03 February 2012

Machines we Love

Sherry Turkle in Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (Basic Books, 2011) gives us what is probably the best picture of what we are doing to ourselves with our machines. It is divided into two major sections: Robotics and Social Networking.

Turkle is the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT and a practicing psychotherapist. This means that she is both an academic and a professional. She stared out optimistic about the promise and potential of digital technology and has come, through careful research, to a very different view. In Alone Together she has marshalled a selection of examples from her research and presented them in a clearly written work of persuasion about what we do to ourselves when we rely more and more on technology.

What is striking about the application of computer technology to robotics is that people of all ages long to interact with robotic animals and humanoids. We all seem to suscribe to the idea, in the words of one of the children studied, that the better robots are "alive enough" to care about. The examples deal with the AIBO (a robotic dog), My Real Baby (a robotic infant), Cog (robotic "infant"), and Kismet (a human-like torso and head programmed to interact with people). These are all efforts of the artificial intelligence labs in Japan and the US. People quickly realize that these are not toys and begin to bond with them in a relationship. For some people, the robots are better than real in that they do not die. People assume that these machines will be eternally loyal. These features are so reliable that people are willing to lower their expectations from the "relationship" in return for perceived security and stability. Put another way, robots have a strong tendency to make us become less human and more robot-like. Given that the technology of simulating intelligence in nearly convincing humanoid forms is developing quickly, this could be a daunting prospect for us. To what point will we limit ourselves so we can interact with robots and to what extent will they come to interfere in human relationships? One can envision a scenario in which people never learn to deal well with each other because it is so much easier to deal with a robot.

The second part of the book covers digital social media and texting. The social media encourage the development of an online persona that is not authentic. People make themselves more interesting and better looking on line than they really are. This means that they will not want to meet their online "friends" in person, as they would be certain to disappoint. In addition, some people become much more aggressive on line or engage in other inappropriate social behaviors in the absence of real-life social constraints. People really get hurt. E-mail, Facebook, and texting allow people to avoid other people. Many young people would much rather text than call. There are two big problems which ensue. First, misunderstandings and relational problems are far more common with the digital world running interference and the absence of voice inflection and facial expression integral to full communication. Second, so long as people mediate communication and relationship through social media and texting to avoid person-to-person interaction, they will not grow socially and therefore not personally.

Of course all this is fine with the purveyors of technology and social media. Teenagers are compulsive buyers, and adults who never mature are life-long compulsive buyers. Now who benefits from this? Not you or me.

Finally I wish to answer the opinion of some people who dismiss Alone Together as anecdotal and therefore not scientific. The book is made up of many stories which illustrate the points Turkle wishes to make, true. But Turkle is an academic and a professional. She has been studying the effect of technology on people for a long time. Her research cannot proceed otherwise than by watching people interact with media. These observations are her raw data, her first sources. She has discovered predictable patterns of interaction. The book is a work of persuasion for a large public, not a scientific treatise. But the stories she tells illustrate significant patterns derived carefully and scientifically from a purposefully designed and validated observation protocol. I strongly recommend reading Alone Together.

Angela Fournier, the main character in my current novel series, is not on social media, is bored by television, and prefers talking in person over calling or texting. I based her on some young adults I know who are bucking the trends and are therefore way ahead of the curve. You can find out more about her at www.strategicpublishinggroup.com/title/Angela1.html