Blog Post

Critical Design: Two Products That Test the Boundary Between Human Experience and Information Technology

Critical Design: Two Products That Test the Boundary Between Human Experience and Information Technology

“We are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs” 


Donna Haraway, A Cyborg Manifesto


Product #1: Digital Erection



   An iPhone case that becomes erect when the phone is notifying the user of an incoming message.   Click here to watch the advertisement


1.) iPhone case


2.) Flaccid phone case


3.) Erect phone case


   Our culture requires that we are always plugged in.  Our fervent need to be connected resembles our body’s need for nutrients.  The Digital Erection is an indicator of the constant flow of data to our body.  It represents the stimulant influence of that data and produces a mechanical effect that simulates a natural corporeal reaction.  It transforms our connectedness to the Internet into a new domain of human sense, creating of itself an appendage that imitates the characteristics of the pre-eminent male sexual organ.

   When users are notified of an incoming call, text message or email, they are typically anxious to act upon the notification.  This PDA case turns that notification into a visible warning that must be dealt with by “satisfying” the instrument (via the unlocking of the notification). That satisfaction extends also to the user whose persistent urge is to respond and stay connected.  In this way, the device promotes within the user a powerful association between its function and the fulfillment of the urge to connect. 

   How will continued use of this object change the user’s behavior online and off-line, or change perceptions of social media use?  If used over a long period of time, will people act differently towards the object and consider it a real penis?  Will the externalization of the pleasure effect ultimately cause the user to accept the PDA erection as a natural physiological condition? Will people subsume the object into their daily routine and think of it as a natural appendage?  And if the user considers it a natural appendage, will the user feel embarrassment as one does when one gets an erection?

   This is a critical designed object created to cause self-reflection and criticism of the increasingly narrow separation between natural human experiences and those leveraged by information technology.



   The Internet Digital Erection is a critique of our new relationship with our bodies as transformed by the intermediary of the information technology.  The Industrial Revolution provoked the social and cultural metaphor of the human being as a cog in a machine.  Digitization has also transformed how we consider the human body.  By virtually connecting ourselves to the massive web of data that circulates around us, are we further along the path to becoming cyborg? New technologies introduce devices that are so central to the way in which we perceive the world that they are quickly becoming part of our self-image as physical beings. The Digital Erection is a reflection of that change and an attempt to understand the process by which that transformation is taking place. Will this new body part make the user act differently or provoke reflection? 

   The Digital Erection critiques the phallus as a metaphor for power or social ego.  Will the user, male and female, acquire a phantom penis causing huge separation anxiety when the case is removed? Will the user be subject to the effects of handling and utilizing a penis?  For instance, will the female user feel male generative powers as Jacques Lacan describes in his The Significance of the Phallus?  What does this potential sexual transformation mean for the natural distinctions between the human sexes – will it heighten or diminish sexual differentiation? Will it confuse sexual identity?

   After extensive use, the iPhone case will become “built-in” to the user’s body.  Similar to the Turing test as discussed in Katherine Hayles’ piece “How We Became Post Human” and Judith Halberstam’s essay “Automating Gender,” the user may ultimately be unable to distinguish between an object that is foreign but symbiotically working with their body from a natural body part.  Technology that plays on gender behavior or physiological differentiation in this way may also make it increasingly likely that fixed sexual identity will be a thing of the past. One imagines that on average, users of cell phones, for example, engage those instruments more than their female/male reproductive organs.  The Digital Erection becomes more prominent in the user’s life than natural organs due to our necessity to stay connected.

   In her article, “Becoming Dragon: A Transversal Technology Study,” Micha Cardenas examines the concept of changing genders by suggesting that the digital world can prototype the typical feelings of genders and cause them to switch (what she calls “Second Life”).  The Digital Erection joins this discussion.  This wearable technology demonstrates experimentally how the user will interact with such an appendage.

   Why not create an iPhone case using a female reproductive organ?  I chose the male reproductive organ in order to have a more noticeable corporeal reaction.  The female physiological response to sexual arousal is less noticeable and has more than one reaction such as vaginal lubrication and enlargement of two separate areas of the genitals.  I am currently working on this design but it has required a lot more design consideration requires significantly more design innovation and subtlety.


