Who Sexts Thumbprints?

Jamie and Eliza’s quantified love is too physical for the network.


Designers seem to believe that in the future we will be falling in love with robots and we should sext our heart rates and thumbprints now while humans still have a chance. Why else would they keep creating bizarre applications to share inexplicable corporeal data? Following the recent trend of Android and iOS apps that encourage couples to share fingerprints, now Apple Watch designers want us to wear the heart rates of our loved ones on our wrists.

The most frustrating and awkwardly deployed technologies force rituals and customs upon us rather than allowing users to play on their own and experiment. Nowhere is this more apparent than the dregs of mobile app stores, the apps like “Love Finger Scan” or “Fingerprint LOVE.” The app Couple even has something called a ThumbKiss™ for people excited by epidermal ridges.

How to thumbprint sext.

Perhaps “Police Lineup Love Match” apps are next. Since the 19th century, fingerprints have been collected to positively identify criminals. In 1980, the FBI created the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) — a database often depicted, albeit unrealistically, in TV procedural dramas. Now it is the most common biometric modality, and one that is particularly insecure as it can be cloned with only a series of photographs.

Sure, as fingerprints are collected to verify a person, they can symbolize our individuality, but the association of crime and forensics remains. There is no pre-digital history of traditions like putting someone’s thumbprint in a locket, or other kinds of sentimental gestures. Some of us may remember kindergarten arts and crafts assignments like making thumbprint turkeys at Thanksgiving, but that’s not romantic either. Thumbprint-sext apps ask us to ignore history and context and follow the app maker’s clumsily scripted social interaction.

“First he sent me his travel itinerary. I sexted my thumbprint back. Then he took our relationship to the next level by mailing me his calorie counter for the month. Now that we are going steady, I’ve got his heart rate with me at all times.”

Likewise, heart rate sharing apps are attempts to disambiguate spaces that might be better left kept private. There’s already Re:Beat, launched on Valentine’s Day in 2013 and a connected pillow called Pillow Talk that the developer says allows “people to feel a connection with their partner without having to actively engage with them.”

Now Apple Watch will give us a very easy way to share this data with a loved one. As it explains on the promo page for the new product, the company believes it is building a “new way to connect.” It is an uncomplicated gesture, suggesting the Apple designers believe it will be widely used (“When you press two fingers on the screen, the built-in heart rate sensor records and sends your heartbeat. It’s a simple and intimate way to tell someone how you feel.”)

But hold on. Hold on. Why would anyone do this?

Let’s give Apple some credit for giving one of the lovers a gender neutral name, (there are another pair of watches owned by a “Dana” and “Luke”) but this invites a scenario that is ridiculous easy to parody. Will Eliza sext her calorie intake for the month next? When Jamie sends her location map over, is that a sign she’s ready to take this relationship to the next level? At what level of intimacy is the invitation to share heart rates no longer a creepy interaction? Is there a limit for how many heart rates you can carry at a time? Can you archive and collect them? (I am now imagining a tent pulsating with the beats of dozens of heart animations that an artist might create with a nod to Tracey Emin.) This is no way to foster real intimacy through technology.

And if Apple can convince you to wear someone’s heart rate on your wrist, it will have an easier time coaxing you to use TouchID, its fingerprint recognition feature, instead of passcode protection.

Biogram, a photosharing app developed at the USC’s Center for Body Computing, expects heart rate sharing to become so commonplace we will even post it with our pictures.

Ann Druyan famously recorded her brainwaves for the Golden Record, as she had just fallen in love with Carl Sagan. But that was spontaneous and unscripted, launched into space to float for 100 million years, for the infinitesimal possibility that alien overlords might intercept.

Thumbprint and heart rate sexting apps normalize biometric sharing without any real purpose or point. The corporate goal to relax your boundaries is decidedly unromantic.