Why we need critical scientists and storytellers for the future of love

Our experience curating the 2019 SILBERSALZ Science and Media Festival Industry Conference.

We’ve spent the past six months at the The Creatives’ Catalysts entirely obsessed with the mysteries and mechanics of love—how our brains, bodies and worlds determine our experience of it, and how we in turn shape it through the futures we build and the stories we tell. As curators of the SILBERSALZ Science and Media Conference, this year under the theme ‘The Science of Love’, we set out to design a program that took love as a lens through which scientists and media professionals could explore the challenges and vital importance of their collaboration.

For us, curating this conference was all about discovering possible links between love and other critical discourses—globalization, acceleration, medicalization, epistemology, discrimination, and the Anthropocene, to name a few—and developing hypotheses about what might emerge from them. On June 21-22, expert speakers and a highly engaged interdisciplinary audience turned the Leopoldina German National Academy of Sciences in Halle (Saale) into a testing ground for these hypotheses, with exciting results. 

Kathrin Rehak-Nitsche opens the conference day. Photo:  Joachim Blobel

Kathrin Rehak-Nitsche opens the conference day. Photo: Joachim Blobel

To kick off the program, Dr. Kathrin Rehak-Nitsche, an award-winning science communicator, laid the foundations for open-minded encounters between scientists and media makers in her opening keynote on the prejudices and stereotypes that hinder collaboration between bright minds from each industry. She concluded with seven actionable principles to bring film and science together while retaining what makes each special. 

Chapter One: Are we programmed by nature for love?

Liat Yakir explains the evolution of love in the brain. Photo:  Joachim Blobel

Liat Yakir explains the evolution of love in the brain. Photo: Joachim Blobel

Molecular geneticist turned science educator Dr. Liat Yakir kicked off our investigations into love, explaining the evolutionary roots of love and monogamy in mammalian brains and bodies with a keynote that was lively, irreverent and sometimes uncomfortably close to home for many humans in the audience (see: The Coolidge Effect). 

Brian D. Earp and Emily Ngubia Kessé in conversation before their Ignite Talks. Photo:  Joachim Blobel

Brian D. Earp and Emily Ngubia Kessé in conversation before their Ignite Talks. Photo: Joachim Blobel

But biological determinism met its match in the following Ignite Talks. Interdisciplinary philosopher and psychologist Brian D. Earp critically explored the positive and negative consequences of science’s ability to accidentally and, increasingly, deliberately intervene in romantic relationships through the wonders of modern pharmacology, which might soon produce bona fide ‘love drugs’.

Dr. Emily Ngubia Kessé highlighted the questionable tendencies in scientific research itself to strengthen its findings with recourse to gender stereotypes, and shared useful tips for researchers and science communicators alike who wanted to combat neurosexism in their work and scientific love stories. Ivvet Modinou, Head of Engagement at the British Science Association, brought all three speakers together for a discussion on problems in communicating the science of love, from conflating population-level differences with what we see in our individual love lives, or confusing descriptive statements with prescriptive ones, the gruesome transformation of science into clickbait in today’s attention economy, and the tendency to forget that biology doesn’t determine everything, but that our life choices can change our biology too. 

Dr. Helen Fisher in the trailer for Sleepless in New York, directed by Christian Frei.

Having addressed these challenges in theory, a pair of case studies explored them in practice. Award-winning Swiss director Christian Frei discussed his process of intertwining science with human stories in creating his deeply emotional and informative documentary Sleepless in New York.

Trailer for Pleasure and Pain, directed by Judith König.

Science journalist Judith König and producer Tristan Chytroschek also discussed the practical storytelling challenges and lessons on love they faced in creating their documentary Pleasure and Pain, exploring the full emotional spectrum of love from birth to death from the perspective of a wide range of scientific fields. Particularly memorable was one featured scientist’s work on the importance of seeking out micro-moments of love that we experience when we, for instance, see a smiling baby. In their panel, like the one before it, the role of society as a shaping force for love emerged again and again. In the next conference block, the power of social forces and constructs would move into the foreground. 