The Ability to Customize:

   When utilizing the Digital Erection, the user is now linked to everyone else currently plugged in.  The user has no control.  For instance, if someone sends the user an email and the case is triggered, the users physical movement and train of thought are now disrupted.  The user is compelled to interact with the network/machine physically.  The only way to combat the rampant boners is to detach from the network.  But, such detachment has both social and increasingly physical ramifications. It provokes withdrawal symptoms. Reconnection becomes an urgent necessity and the instrument’s role as body part is enhanced.

   This project was inspired by Sputniko’s cybernetique penis.  This project is an electronic penis that the artist wore to test her emotions when wearing a penis.  The penis formed an erection when her heart rate went up and the opposite would occur when her heart rate went down, simulating the physical response of the male penis to normal changes in bodily functions.


Design Considerations:

   I have made specific design decisions in order to best represent this concept.  In its erect position, the shape recalls  the natural form of a diaphragm such as the Thoracic Diaphragm though rendered in precise geometries that reveal its artificial – i.e. man-made - origin.  Owing to this reference, the form is understandable to most humans both as an object and in relation to its operation.  The large size of the erect case insures that the user will feel the case as it applies pressure between outer garments and the body.  Its large and somewhat awkward size renders the ergonomics of an iPhone useless.  The user must now hold the phone in a new way. The silencing of the ringtone is also important since it diminishes the association between the object and technology foreign to the human body. 

   The phone case comes in different skin tone options.  It is important to acknowledge skin tones and user’s choice as a way of acknowledging what is perhaps the most obvious and yet inconsequential differentiating human traits.  This design choice is similar to what is available in most prosthetic designs.  


4.) Different variations of the phone case



   I used Solidworks to design the iPhone case.  I printed different iterations before I settled on one. .  I used a 3d printer to create the case.

5.) iPhone schematics


6.) Preliminary design for iPhone case reaction


7.) CAD rendering of the phone case flaccid


8.) CAD rendering of phone case erect


9.) Part of phone case

Next Step?:

   The next step would be to create an app that programs the iPhone case to ask the user which notifications or contacts to react to.  Certain notifications could result in different degrees of erection.  I would also reconsider the material being used.  Perhaps I should use leather in order to create a more skin like feeling.

   Looking beyond what current technology can easily provide, it is conceivable that the phone app could cause a reaction in the device stimulated by natural sexual arousal thus challenging further the boundary between technological and biological stimulation. One imagines possibilities beyond heterosexual or homosexual arousal but also the possibility of auto arousal in which the user provokes stimulation without an incoming digital alert but rather through some physical contact between the user and the device. All of these potential forms of interaction are suggestive of the ways technology has the potential to challenge biomorphosis through natural evolution. 



Product #2: Virtual Aggression: Argument Settler, an iPhone App



A website on which users post topical arguments based on false contrasts that do not offer a means of rationally agreeing or refuting with the premise. Instead, arguments will be won by demonstrating that the group in favor of one polarity outnumber the other – that is, by manpower. 


1.)  Main page of Argument Settler


2.)  Search fields to locate an argument


3.)  Webpage to create your own battle


4.)  Battle page


5.)  Statistics page


6.)  Application concepts


Discussions Started:

Argument Settler is set up like to game of tug-of-war.  Issues are brought up that have no “winning side.”  For instance, the user can create arguments such as WOMEN versus MEN, U.S.A. versus Russia and DEMOCRATS versus REPUBLICANS.  The programming will prevent arguments that permit evaluative thinking. Instead, it will solicit the opinions of visitors to the site, recording their vote as an additional person on a virtual tug-of-war team. The side with the most participants will eventually win.

This is similar to the way in which hostilities during the crusades were rationalized by beliefs that had no reasonable singular outcome.  Instead, “might is right.”  Argument Settler is a modern form of the crusades.

An important part of the game is the ability to donate money to one’s cause. Donations purchase clicks for the side of the recipient.  This questions the digital labor aspect of the game.  How much is the user’s “click” actually worth?  Should the user’s click be worth more or less than minimum wage?

What does this platform do for digital freedom?  Since clicking is such a menial task the user feels obligated to donate a few clicks to the cause they support.    

Discourse in our digital age has changed completely.  We discuss and argue on blogs, chat rooms, comment sections.  Each comment, post, opinion is typically available for very long periods if not indefinitely and can be viewed by anyone.  We have created a variety of slang languages in order to keep up with our new form of conversation.  Are rational arguments even possible in on the Internet now?  Argument Settler starts a discussion on these issues.  It discontinues the evaluative thinking of the users as they click essentially for bragging rights.



No comments