I’ll be the first to admit I’m quite a needy person, but even I am freaked out by the ‘Like-A-Hug’ vest, invented by art student Melissa Kit Chow. I’m also a little bit disappointed that it’ll be back to the drawing board for my submission to the British Invention Show: I’ve been discussing the gap in the market that the ‘Like-A-Hug’ tries to fill for years with friends and family who live far away.
The Like-A-Hug vest is not just a padded gilet, it’s a Melissa Kit Chow padded gilet. Which means it’s interactive. Yes, that’s right- scarily, interactive clothes have happened. And no, this is not a costume for an upcoming Hollywood version of ‘1984’. Here’s how it works: you walk around wearing one of these fairly unflattering vests, ensuring of course that you are connected to some form of device at all times (this seems to be a standard requirement for most of us ‘young people’, which, I can tell you, is quite a pressure); whenever (or perhaps if ever) somebody likes something on your Facebook page, the vest inflates to make you feel like you’re getting a hug from that person.
Although it would be disconcerting to walk past someone whose jacket inflated spontaneously (although it would probably be great news for all those glossy magazines that make a mint out of publishing photos of slebs who have supposedly got a podgier tummy than they did last week) I can sort of see why this is a good idea. Since leaving a comment on Facebook is just not the same as being in the room with your friend, so any step towards teletransportation is sort of a step forward. But frankly (and sorry to go all serious and philosophical about an art project) I think it proves we’re becoming increasingly insecure and needy.
Social media means that we never have to feel like we’re alone. We can be physically alone, yet engaged in virtual conversation with as many friends as are online, so we kid ourselves into thinking that we’re not really alone. The constant contact this allows us seems to be making us less able to cope with normal levels of solitude. I don’t even know what a normal level of solitude is anymore: if I spend any time alone I worry constantly that the rest of the world is having a massive party without me. Which they probably are, come to think of it.
Do we really need to have a physical sign that shows somebody else values us? As a child I always half-wished that I could read people’s minds so I knew whether or not they liked me. The ‘Like-A-Hug’ vest comes close to this, but has the added bonus of allowing the wearer to parade smugly in front of everyone else proclaiming in fully inflated glory that somebody likes them. It seems it isn’t enough to feel internally satisfied and now we have to share even our relationships with the rest of the world. I always used to end up deciding that actually I wouldn’t like to be able to read people’s minds, since then you’d have to know if they didn’t like you. Similarly, walking down a street where everyone else but you is inflated would be a humiliating experience. Social hierarchies could easily be organised around who was inflated most often.
Science fiction is somewhat obsessed with the idea that in the future we will no longer have any human contact, thus ensuring we always operate at 100% efficiency and have no distracting friends to limit our output. If we all wore ‘Like-A-Hug’ vests, this nightmare could become a reality. We could save time on real human contact by sending virtual hugs. Perhaps Melissa Kit Chow should talk to geneticists about developing a pair of trousers that allow immaculate conceptions to occur daily via the internet.
Now, I like to multi-task as much as the next person, but I don’t think relationships should be viewed as organised affairs that can fit conveniently into my timetable thanks to labour saving technologies like Facebook. The reaction to the McNulty report at least gives some hope: there was outcry at the report’s suggestion that Britain’s rail system could operate more efficiently if hundreds of staffed ticket offices were replaced by machines. Representatives of the industry had to issue public reassurances that there would still be some humans in train stations. It seems that at the grass-roots level we do still value our fellow Man, despite managerial attempts to persuade us otherwise. French steelworkers protesting against their boss’ plans to close the factory they work in should take comfort from the knowledge that outside consultancy firms, we’re all rooting for humans rather than machines.