Social Clinic prints out diagnoses for social ailments and corresponding prescriptions (all photos courtesy Social Clinic unless otherwise noted)

How much time would you say you spend on your phone each day? How frequently do you post updates to your social media accounts? How much do the unread notifications on your phone bother you?

These are the questions “Social Clinic” asks you before its doctors diagnose you with a 21st-century social ailment and prescribe a treatment intended to improve your in-person social skills. An installation created by interactive designers Chang Liu, Oryan Inbar, and Ava Huang, the clinic also uses facial recognition technology to detect people’s emotions and determine how sociable they are. The trio initially premiered the project at Babycastles in May and this Saturday will set up a booth at the Internet Yami-Ichi, a one-day-only flea market occurring in Brooklyn’s Knockdown Center that celebrates art and the internet.

The Social Clinic setup (click to enlarge)

The “Social Clinic” setup (click to enlarge)

“We all have some social issues, whether it’s using the phone too much or taking too many selfies or social awkwardness,” Liu told Hyperallergic. “So we’re trying to make something that draws people’s attention to the fact that they are a kind of patient and diagnose their potential social symptoms.”

After participants fill out a short survey about their social media habits and attitudes towards communication through devices, they have their photo taken with the “Face Ray,” a photo booth that measures emotion through facial recognition software. An algorithm records an individual’s levels of anger, sadness, surprise, and happiness, and combines the results with the survey responses; a printer then spits out a diagnosis and prescription. Treat “Social Awkwardness,” for example, by talking to a stranger in the vicinity; cure “Selfie Syndrome” by complimenting the person next to you. Those with “Notification OCD” will have to turn off their push notifications, and anyone guilty of “Phubbing” — “snubbing someone in favor of a mobile phone” — has to turn off his or her phone for at least 10 minutes.

“We got very interesting feedback from the previous show,” Liu said. “People would give us confirmation about their symptoms or would say things like, ‘I am very addicted to my social media.’ The interesting part is we give people an opportunity to have real-time interaction, an engaging activity that is a kind of medicine.”

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(screenshot by the author)

Although a simple concept with a brief process, “Social Clinic” brings up serious questions regarding facial recognition technology, which is ubiquitous today: from Facebook’s photo-tagging software to security systems in airports to even ATM cameras, machines all around receive our personal information through simple visual cues. Even if “Social Clinic”‘s diagnoses and prescriptions are made up, the “Face Ray” still captures our features and gathers biometric data from one snapshot, suggesting that a machine does not need much information at all to read our human emotions. It also speaks to how comfortable people are with relinquishing personal data — how readily we allow strange contraptions to scan our bodies for our unique information.

Many artists have responded to this potential threat to privacy and personal data that such technology introduces: Zach Blas’ 2013 “Facial Weaponization Suite,” for example, offers shields against biometric facial recognition through distorted masks that machines cannot identify as human and consequently cannot interpret. For his “URME Surveillance” project, Leo Selvaggio created photorealistic masks of his own face for the public to wear to thwart surveillance systems. Social Clinic incorporates the tools of such systems rather than countering them, and — even as a playful installation — demonstrates how easily our unique features may be reduced to telling datasets if we allow it.

Internet Yami-Ichi will take place at the Knockdown Center (52–19 Flushing Ave, Maspeth, Queens) on September 12, 12–8pm. 

Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE,...