IMPAKT’s 2014 festival “Soft Machines” explores the intersection of affect and machines, taking the concept of empathy as both its content and form. Here, technology adopts the ethical and emotional burdens of humans and our own emotional world is reshaped by the demands of technology. Machines turned soft, and soft flesh codified into machines. In turn, this crossing of paths defines the structure of the festival itself: an interdisciplinary moment for visual artists, scientists, scholars, and musicians to come together and share with each other and the public.
From this comes a new diagram for understanding how technology changes our lives: not the straight line of “progress” but the figure of the X, describing both a convergence and a short-circuit, equal promises of exchange and confrontation.
Thought much of the work of artificial empathy still lies in the future, we already know that there is no single kind of affective bridge being built between humans and technology and that their emerging forms are both stranger and more pervasive than we expected.
And so as much as “Soft Machines” necessarily points towards work not yet done or only just begun, speculations on the future are also crossed, challenged by a critical line that moves in the opposite direction through the present and the past; the field’s early moments full of ethical problems, disappointments, and outright failures become opportunities for revealing our own aspirations, fears, and ideologies.
In this way, by moving towards an understanding of what it means for a machine to feel, we find ourselves doubled-back upon the course of self-understanding instead, borne by the route of the X back to a redefined sense of what it means to feel human.