Go ahead, hug yourself

Latest in science: a jacket that is “wearable extension to your social media existence”

sureshmenon

Suresh Menon | November 8, 2012



Only connect, said EM Forster; he might just as easily have said ‘only communicate’ (or for that matter ‘only one at a time’, but that need not detain us here). Where was I? Ah yes. Only connect, or communicate.

People connect (and communicate) in different ways. Haven’t we all got friends who give the impression that if you tied their hands up they wouldn’t be able to communicate, so action-packed is their conversation? Or the reverse type – those who remain poker-faced and immobile leaving us to wonder if they got the joke at all, or were simply meditating in the middle of a conversation?

But that was years ago. When FB was ‘food and beverages’ and internet was the space between mosquito nets in a school dormitory. Now it is all social media and fallouts thereof.

Aha! So you thought social media was for social misfits who wouldn’t know a warm handshake if they received one or indeed how to communicate with other human beings if you took away their cell phones? You thought sitting for long hours before a computer screen hitting stuff like ‘like’, ‘defriend’, smiley and frownie might cut you off from humanity?

It is a genuine worry, but have no fear, MIT is here. And if you want to show how much you appreciate what some of its students have done, they will send you a jacket. Wear it, and you can hug yourself. That is not a euphemism for something that sounds nearly the same, it is literally true. For this “wearable extension to your social media existence” translates every virtual Facebook ‘like’ into an actual hug. Must be true because I read it in the papers.

I started my social career as an ignorer, then became a  handshaker, before converting to a ‘namaste’ giver ahead of evolving into a hugger and pecker of cheeks. I have friends who travelled in the opposite direction, reducing all body contact and going from huggers to those who hold up placards saying ‘Hello’. Or ‘I am not here.’

But just like you cannot clap with one hand, you cannot hug without at least two people being involved, known respectively as the hugger and the huggee. So if the hugger gets his jacket-inspired hug how does the party of the first part get his? The students thought of that and came up with the deflating jacket which when squeezed sends the hug back. A modern version of Elvis Presley’s ‘Return to Sender’.

Long-distance relationships are set to blossom – or at least that is what commentators hope, although if someone sent me a message and I ran upstairs to put on the jacket and picked the wrong one and realised it wasn’t hugging me, blossoming is the last thing my relationship with anyone would do. Still. Long-distance relationships are set to blossom, and if it doesn’t you can always say ‘Hug it’ (this time the expression is a substitute for something that sounds like it) and carry on.

But it’s not as simple as all that. First of all, what clothes do you wear to prepare for the dreaded ‘defriend’? A pair of trousers that kicks you? A tie that strangles you and causes suspicion to fall on the landlord who has been harassing you for a higher rent? What about a bedsheet that wraps around your neck and goes in search of the nearest ceiling fan? Ah! The wonders of science.

For every attic in the scheme of human achievement, there must be a basement too, as Forster might have said had he thought of it.

As regular readers of this column (yes, both of you) will know, one of its stated purposes is to point out the trends that might lead to computers taking over the world. If the jacket works, then the taking over would be achieved without a shot fired in anger. With computers keeping human beings further and further apart with offers of virtual hugs and handshakes, long distance might seem the attractive alternative to living together.

You can hug without touching, and soon doubtless you will be able to make virtual love without being in the same room.

And that is how computers will ensure there is no next generation of humans. Wear that fancy jacket at your peril. If you want to show appreciation, hug a tree instead.

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