Chapter Two: Is our love constructed by society?

Moira Weigel explains key insights from her book Labor of Love in this short for The Atlantic.

Asking how we might explain the strange world of digital dating we now live in, Dr. Moira Weigel, historian and author of Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating, opened the second chapter of the conference with a history of modern romance, revealing how massive societal shifts and the shifting dynamics of capitalism powered courtship rituals from centuries past to now. Moira uncovered patterns of old dating conventions shifting to new technological platforms, transforming and sometimes deepening gendered inequality in the process. 

Trailer for Heartbound, directed by Sine Plambech.

While Moira closed with reflections that sought to visualise new, emancipatory ways of loving in our societies, our next case study allowed us to see real love in places you wouldn’t expect—namely, in the unequal relationships created by marriage migration from Thailand to Denmark. Anthropologist and filmmaker Dr. Sine Plambech presented her documentary Heartbound, which followed the stories of Thai women married to Danish men over a decade. Not only did this long time scale allow Sine to capture a slow and subtle process of falling in love, in doing so, she brought sociological insights into love and globalisation to wider audiences through this audiovisual medium. The thoughtful and thought-provoking reception of the documentary in both Thailand and in Europe attested to this. 

Far from being entirely programmed by biology or constructed by larger societal forces, it was with a sense that it remains possible to create new and unconventional forms of love that we entered the third and final chapter of the conference. 

Chapter Three: Can we design a better future with/for love?

Christian Schwägerl in conversation with Nicolas Brown, director of  The Serengeti Rules . Photo:  Joachim Blobel

Christian Schwägerl in conversation with Nicolas Brown, director of The Serengeti Rules. Photo: Joachim Blobel

Christian Schwägerl, a leading German environment and science journalist who played a key role in sparking the discussion around the term ‘Anthropocene’, led our panel discussion on love and ecology with Dr. Dennis Müller, director of the Halle Zoo, Dr. Walter Köhler, CEO of award-winning documentary studio Terra Mater, and Nicolas Brown, director of The Serengeti Rules, our audiovisual case study for the panel, along with David Elisco, the film’s producer. Bringing a new dimension to the otherwise human-focused program, Christian pointed out that ecology is the sum and mutual multiplications of the relationships between all living beings. The discussion explored the possibilities for love within these ecological relationships, from the compassion and care between animals, and in animal-human relationships that Dennis saw in his work at the zoo, to the shifts in human relationships to the non-human world catalysed by empathy-driven documentary storytelling pursued by Walter, Nicolas and David. But the most inspiring story from this discussion came from a suprise panelist. Annie Voigt, the creator of BotsAndBrainz and a PhD student at Charité Berlin, jumped on stage to transform the all-male panel into something very special. An avid rock-climber, Annie told the audience her own story of falling in love with nature, capturing the spirit of sharing and storytelling that had been discussed in abstract terms up until that point in the conference. 

Trailer of The Serengeti Rules, directed by Nicolas Brown

Having reflected on how we might harness love move towards better climate futures, our final panel reflected on how we might create new futures for love itself, through scientific and technological innovation—from robotics to AI, from interaction to immersion.

A demonstration of Patrick Levy-Rosenthal's EPU III Emotion Synthesis Chip.

On the question of whether the future is bright for love, or an emerging dystopia, our panelists gave us much food for thought. Patrick Levy-Rosenthal, CEO of Emoshape Inc., presented his EPU (Emotion Processing Unit) for AI and Robots, which can be used in any AI application to create emotionally intelligent machines capable of feeling 64 trillion possible states every 1/10 of a second. Not only is such technology the first step to creating an AI that can love. As Yann LeCunn has rightly pointed out, AI cannot be truly considered intelligent unless it is capable of feeling emotions, which play a key role in human cognition and decision-making. Patrick’s EPU opens up possibilities at this new frontier of intelligence. While advances in AI also bring new risks and challenges for their ethical development, having an AI capable of empathising with humans might actually safeguard us from a disastrous singularity event. 

