Artist Harriet Morley delves into her experiments with programmed communication, looping us in on an internal monologue about the complications that new modes of communication have introduced to human relationships.
The creative processes I find myself in take form through research and experiments. They’re necessary for me to produce work; necessary for informing my perspective so that I’m able to represent feelings of uncertainty with a kind of urgency, in a way that can be received. Experiments being: expressively talking into Google Translate and analysing its understanding; getting Alexa and Siri to converse; calling people up simultaneously for an (unwitting) conference call; texting people replies while they’re speaking next to me to test my restrictive feelings; conversing with people using Google Answers instead of my own thoughts. I wanted to apply this same approach to Tinder, after being away from my work for a time. It’s interesting to test out technology by using it in ways other than its prescribed function – by talking to it, analysing its interpretation of my words, how it registers/receives/perceives the way I approach language, how it hears my tone, what it does with what I’ve said. How it doesn’t understand the way in which I mean things, in any way. And why should it, I suppose. You can argue some people adopt these strategies irl too – misperception, lack of engagement, how some pretend to understand, or how they’re becoming less and less receptive to human elements. Or, perhaps introversion was always inevitable for some. I don’t have the answers; I’m just trying to unpick this stuff – the uncertainty, ambiguity, increasing physical distance.
I also find myself torn between recorded and live processes – between performing or playing something recorded (e.g. spoken word/conversations), knowing the recorded will do what I want it to, but knowing I can’t ignore the beauty in the unexpected nature of a live performance. I want for something to be lived presently, but I want to remember the feeling of that presence, so I inevitably record it, retrospectively removing myself from actually being present, instead creating something smaller and fragmented. The fragments become something minimised and framed in a digital pocket that we can return to, enlarge or remove, and momentarily re-live. And everything, to me, feels transitory and short-term. Short-term-letting of each other, moments, possessions, things feel disposable and replaceable with capitalist materials, apps, online intimacy, digital conversation, inhaling and exhaling currents of data, moving at a speed so fast we skim-read our way through moments.
I did performances in university with students where they asked me questions: I typed what they asked into Google and copy-pasted the first answer that came up into the Google Translate voice. I liked using this tool to converse; I never got bored of it. It was refreshing to have the weight of conversation alleviated from me because I didn’t have to carry it or worry about being interesting. The conversation that happened was disjointed but direct, it was random and every sentence was new; it was engaging. Once you start speaking in unconventional ways, the ‘normal’ elements of human conversation make themselves clear. I got Tinder in November after feeling lonely. I’d never had it before. Human window shopping for any potential similarities and trying to extract that from infinite option was fun… but overwhelming and so strange. The users never end. Swiping face after face, inspecting only their appearance with nothing else to go off; not being able to get any sense of who they could be, what type of humour they have, what their voice sounds like, how genuine they are, what type of laugh they have, if they’re self-conscious or bold, how they hold themselves. It’s pretty far-fetched to approach it with that expectancy, but it is literally so difficult to decide whether you’ll get on with someone just based on their 2D frozen appearance, and I think I just notice how much more I have got out of interactions that weren’t dating apps, the intricacies and layers to a personality, and hoping people don’t put too much wasted faith in these systems.
It’s a guessing game, and it feels like a gamble of my time. Putting my energy, momentarily, into disposable users who I’m not able to trust is a gamble of my time. Every interaction we have with someone is because of a shared experience, something that binds you together by place. So Tinder, naturally, feels obscure and forced and unnaturally placed. Tinder has limitations on connection, and maybe it’s exciting to experience fleeting moments of a displayed attraction but it is just that, fleeting. How do people translate themselves online? Like, how do you achieve a distinctive translation of your character? Is that important?
Intimacy and humour find new expressions in text, replacing speech and touch. We’re learning to read empathy and emotion through the composition of texts – every typed word becomes heavy with potential, intentionality – macro, fleeting love letters that disappear instead of lining your drawers.
After having it for a couple days I thought it would fill a void, or give me instant gratification, but I felt even further away from intimacy, and closer to loneliness. I realised I wanted familiarity, something I knew, but all this was so unfamiliar and brief. I felt so disposable. I initially just wanted sex, but after having it for a bit I realised I missed knowing someone. I don’t really like displaying the best version of me in 2D edited pics, but I feel the need to. I don’t like the pressure to live up to that, the worry of them not liking the intricacies about you that you’re conscious about. It’s so easy to create an ideal of someone through their online persona, and the pressure to get something valuable out of it is overbearing. Maybe I’m thinking too much into it, and the time is worth the embarrassment or failure, maybe not. All of this isn’t infallible, but my own subjective, personal experience of digital compatibility. I had more success with women on Tinder – the men were very transparent to me.
I really wanted to experiment again with Google Answers. This time I was deceiving them; they didn’t know I was Google. I felt guilty doing it, because of my false self, making them believe I thought they were attractive and then pretending to follow their conversation, even though everything about my profile was how I would usually present myself online. I also felt vulnerable and exposed as I had no filter on who I was matching, and I knew that I was more open to objectification. On top of this, I felt protected by my programmed façade. Because I’d programmed myself to be something other than myself, I was untouchable to them; because I wasn’t absorbing anything they said, their words didn’t matter to me. They could ask anything, insult or compliment me, and I wouldn’t be touched by any of it; I was inaccessible, shielded by Google.
Despite the guilt, I realised that I could speak any way I wanted to – why does it matter if it’s recycled, direct and unemotional language? Why did I feel momentarily disloyal to these strangers for programming myself? I don’t owe them anything and I’m not harassing or manipulating them – they started the conversation and were able to control where it went, just like I could. Some of them, I could tell, felt refreshed because it was completely different to the usual mundane small talk and it was something that threw them off guard, made them feel maybe a little on edge and confused but intrigued. Some knew it was something bot-related and went along with it; some knew it was something bot-related and exited quickly; and some didn’t have a clue. Conversing in this way feels exhilarating because it either makes you think really hard or not at all, because the content is there already, and the interaction is solely derived from the words’ experience rather than either of our personal experiences. So, instead of us talking about ourselves, we were forced to talk about what related to the words, while they were trying to figure me out and place me with the history of those words. They would either be relentlessly trying to work out what the fuck I was talking about, unpicking each sentence, or ignoring me entirely and saying what they wanted, like I was, like we were having our own separate conversations. It was interesting for me to test, because I was able to look at how Tinder operates without being there. Like, I felt removed from the situation, because I was Google. I’d only previously tried it with students or friends irl, so I felt compelled to do it with strangers online, because while everything else is stripped back, it limits it to just the exchange of topics and how they’re received and interpreted, I knew there’d be more willingness and urgency behind it.
I’m drawn to the shift in how human interaction and intimacy now operates, how that is sieved through online and into offline space and where the gaps are translucent in both. People fall in love online all the time – maybe there’s a beautiful freedom to accessing people you’ll never meet, and maybe it’s just nice to not have the constant strain of self-consciousness that is permeated in real life situations, and instead a space to curate yourself in a relaxed setting by your choice of language. I think those fleeting mini-relationships can be a cathartic saviour when distance is so strong in a society that separates us by exhaustive work hours and mental health. Maybe it depends on the person – it can be a destructive self-display where people are almost encouraged to be shallow and exploitative, but sometimes the relationships formed in the nowhere of the internet turn into the foundation for something real somewhere. It can be a beautiful platform to discover people who are exactly like you who you’re unable to access in your day-to-day life. These new forms of communication are changing how we relate to each other, and it’s exciting to poke and prod at the alien possibilities and the foreign digital languages we are writing collectively.