Pagophilus – or “the Virtual Guilt Machine” (as coined by my household) – inquires into humans’ relationships with technology.
Named after, and taking the guise of, the harp seal, Pagophilus actualises the separation anxiety humans can feel when stepping away from their technology. In the form of a cute seal.
Pagophilus actualises the separation anxiety humans can feel when stepping away from their technology. Once paired with the Pagophilus, the program tracks as you physically move away from it, responding with cries as you move beyond its reach.
This invisible technological tether is realised using a Bluetooth connection between the computer system and a smartphone. As we – carrying our mobile phone – move away from the computer running Pagophilus, the computer responds with increasingly sad and desperate whines.
By depicting the separation in technology as that of between a pup and its mother, Pagophilus creates a heavy-handed metaphor for our own dependency on technology.
However, there are two ironies inherent in Pagophilus, created to make the work a conversation surrounding our relationship with the digital world, and not merely a commentary. The first is that the separation from technology is depicted through the movement of our most permanent digital companion – the mobile phone – from a stationary computer – a representation of a simpler, less connected time.
What does this on-going transition from set “computing spaces” to an ever-connected self mean? Will a movement towards completely integrated technology ensure that we truly become “untethered”, as ourselves and technology merge into one without conflict? Or will we see a deeper dependence on our gadgets, and an alienation from the self?
The other irony is that the Pagophilus groenlandicus is notorious in the animal kingdom for having the shortest nursing period of any mammal, typically around 12 days.
Making Pagophilus wasn’t easy – not least because it’s such an annoying program to test. The reward for getting it right was a nagging, bleating computer, while trialing the Bluetooth detection involved spreading myself as far away from the computer as possible. I can only apologise to my loved ones, who had to put up with the noise of testing well past the witching hour.
I can only apologise to my loved ones, who put up with the noise
Pagophilus mostly uses the Bluetooth addon for OpenFrameworks, with a few edits to the addon itself and some coding around it. Specifically, to avoid the built-in Bluetooth connection time-out after 60 seconds, the addon has been rewritten to immediately reconnect after it disconnects. Without this, the truly nagging feeling from the pup would go unrealised.
Other notable issues included finding the correct balance in distance. Too far and the crying seal would not appear before the connection dropped. Too close and the effect would be broken.
Calculating when to make the change between videos was also difficult. It needed to rely on distance (obviously), but also time. Originally, the program shifted between states as often as the Bluetooth signal fluctuated. This meant minute fluctuations, or standing on the edge of two zones, could have caused the program to flip back and fourth between two videos.
Sound also played an important role. It was near impossible to find a video of a seal bleating without the associated noise of the arctic winds. Therefore that noise had to be overlaid on all the videos to create a consistency between them. However, the noise level deliberately increases as the user moves further away, both to allow them to continue hearing, and also to better reflect the drama and stress of the digital seal.
There were four motivations behind creating Pagophilus, each with varying weights of importance. First, a thematic interest in how humans related to technology, and how technology relates to us, has always been at the forefront of my work. This topic is an obvious match for Pagophilus.
The second and third come from two major symbols in my life. One was the recent premature death of my cousin, who leaves behind both devastated parents and two young children. While it goes without saying that the tragedy of that situation could in no way be matched by Pagophilus, the affect of separation and the importance of maternal and filial bonds were clearly present in my mind.
Maximus the cat, post-eye surgery
The other symbol was of my cat, Maximus, who is a notorious complainer. He is incessant in his conversation with humans, and persistent. He must form the inspiration for the vocal seal presented in the most separated stage of Pagophilus. I believe that my concerns for not adhering to his needs, despite his attempts to communicate, can be related to a human’s desire to fill the demands of online participation, the need to share, socialise, consume.
Finally, the fourth point was technological. I wanted to try something new to myself, and newer to the area. Projects involving Bluetooth distance-based detection are rarer than some of the other ideas I might have wanted to explore, so it was a natural fit.