Way back in the primordial ooze called the 1990s, one of the many trends that swept the planet was that of the tiny pocket pet known as the Tamagotchi. For those of you unlucky enough to not have had a preteen in their household at the time, these gadgets were little eggs on a keychain with LCD screens, on which the life cycle of a tiny alien creature would play out and be influenced by the buttons you pressed to feed and play with them. They were very fun, if stressful, especially if your kid enlisted you to take care of it during the school day so it wouldn’t die because their teacher had banned them in class.
A team of scientists from the University of Chicago have pulled this once-trendy gizmo into the modern age, both technologically and morally. They have adapted the concept to a smartwatch run on a slime mold that the wearer has to feed and keep alive. This living organism/device symbiosis interrogates and complicates the dependent relationships people have with their smart devices.
“They created an enclosure attached to the smartwatch and placed a species of slime mold known as Physarum polycephalum inside it. To enjoy one of the key functions of the accessory – heart rate monitoring – they would need to keep the mold alive by feeding and caring for it.
Here is exactly how it works – the slime mold is placed in one side of the enclosure and as it is fed with a mixture of water and oats it grows to the other side of the enclosure forming an electrical circuit that activates the heart rate monitor function. If the mold is ignored, it goes dormant and the circuit is cut off.
Interestingly, users can forget about their pet slime mold for days, months, or even years, as it can be ‘revived’ by resuming care for it. But scientists wanted to know if simply knowing that there is a living, dormant organism in there affected people’s relationship with the gadget.”
The team engaged a group of five people to wear the smart watches for a two week period, and to write down their feelings about the devices while they fed the slime molds as normal for the first week, then deliberately starved them for the second. The participants reported feeling attachment for their watches, even going so far as naming them, as well as emotions like grief and guilt as the slime molds died.
While this particular watch will likely never be mass produced, we can apply these philosophical findings to the other devices we burn through in our ultra connected lives. Might we be more interested in conservation and re-use of resources if we fed—a nurturing act for our species— our laptops, phones, or watches? If we were more conscious of our use of them, since they would be in literal relationship to us, would that help with doom scrolling and other forms of device-based dissociation? Lots of interesting questions come up—definitely food for thought!