The Furby is a fluffy robot toy that was popular in the late 1990s. It looks part owl, part hamster and is programmed to respond to human attention. It has no intelligence, but it can fake attachment. In an intriguing psychological experiment, subjects are asked to take a Furby, a Barbie doll and a live gerbil and hold them upside down in turn. The rodent writhes in obvious discomfort and people quickly release it. The Barbie doesn’t react and can be inverted indefinitely. The Furby says “Me scared” in a convincingly infantile voice. People ignore the plea, but only for a few moments. They know the toy has no feelings, but the simulation is enough to provoke empathetic urges.
The test is one of many cited by Sherry Turkle in her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other as evidence that humanity is nearing a “robotic moment.” We already filter companionship through machines; the next stage, she says, is to accept machines as companions. Soon, robots will be employed in “caring” roles, entertaining children or nursing the elderly, filling gaps in the social fabric left where the threads of community have frayed. Meanwhile, real-world interactions are becoming onerous. Flesh-and-blood people with their untidy impulses are unreliable, a source of stress, best organized through digital interfaces — BlackBerries, iPads, Facebook.
This not a science-fiction dystopia. Alone Together is the culmination of years of empirical research. Turkle has watched people interact with machines and socialize on digital networks. Her inquiry starts out clinical and becomes philosophical: Can humanity transform the way it communicates without altering, at some level, what it means to be human?
Plainly, technology is doing peculiar things to us. The average American teenager sends thousands of text messages every month, and spends hours each day on Instant Messenger, MySpace and Facebook. (E-mail, Turkle reports, is considered old-fashioned by most under-25s.) None of these things existed a generation ago. Adults are matching the pace of digitization set by their children, eking out proxy lives on blogs, in multi-player games and chatrooms. Millions of us appear to find simulations of life more alluring than life. We are training ourselves to fear a world unmediated by computers.
Turkle is not a Luddite, nor is Alone Together a salvo in some analog counter-reformation. But it does add to a growing body of cyber-skeptic literature: Recent examples include Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, warning that our cognitive faculties decay as we skim distractedly from one Web page to another, and Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion, which rebuts fashionable notions of the Web as a tool for advancing democracy. These are correctives to what Turkle calls the “heroic narrative” of the Internet — the effusions of digital evangelists who confuse technological advance with human progress.
The argument in Alone Together unfolds in two halves. The first section deals with objects that imitate living things. Turkle’s subjects, mostly children and the elderly, are given robot companions for varying lengths of time. Universally, a bond is formed. The Furby exerts a hold over anyone who nurtures it for a few weeks. More sophisticated models provoke deep emotional connections. Scientists developing the latest robots report feelings of pseudo-parental attachment. They hate leaving the machines “alone” in empty laboratories at night.
The machines are still primitive, nowhere near the Hollywood version of sociable androids. But people have always had an extraordinary capacity to project human traits onto inanimate objects. It only takes a bit of interactivity before our minds go a step further and start projecting consciousness. In Turkle’s observations, the difference between playing with a doll and playing with a robot is the difference between pretense and belief. Even when a replica behaves implausibly, we compensate, filling the gaps in its repertoire with imagined feelings. Turkle calls this “the Eliza effect,” after an early experiment in intelligent software. Students were asked to converse with Eliza, probing its capacity to imitate human chat. Instead of exposing the program’s weaknesses, everyone pandered to its strengths. They wanted the computer to be lifelike and manipulated the test to help it succeed.
An alarming revelation in Alone Together is how close we are to putting this effect into mass production. Pet robots are already available to comfort lonely residents of care homes. Mechanical nurses are on the way, as are recreational sex robots. Research into artificial intelligence used to be about trying to make computers as clever as people, but in recent years the focus has shifted. Engineers now know that the machine only needs to act clever and people will play along.
The second half of the book deals with our addiction to the Web; more familiar terrain, but equally disquieting. Turkle has interviewed people of all ages and from a wide range of social backgrounds and finds identical patterns of compulsive behavior. We start with the illusion that technology will give us control and end up controlled. We get Blackberries to better manage our e-mail, but find ourselves cradling them in bed first thing in the morning and last thing at night. Children compete with mobile phones for their parents’ attention.
Those children, meanwhile, are absorbed in the digital world in a way that older generations, with memories of analog living, can barely comprehend. Turkle interviews teenagers who are morbidly afraid of the telephone. They find its immediacy and unpredictability upsetting. A phone call in “real time” requires spontaneous performance; it is “live.” Text messages and Facebook posts can be honed to create the illusion of spontaneity.
NOT SO SHY
This digital generation also expects everything to be recorded. In any social situation, there are phones with cameras that relay personal triumphs and humiliations straight to the Web. Turkle’s interviews debunk the myth that Web-savvy kids don’t care about privacy. Rather, they see it as a lost cause. The social obligation to be part of the network is too strong even for those who resent the endless exposure. Teenagers perform on the digital stage, suppressing anxiety about who is lurking in the audience.
From that anxiety flows ever greater reliance on technology to mediate human relations. Human beings can be needy, capricious, threatening, but at least calls can be diverted, e-mails blocked, Facebook friends “unfriended.” Turkle sees this too as a symptom of incipient roboticism. The network encourages narcissism, teaching us to think of other people as a problem to be managed or a resource to be exploited.
Turkle is a psychoanalyst by training and her instinct is to describe unfamiliar social habits as pathologies. She tends to revel in the more neurotic cases among her subjects and to gloss over happier experiences of technology, although she rarely lets clinical jargon infect her prose. The focus on psychology also neglects wider social and economic forces. Western civilization was probably on a trajectory of atomization, loneliness and narcissism before the invention of the Internet. But that does not invalidate the diagnosis. The robotic moment is not a point in history but a threshold in ethics. It is the decision we make to put our faith in technology as the antidote to human frailty, when acceptance of frailty is what makes us human.
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