VIRTUAL PRESENCE: A cultural analysis of the emergence of 'telepresence technologies' as a solution to loneliness:
A Norwegian public health report from 2019 identified the prevention of loneliness as a key priority, calling for increased research. The Covid pandemic has further intensified the relevance of researching loneliness and social isolation in the context of communication technology and digitized meeting places.
VIRTUAL PRESENCE explores the cultural dialectic between technology and loneliness: how understandings of loneliness affect technologies created to solve the loneliness problem, while technologies in turn affect our understandings of loneliness.
VIRTUAL PRESENCE examines a broad range of loneliness technologies, with particular focus on AV1 and KOMP, developed by the Norwegian tech-company "No Isolation". AV1 is an avatar-robot for children who cannot attend school due to long-term illness. KOMP is a simple communication tool allowing "analog" seniors to receive messages and video calls from relatives and helpers.
Four sub-projects will:
• Explore how political authorities in Norway and the UK understand loneliness and the relationship between loneliness and technology, through discourse analyses of key documents and interviews with policy makers
• Investigate how technology manufacturers develop and market loneliness-reducing technology and understand loneliness as a problem, through interviews with and observations of employees in "No Isolation"
• Study how users utilize, experience and are influenced by loneliness-reducing technology, through interviews with and observation of users of AV1 and KOMP
• Combine knowledge from these sub-projects to develop a theory of the relationship between loneliness, technology and culture, theorizing the relationship between presence and absence
Loneliness is emerging as a significant challenge in contemporary society. Understanding loneliness as a complex interplay of culture and personal choices across social contexts is crucial to create adequate interventions related to this challenge. The majority of research on loneliness comes from the medical field, statistically demonstrating the health-related effects of being alone or isolated. However, there is a need to expand on this understanding and explore loneliness as a more complex social phenomenon.
To improve future interventions, VIRTUAL PRESENCE will provide a cultural analysis of how loneliness is perceived and represented in relation to the emerging phenomenon of loneliness technologies. Technology is especially interesting when we talk about loneliness because it is claimed to both alleviate the problem and worsen it. Specifically, VIRTUAL PRESENCE zooms in on two such loneliness technologies, AV1 and KOMP, developed by the Norwegian start-up company No Isolation. AV1 is a classroom robot for children who cannot attend school because of long-term illness, whereas KOMP is a communication tool for the elderly. By exploring these technologies through the perspectives of users, producers and policy makers, VIRTUAL PRESENCE will elaborate on the complex interrelationship between culture, loneliness and technology in digital society, aiming at enabling better solutions to contemporary problems of loneliness.
VIRTUAL PRESENCE will use a comprehensive triangulating approach, combining field interviews, participant observations and document analysis, and develop a novel theoretical framework for analysing loneliness and its technological solutions. Combining a range of cultural-analytical perspectives, the project will question fundamental assumptions about loneliness and technology in digital society, as well as offer revised understandings that are relevant to entrepreneurs, policy makers, educators and the broader public.