Written by Jon Christian. Originally published on Vice Motherboard.
Electrodes that attach to your skull to evaluate your compatibility with a potential mate. A personal drone that hovers nearby and shines a spotlight on your wedding band (in “flaunt mode,” it circles your ring finger using “twelve dramatic flyover techniques”). A smart home system that encourages closeness by rationing out internet access and drinking water depending on how much intimate time you’ve spent with your partner.
Those are a few of the ideas at “Love, Optimized,” a new exhibit at the MIT Keller Gallery in Cambridge, Mass, [part of “The Contingent Space of Work,” curated by Nisa Ari and Christianna Bonin.] The show, which feels like a cross between a Rube Goldberg diagram and a Harlan Ellison hellscape, explores potential future technologies that might come to mediate sex and romance—with a touch of whimsy and dread.
“How involved do we want corporations and technologies to be in our intimate lives?” asked “Love, Optimized” co-creator Shelly Ronen, as she made some final adjustments to the installation about an hour before the opening reception. “This is a vision of what could be if we really opened the floodgates and gave our lives over.”
“Love, Optimized” is the latest creation of Object Solutions, a satirical design consultancy that imagines fictional technologies that skewer consumerism and the technology industry. The show consists of large conceptual diagrams of the fictional romantic technologies—“TouchTrainer,” a sort of navigation system for sexual activity, is represented by two naked forms, each of which has been demarcated by Google Maps-style pin drops—accompanied by audio presentations in which Object Solutions founder Ernesto Morales plays the role of a salesman making a pitch and Ronen acts as a scientific consultant who makes a sociological case for each concept.
Like previous Object Solutions projects—memorable examples include a body-size moist towelette, a clothes dryer that uses leftover lint to produce new garments and a set of pajamas that slowly wakes you up using escalating electric shocks—the central conceit of the “Love, Optimized” show is that of imagining draconian solutions to trivial, or nonexistent, problems. The effect is something like an episode of “Black Mirror.”
“I create fictional products to reimagine our everyday world and consider whether consumer products are the desirable next steps,” Object Solutions founder Ernesto Morales told Motherboard in 2014. “I create imposed narratives that function much like advertising does: you are the hero of your own consumer story, and this product is your main supporting character.”
If you slammed your finger in a door latch, Morales said, Object Solutions wouldn’t propose a latch; he’d suggest special protective gloves for you to wear every time you walk through the door. In “Love, Optimized” he and Ronen bring the same lens to sex and dating—an already-stressful world that, of course, is already mediated by technology from Tinder to sex toys to the birth control pill.
Morales and Ronen met when they worked together at a design studio about five years ago. When Ronen moved on to academia—she’s currently a PhD candidate at New York University, where she’s working on a dissertation about sex technologies—the two started to talk about a collaboration under the banner of Object Solutions.
The pair start by creating lists of “problems” to which they then devise outrageous solutions. For the MIT show, they whittled the list down to four; Ronen estimates, though, that the collaboration resulted in 25 concepts that may eventually see the light of day.
“We wanted to push what’s possible right now to the very limits, to see what would fall out,” Ronen said, “either as a way of predicting the future, or also a way of provoking people to think about what kind of future they want to see.”