Before anyone gets excited (or angry), there aren’t going to be smartwatches powered by slime available for purchase any time soon. What’s actually happened is that researchers from the University of Chicago created a watch powered by slime to challenge our perceptions of tech and perhaps combat electronic waste. Electronic waste is simply what happens when we toss out or replace our tech (like smartphones) and is the fastest-growing category of waste, with 40 million tonnes generated each year. So researchers, Jasmine Lu and Pedro Lopes, wondered if they could change our relationship with tech.
To do this, they used an “electrically conductive single-cell organism known as ‘slime mold.’” This means that the watch will only work if the slime is kept healthy, requiring the wearer to provide food and care, in this case a mixture of oats and water. The slime expands and completes a circuit when it’s healthy and activates the heart rate monitor. If it isn’t fed, it enters a dormant state that can be revived later.
For many watch enthusiasts, caring for your watch is almost second nature. There are people who won’t even take a dive watch into the water, but even those people have never had to feed a watch.
The experiment tested how this device would affect a wearer’s attitude to it. Usually our relationship with tech is a one-way street – we buy tech, we use tech, it doesn’t ask anything of us. But if the watch only works if you take care of it, how does that change your relationship with it?
As Lu explained, “When discussing their experiences with normal smartwatches, Fitbits, or other wearable devices, people said they just used it for an explicit purpose. And with this device, it felt more like a bi-directional relationship because they had to care for it. They also had some sort of attachment to it because it’s living, and they felt like they couldn’t throw it away, or just put it in the closet.”
During the experiment, five wearers had to care for the watch properly for the first week and then stop in the second. Participants than wrote down their thoughts in a journal and answered interview questions.
The results found that there was a high level of attachment to the watch, some even likening it to a pet going so far as to name it. One participant put their partner in charge of feeding it while they were sick.
So it’s like a Tamagotchi? No, participants reported that the connection was more meaningful than that. They reported guilt or grief when they had to neglect the slime. When was the last time you felt bad about forgetting to feed your Tamagotchi?
Lopes said that when they told participants to neglect the slime, “People were shocked; almost all of them were like, ‘Really? I have to do that?’ There were very human responses. Some people were sad, some people really felt like the connection was broken.”
Keep in mind that this is just one study with a small sample size, but it does allow us to question our relationship with technology and hopefully tackle the disposability issue of tech.