I’ve been a Sherry Turkle fan for quite sometime, so I was pretty excited to see her talk at TED earlier this year. The video of that talk has just been posted, but if you were following me on Twitter during TED you may recall me tweeting out countless quotes from her at the time. Here’s the talk in case you want to watch it, it’s 20 minutes, but it’s damn worth it. Trust me.
The talk covers some of the issues in her recently released book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other which I preordered while she was giving this talk live, but only recently started reading. I have to admit that I’ve really only cracked the cover (though, I’m reading it on my kindle, so does that even work?) and so these initial thoughts could be completely off base once I get further into the book, or maybe she even covers these ideas. I’ll keep reading and let you know what an idiot I sound like after the fact.
So anyway, I started reading and as I was reading I found myself verbalizing thoughts or comments about the text, so I started to write them down and next thing I knew I had several paragraphs, so I’m flushing them out just the slightest bit and posting them here for feedback, as well as later reference once I get further into the book.
My first impression is that the tone I’m getting from this book is so much more depressing than I’d expected. Her talk, which while serious in nature, left me feeling optimistic and helping me think about what is actually important and worth spending mental time on. I related very much to her comments about being alone and finding yourself. I liked what she had to say. This book is starting off and I feel more depressed every time I turn the page. (Again, kindle, so… click the page?)
One thing that hit me in a weird kind of way is that she writes about the future as if it’s finite. And I’m talking specifically about her comments about robots here, but it’s clear that she feels strongly that robots will never be more than robots. They will never be more than “programmed” to care. So here’s the thing, and I can say with all honesty that I never thought of this before now myself – we know what happened in the past. Even if we don’t know, we’re trying to find out and at some point will know. Something happend or didn’t, but it’s factual either way. The future, that’s totally speculative. We can make assumptions and guesses about how the future will play out, but we don’t know for sure.
Let me step out of this for a moment – I was talking to a freiend last year and realized that I really enjoyed science when I was in high school and college. I was all over biology and it just stuck with me. But I didn’t have a single teacher who ever phrased things in a context that made it seem that there was more to discover. Lessons were all very much “this is the end all be all, we know it and it won’t change” so I had no motivation to dig deeper. I felt like everything that was going to be figured out had been. Later on in life when I realized people were still making discoveries all the time I was a bit bummed because that might have been something I would have spent more time looking into. Or not. Who knows, but back to the point here…
Sherry talks about some aspects of the future in regards to robots as if we already know how it will play out. I think that’s not a common feeling – people, like myself, who have grown up with science fiction filled with self realized robots, or robots becoming self aware and fighting for people to believe they aren’t just machines don’t see that as an impossible future. Not that I’m suggesting that it’s anything more than total fiction right now, but I feel like taking the approach that something like that could never happen is almost giving up. It’s giving up hope at least. I know plenty of roboticists and I can’t imagine any of them think that at some point they will hit some wall they can never go past. I don’t know, I think leaving that option open sets up a potentially magical future, and exciting future. Talking today as if we already know where the future dead ends is just depressing.
SciFi is fiction at the moment, but that doesn’t mean it’s always going to be fiction, and has often been a glimpse into the not too distant future by people not afraid to dream out loud.
So there’s that.
But let’s not stop there. Human relationships can be disappointing, are disappointing. People let you down. And they will let you down in the future. But that’s the thing right? No one likes to be let down. So it’s not surprising that a robot that will never let you down seems like a more attractive option. That outlook can be considered depressing in itself, that people will let you down as the inevitable outcome but it’s not being pessimistic, it’s being realistic – that’s the way the world has always been. And why true friends are seen as such a value to those lucky enough to have them – a point worth noting because many people don’t ever get the chance to have those kinds of true friendships, either because they surround them selves with disappointing people or they themselves are a disappointment to others. The fact that we’ve come far enough where a future where you can have relationships that won’t be disappointing isn’t a bad thing, rather it opens doors to make the relationships we have with people even better by removing those reliances.
Consider for example a couple in a failing marriage due to growing incompatibility of sex drives, one partner feels taken for granted and ignored, the other partner feels pressured and obligated – this is a cliche at this point it happens so much and is often the reason married people seek sexual relationships outside of their marriage – to fulfill this need they are no longer having filled in the marriage. Of course that comes with a whole host of other problems and is generally considered a “bad move” but that is because other people are in the mix. What if there was an option for a robotic companion? One that existed only to fill that specific need and didn’t present room for any jealousy in other areas. There wouldn’t be any competition for attention, robots don’t need attention. There wouldn’t be any issue about spending time together, robots don’t care. No issue about who to buy gifts for, etc.. If the robot was there to fill only the need that wasn’t being filled by the partner, it would likely be more welcomed in the relationship. Of course this would require people being honest with each other which is possibly a larger hurdle to jump. But if that option existed, people might be more motivated.
And while robots are certainly more prevalent today, the idea of creating some kind of automaton that would live with us and perform some kind of task isn’t new in any way. We’ve just gotten much better at it recently.
Creating ideal avatars isn’t bad either, we should all be able (and willing) to create the world we want to live in. The real world can also be disappointing and leave people wanting much more, why suffer through that when the option exists to craft the perfect world, and the perfect you to live in that world. Why draw the line between “online” and “offline” when there isn’t really much difference anymore? IRL – “in real life” is a mistake – online is real life too. Some things just happen to take place AFK (away from keyboard).
My notes are kind of falling apart here, and I want to get back to reading the book. I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining, I’m not. I really am a fan of her work, it’s just that even in her critiques I’ve always seem the bright side take away and this just seems bleak. But again, I’m just beginning so I could be jumping to conclusions and if so I’ll note that once I get further in.