Ethical debates also swirl around another field of technology that has long held strong emotional importance for its users—gaming. Heidi McDonald, a narrative and serious game designer who has lectured and published extensively on romance, sexuality and emotional engagement in games, outlined positions in the debate around the emotional impact of gaming and drew attention to the fallacies behind attempts to dismiss all games as emotionally harmful. Instead, she highlighted the potential of games to create beneficial emotional experiences and relationships for players, revealing the medium as an ultimately positive force for love. 

Trailer for Hi, AI directed by Isa Willinger.

Beyond how we might shape the future of love, panelists also offered insights into the forms our future lovers might take. Allison de Fren, a media maker and scholar based in Los Angeles and Shanghai, drew on the history of science fiction’s representation of women and androids to explain the feminine AIs of today, such as Siri and Alexa. Filmmaker Isa Willinger presented her new documentary Hi, AI. The film follows two unlikely couples—Chuck and the sex robot Harmony in the US, and the elderly Sakurai and her robotic companion Pepper in Japan—to capture the misunderstandings and complexities that shape this new generation of human-AI relationships. The panel’s second case study presented by Jonas Schlatterbeck, Head of Social & Distributed Media at ZDF Digital, elevated the discussion to a meta-level, inspiring reflections on how new technologies allow us to redesign love stories themselves. Jonas’s case Ludwig & Luise is a serial docufictional graphic novel based on Instagram that immerses users in the letters and lives of lovers during the Weimar Republic. A lecturer in social media storytelling at the Karlsruhe Institute for Technology and the University of Freiburg, Jonas explained how this digital incarnation of a love story created a narrative form that engaged both through its emotional content and its interactive form, offering new, more meaningful ways to engage with historical information and dive into past worlds.

Conference participants mingle after an action-packed first day. Photo:  Joachim Blobel

Conference participants mingle after an action-packed first day. Photo: Joachim Blobel

In our initial curator’s statement for this conference, we reflected that the program might bring more questions about love than answers. By the end of the day, this was certainly the case. But across all these fields of inquiry, one insight emerged again and again: Science, like storytelling, is deeply human. Inherently creative, both fields seek to invent a better world that goes beyond what we’d ordinarily think is possible. At the same time, these imaginative endeavours are always already shaped by our limits as humans embedded in complex social and economic relations. These include our biases that exclude others and build dividing lines based on race, gender and class, not to mention the most human bias of all—anthropocentrism. In turn, these biases inform how knowledge is produced, both in scientific research, and in AI and other knowledge-producing technologies. Stories, and especially stories of science, are not immune to this effect either. Because of this, investigating the science of love can tell us more about the society that produces and mediates this science than love itself. 

Of course, critical reflection is another deeply human capability. Counter-narratives are powerful tools for challenging the status quo, not only because they encourage criticism of what exists, but also encourage us to create new things, building alternatives from the bottom-up. This is something both researchers and storytellers are uniquely positioned to do, and the series of project pitches on the following conference day attested to this. The projects that scientists and media professionals presented were as diverse as they were motivated to address gaps in the system, from using forensic techniques to tackle human rights violations, to highlighting how urban environments are changing the pace of evolution itself, and making innovative medical research and treatment more accessible. While scientific advancements and award-winning entertainment inspire fascination and wonder, the way that each are shaped by the systems that contain them is just as strange, curious and intriguing. When people start engaging with science and storytelling at this level—not just to critique, but to create change—is where real creativity begins.

A joint initiative by the Robert Bosch Stiftung and Documentary Campus, SILBERSALZ is the first international science film festival of its kind, with exhibitions, films, talks, events, a youth program, in addition to an industry conference. In 2018, we curated the industry conference for the festival’s inaugural edition under the theme of ‘Cyborgs’, and were delighted to be invited back to curate this second edition. The next edition of SILBERSALZ will take place from June 25-28, 2020—mark your calendars!