Unable to Establish a Connection – Interpreting Empathy within the Interface

Angel Callander

Within contemporary fields of visual culture and aesthetics, much attention has been given to the interface of Human Computer Interaction. With respect to glitch and error aesthetics, this implies the notion that the user cannot fully rely on the machine to behave perfectly. Early 90s Net.art projects, such as JODI’s404.jodi.org, generate socio-technological situations in which the user cannot exploit a system, to the point where the computer is overloaded and ceases to respond; the system does not work for the user. Being able to impose our own limits on the machine’s behavior is very important to us, which is why interface vocabularies so closely resemble our own: cut, paste, sleep, execute, ignore, fail, panic.

My purpose for this paper is to investigate contemporary Internet projects that examine a particular glitch in the relationship between human and machine, focusing on the schism that occurs when neither can seem to understand each other. The interface becomes a stage on which the “default communiqués of the networked world” demonstrate the principal way technological devices differ from human beings; the issue is one of logic versus emotion. By only following the logic of what it has been programmed to do and say, the machine fails to grapple with the existential impact of its words on the user.

Stating via algorithmic input, “0 people like you!” and “Are you sure you want to do this?”, a silent tragedy develops from the indifferent phrases of the machine that emulate commonly understood vocabularies of social management with acute consequences in our human lives. The rigid and practical articulations of warning, failure, interrogation, and complication in the realm of interactivity come off as very doleful in the realm of human experience. They are meant to be a part of the various technological interfaces, but can easily be read as a commentary on corporeal existence. Whereas visual glitch art produces images that are celebrated because they look wrong, these projects refer to texts on the screen with inherent empathy gaps, which feel wrong.

Through the lens of philosophical, art, and media theory, I believe these projects can be viewed as exemplifying new perspectives on concepts of the abhuman, post-digital communication, and post-human experience at the point where human identity is questioned by the interface. The appropriating of a human existential experience creates a new vantage point for considering Human Computer Interaction.

The post-digital, at its core, is an outlook that privileges being human over “being digital.” Engaging with this concept is defined by a focus on humanising the digital. Taking notice of the ways in which computers speak to us accentuates the importance of communication. The discord that occurs when hard- and/or software comes between the programmer and the user is what relays to us that a program encountered “too many arguments,” and all we can do is click OK. On our end, we identify this as a cause for reclusion, withdrawal, ‘shut down’- we determine our own aesthetic of despondence for the interface dialogue, while the machine perceives absolutely nothing at all. We decide whether to read these communications as sad, humorous, or the point at which the machine becomes other, the “not-quite-human subject.”


Angel Callander is currently an independent researcher from Canada living in Berlin. She recently completed her Bachelor’s degree in Art History, with a focus on cybernetics, technological failure as artistic tactic, and the ways in which the Internet is changing the course of art historical studies. She has presented her work for undergraduate conferences, as well as for the Canadian Association of Cultural Studies, and sits on the Board of Directors for Ed Video Media Arts Centre in Ontario, Canada.