneliness’ and ‘Age of Loneliness’, along with suggestions in some academic literature of a new form of contemporary loneliness. The initial stages of my research are about trying to understand these discourses and why they are happening now.

Loneliness Crisis
Figure 1: Headline from the Guardian reporting the ‘loneliness crisis’ (2018).
Crisis of Touch - Guardian
Figure 2: Another Guardian article reports on a ‘crisis of touch’ and argues this may be a contributing factor to higher loneliness levels.

 

Some of my working research questions at this stage include:

  • How is this emerging loneliness ‘epidemic’ or new form of contemporary loneliness being formed /constructed? What moral discourses are being realised?
  • How are digital communication technologies and touch positioned in these discourses, and why are they being positioned in this way now?

A common example that speaks to the second question can be found in concerns regarding our increasing engagement with digital technologies. These argue that technology is making us lonelier; that we touch each other less at the same time that we touch our technologies more. I am interested in unpacking these ideas and asking how the introduction of digital touch technologies might alter this interactional landscape (and related concerns) further.

Leading on from the above, I am exploring the relationships between touch and loneliness, unpacking the connected discourses of too-little touch – touch being reduced in our day to day lives as it becomes subject to new forms of social and institutional regulations, in turn impacting on existing and new forms of professional touch. I am also looking at contexts and spaces where there are more extreme examples of tactile deprivation, for example in certain health care settings, asking what the place of touch might be in alleviating the experience of loneliness and what forms of touch might be most effective if so. Here, I am asking questions around tactile loneliness and what this really means.

‘Anti-loneliness’ tech design

Following on from the above, I am also investigating the concept of ‘anti loneliness’ technology design, interrogating system and product interventions used in studies of loneliness and its alleviation.

My working questions here are:

  • What digital / digital touch technologies have been used in studies on alleviating loneliness?
  • How do they impact on experiences of loneliness? How do they function and how do they change interactions?
  • Which contexts and groups are positioned by digital design as being lonely? How does this create a market for loneliness, ameliorable via digital intervention?
  • How do certain technologies and their affordances mediate and ‘speak’ to loneliness? (E.g. VR; presence/absence, immersion, embodiment?). Where is touch in this?
  • How do existing digital touch technologies in these studies filter (regulate, govern and discipline) touch in contexts of loneliness? How might they impact on longer-term touch practices?

At this early stage, I am still to develop my methodology, however I envisage participatory design workshops will form part of my process.

Further updates coming soon…