Spooky Technology

Week 2: Diving In And Framing Questions

To start Week 2, we took the zoom chat window to respond to prompts posed by what I suppose could have been a chatbot, but we have reason to believe was Daragh. Prompts like …

“This week, I looked at …”

“My case study revealed …”

“One obstacle I encountered is…”

“One thing I’d like to examine more is …”

And,

“To me, spooky tech is…”

Allowed each of us to reflect on, and respond to, our initial forays into whatever worlds we considered “spooky tech”. Though the fullness of the chat window was lost to the digital ether after ‘end call’ preceded ‘save chat’, the prompts set the tone for rich discussion. In this spirit, Week 2 was much more about raising questions and identifying places to focus future discussions than it was about finding answers.

Our original share-back was, fittingly, about a chat bot. This chatbot, however, was not an amalgamation of scrapped twitter and reddit posts; rather an individual reconstructed and simulated via their private conversation and digital legacy (see more here: ). Immediately, questions started popping up. Was this an invasion of this person’s privacy? What can or should consent look like? Is this virtual being a helpful tool for grieving? And on a more existential level… what does this say about existence and the afterlife?! To begin to take on some of these questions, we had to ask ourselves what angles we wanted to frame the cases with, and further ask…

What is Spooky?

Can we define spooky tech at all, and perhaps more importantly – should we try to define it? This came up a few times, as we talked through challenges, many of us found ourselves wondering if what we had found was ‘spooky enough’ or spooky in the right ways. Daragh proposed poking at the edges of spookiness for next week, trying to find some examples that may not be immediately paranormally inclined as a way to tease out what aspects of the case studies felt relevant. Are there elements we can point to that seem to land something in the realm of spooky? We floated ideas: a loss of agency, the uncanny valley, ubiquity of the Internet of Things. Recognizing a far from simple answer, we began to explore the richly multidimensional nature of the topic.

On the Many Dimensions of Spooky (and Tech)

To begin: Where to begin? Do we want to jump into fictitious lands and pull examples from sci-fi authors? How about different hypothetical or speculative realms of other forms of media / research? Are we opening an impossible pandora’s box by biting off such a range or are we missing out on some wonderful examples if we avoid the territory? Do we want to create primarily an inventory or allow more space for personal analysis? Regardless, there are a host of dimensions to explore, made immediately apparent from looking at just one case study. There are always the ethics of a technology: who is being affected, and how? Relatedly are questions of profit, privacy, and consent. There are the sociopolitics that allow for the emergence of both new technologies and spiritual inclinations. Then on a more purely functional level, there are new technological affordances themselves. Advancements give greater room to explore celestial territories, while potentially granting more agency to the ghosts in the machine. There is the role of the story, and of pure phenomenological experience. There is a need for historical grounding. Because after all…

What’s spooky to me might not be spooky to my neighbor

As technology is domesticated and normalized it tends to lose its once ‘spooky’ sensations. We asked: at what point did we become comfortable with the idea that our phones were following us? And what technology preceded phone tracking to ease us into the idea with a lesser feeling of discomfort - perhaps the GPS? Zoom, too, presents an excellent example. For many, the video chat has become a totally natural part of the day to day; for others, virtual, floating heads remain somewhat disconcerting. We proposed some sort of timeline for the cases we want to look at, perhaps contextualized with a few notable technical achievements as a way to approach incongruencies in what people might find ‘spooky’ today. Further, we proposed the idea of “first encounters,” asking people to share initial experiences with a variety of technologies.

Then of course, there’s the question of tying it all together, how do we organize and systematize? How can we develop a cohesive voice? And what will the aesthetic of spooky be? We ended the discussion by heading into breakout rooms to look more closely at each other’s work; see the dimensions we were highlighting, where there were overlaps, where we may have taken a different approach. In this way we started to work towards a certain consistency and identify themes to explore in greater detail. For now, I think it’s safe to say we have a wonderful breadth to our approach, and are surfacing similar questions. I don’t want to speak for everyone, but I’m certainly looking forward to seeing what shape the project takes in the coming weeks.