Lauren McCarthy and Kyle McDonald are artists who create tech-based projects exploring the possibilities of the near future. In the past, projects of theirs have hired Amazon’s Mechanical Turks to rate their dating life and built a bot that automatically tweets overheard conversations.
Their newest project, pplkpr, is an app that says it will optimize your social life by measuring your emotional response to hanging out with different people. To do this, pplkpr links up with a wristband that measures your heartbeat, such as the Mio wristband, or any other Bluetooth LE device that can transmit heart rate in real time. Using an algorithm to monitor the change in heartrate, the app will rank people in your life according to how happy, anxious or angry they make you, and can automatically text and tweet people it thinks you should hang out with more.
The video ad for pplkpr, on the top of their homepage, implies that the conditions in today’s world call for a new way to manage our relationships. Now that maintaining communication has become so effortless, through social media and other new technologies, our social circles are widening, and the number of relationships to attend to can be overwhelming. The ad presents pplkpr as a solution for managing our “emotional bandwidth,” optimizing our social lives to automatically spend more time with people who make us feel good.
McCarthy and McDonald performed a test run of the service on a group of students at Carnegie Mellon University. For one week, college freshmen used pplkpr to keep detailed records of their social interactions. In the resulting video, the students seem impressed and excited by the app’s possible uses. One young man enthusiastically describes the app giving him an excuse blow off people who stress him out. A woman notes that she was surprised to see how many people made her angry. “Maybe I shouldn’t hang out with Mark,” she says. “Maybe he’s kind of a dick.”
In their own video interview, McCarthy and McDonald muse about the future of software like pplkpr and its potential to do both harm and good for our interpersonal relationships. Though the artists’ app only stores data on your phone, ensuring your privacy, to succeed in the real market, an app like pplkpr would likely want to take advantage of that valuable information for marketing purposes, a disturbing idea when it pertains to something as intimate as our feelings about our closest friendships.
On the other hand, pplkpr isn’t so different than other methods some use to “optimize” their lives in beneficial ways. Psychologists have promoted biofeedback for decades as a way to be more in tune with our own emotions in different situations, and learn to control anxiety or anger.
It’s also possible to see a service like this benefitting those with autism spectrum disorders, who may have a hard time understanding their emotional reactions in social situations by themselves. It’s a give and take the artists seem to be acutely aware of. “While we’ve been working on pplkpr, sometimes it starts to look like a reminder of a potentially dystopian future,” McDonald says. McCarthy finished his sentence, adding, “But it could also seem like something very optimistic.”