Lili Golmohammadi

Working Title: Loneliness and Digital Touch Communication Technologies

Contact: lili.golmohammadi.18@ucl.ac.uk

This study explores digital touch communication technologies and loneliness in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, a context of mass physical distancing, where ideas about touch, the digital, connection and wellbeing are brought sharply into focus.

Mapping L + T Gif
Figure 1: Participants mapped their experiences of loneliness and touch in a pilot workshop held at the Wellcome Collection in November 2019. The original research design of the PhD before the onset of Covid-19, centred on a broader study of the connections between loneliness and touch. It now focuses on the current pandemic as a critical case.  In this context, the kinds of experiences highlighted by participants may change. The workshops in the next stages of this study will take place online.

The social norms of touch – always in flux – have suddenly and significantly changed. People have been instructed to refrain from touching others, themselves and their environment outside of their homes – and many though not all fear to do so. With many populations socially distancing themselves in their homes, communication is heavily reliant on digital mediation.

While touch and tactile experiences are largely missing from day-to-day digital interactions, in the current environment where social touching is both prohibited and unavailable, there is a clear potential value to bringing touch to the realm of the digital. The physical, psychological and emotional benefits of touch for well-being and development are well-documented (Morrison, 2016; Field, 2014). Touch is a powerful form of non-verbal communication, and a highly effective means of conveying emotion, even between strangers (Hertenstein et al., 2009). In particular, it is the capacity to communicate our most intimate emotions and social support which makes touch so important for wellbeing (van Erp & Toet, 2015).

At present however, most commercial touch technologies are at an emergent stage. In relation to loneliness, commercial and speculative designers have largely framed digitally mediated touch as a kind of cure, yet these technologies and their relationship to loneliness have been little explored. A few loneliness studies feature touch (mostly from healthcare) or digital touch (mostly from Human Computer Interaction and Design, but these have largely taken place in medical or lab-bound contexts, where many of the social and bodily aspects of digital touch communication, touch and loneliness have been missing. This study aims to expand understanding in this area.

Touch and loneliness are important aspects of being human, which most of us are unused to exploring and articulating our experiences of. The Covid-19 pandemic may both heighten, and reconfigure expectations of the digital, touch and what it means to people to be lonely or connected.

Research Questions:

  1. What narratives of loneliness, digital touch and touch are differently envisioned and constructed between participants, the media, HCI, commercial design, and art and design?
  2. What insights can speculative and open-ended design methods provide on the role of touch and digital touch in personal narratives of loneliness?
  3. What dimensions of these narratives and experiences are key to inform socially aware future design and use of digital touch technologies in relation to loneliness?
  4. In times of physical distance, how do participants perceive current digital communication technologies in their experiences of loneliness and what role do they envision for future digital touch technologies?

 

Methodology:

Mapping L + T Event Signs Gif
Figure 2: Images from the pilot workshop, held at the Wellcome Collection in November 2019. Subsequent workshops will now be held online.

The original methodology for Part I of this study planned a series of three co-located participatory design workshops (building on a pilot workshop held in the Wellcome Collection Reading Room) along with the development of touch-centred cultural probes (creative take-home kits with accompanying ‘evocative tasks’). These workshops will now take place online, and will be interspersed with digital cultural probes. Probe tasks will be uploaded to a website, and will be designed to guide participants to explore ideas and experiences of loneliness, touch and the digital through the resources available to them in their own environments. This process will be conducted with three participant groups: (1) Young people aged 18-24 (not in study); (2) those new to working from home; and (3) people over 70 who are self-isolating.

Mapping L + T What does L mean to you Gif
Figure 3: Pilot workshop, Activity 1 – “What does loneliness mean to you?”
Mapping L + T Tactile Probes 2 gif
Figure 4. Tactile materials for thinking through and about touch, from the pilot workshop.

In Part II, a working touch technology will be deployed ‘in the wild’ amongst three participant pairs, over a two-month period. This will complement the more exploratory and speculative positioning of the online design workshops and probes, and will provide the study with another lens to explore how tactile technologies might work longitudinally in relation to loneliness, allowing engagement with questions such as: (1) whether the digital touch technology (re)shapes participants’ experience of loneliness in any way; (2) what the experience of having tactile technologies that offer communication is like; (3) whether engagement with the technology lasts beyond interest in it as a novelty; and (4) if and how it changes participants’ perceptions of the broader relationship between loneliness and digital communication technologies. Participants involved in this phase of the study will be provided with another small set of digital cultural probes, designed to record their interactions and reflections during the two-month period. They will be interviewed afterwards about their experiences.

Mapping L + T Tactile Probes 1 Gif
Figure 5. ‘Touchy vocab’, from the pilot workshop.

 

References:

Field, T. (2014) Touch. Second edition. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Hertenstein, M.J., Holmes, R., McCullough, M. and Keltner, D. (2009) ‘The communication of emotion via touch’. Emotion, 9 (4), pp.566–573.

Morrison, I. (2016). ‘Keep Calm and Cuddle on: Social Touch as a Stress Buffer’.

van Erp, J.B.F. and Toet, A. (2015). ‘Social Touch in Human–Computer Interaction’. Frontiers in Digital Humanities, 2.