Our Social Selves

Sherry Turkle’s 2012 TED Talk, Connected, But Alone? presents the latest iteration of her research on human-technology interaction.

See https://youtu.be/t7Xr3AsBEK4

She first came to my attention with the publication of The Second Self in 1984. At that time, computers were stand-alone devices. The interrelations she described–the dasein of the human/computer union–were solipsistic in nature. “Sharing” was among “sneakernet” gamer affinity groups, who interacted in the physical company of others, and hackers, who shared their hacks in actual meetups. Sharing was more showing off.

By the time she wrote Life on the Screen–10 years later–dial-up networks were in play and the Internet was emerging as their successor. The sense of presence and gestalt of groups that had been confined to onsite meetups were now transitioning to online. She was interested in the emerging psychological dynamics of the new ecology.

Here we are, 20 years further along. In Alone Together, she reflects on how relationships have been affected by our seeming dependency upon interconnected devices. Computers and network interactions have gone from the desktop to mobile. Palfrey and Gasser make an even more radical claim in Born Digital–that we are evolving into cybernetic organisms. Our devices may very well move from digital appendages to implants–more a part of us. Tapscott argues in Grown Up Digital, that at least one generation has already been shaped by this transition. They are digital natives. Turkle and her generation are at best, digital immigrants.

I think Tapscott is onto something. Understandably, Turkle as the quintessential techno-determinist feels a sense of dissonance with networked communications, being “always on” and what it is to be a “friend.” These, I’d argue, are the new normal, whether we or she likes it or not. With the advent of the Internet, humanity acquired a nervous system.

As the Internet permeates everything, heuristic search and filtering are more important than recall.

As a push-back to this, my wife read me the riot act early in our marriage: We set one technology-free day aside–in a cabin in the woods no less–and do not use technology in the bedroom between approximately 10 PM and sunrise. She even put black electrical tape over the various diodes in there, a practice we observed in orthodox temples, which also ban the use of technology during the Sabbath.

Human-computer interfaces have evolved from Byzantine 2 dimensional representations (remember B&W Finder?) to the rediscovery of the 3rd dimension, to augmented virtual reality (VR) and immersive VR. Increased resolution has lead to the emergence of photo realism. As the environments in which we interact become indistinguishable from reality, they will either become the new reality, or multiverses we can step in and out of.

There are oft repeated claims that only around 5 or so of those we friend on Facebook are truly friends in the reciprocal sense. The others are on the spectrum of acquaintances. I don’t see that as a problem.

In fact, I’ve reestablished a causal correspondence with a high school classmate after 40 some odd years. We lead busy lives. Occasional texting is better than nothing. When she brought her husband to New Haven for cancer treatment, I was able to be there for them. He’s better and we’ve lapsed into sporadic texting again. There is friendship as long as there are reciprocol communications of some sort.

I do see the uses of mobile technologies as having shortened the attention span of a plurality of kids, and my K-12 teacher friends have observed the negative repercussions of that in the classroom. Perhaps, however, it is the teachers who need to embrace techo-pedagogy in order to leverage the affordances of new technologies for learning.

The flip-side of this is that kids are learning to read earlier and more as a consequence of surfing. They may only focus on a page at a time in short durations, but that adds up. Community College literacy scores were on the decline. Once the Internet became ubiquitous, the trendline was reversed.

Sugata Mitra’s Hole in the Wall experiments indicated that when it comes to learning, perhaps teachers should get out of the way. Kids tend to be autodidactic.

See https://youtu.be/zpcEpmNbHds

Hubert Dreyfus argued in What Computers Can’t Do back in the 1980s and reiterated in What Computers Still Can’t Do some years later, that what we now call narrow AI, achieved through symbol manipulation, will never result in a general AI. Unlike us, they do not operate via subconscious “sub-symbolic” processing and are not “in the world” in the Heideggerian sense, so can never be “of” it.

I think we may be onto something with the advent of processing via neural networks (modeled after their biological counterparts) that transcend machine limitations and leads to a general AI. Afterall, Dreyfus’ conceptions were framed by von Neumann constraints.

Alan Turing once proposed a test in which the measure of machine versus human intelligence would be if a human could be duped into thinking ze was interacting with a human when in fact ze was interacting with a machine.

Joseph Weizenbaum implemented a version of the test in the mid 1960s, using an AI program that parsed sentences keyboarded in by the user, and generated teletyped responses queued by syntax in the manner of a Rogerian psychotherapist. Many were fooled into thinking they were interacting with an intelligence. (Curiously, when I called to inform a friend that I’d learned of Weizenbaum’s death from an obituary in the Times, he replied, “How can you be sure?”)

The 2013 movie “Her” depicts a relationship between a man and a computer that may come to be the norm, upon the advent of Kurzweil’s promised “singularity.”

In the meantime, Siri doesn’t have me fooled into thinking it is a ze.

Along those lines, I shared a joke with Steven Pinker that he’s oft repeated in lecture:A Russian natural language translation program is fed the biblical expression “The spirit is strong  but the flesh is weak,”  to which the computer replies, “The vodka is good but the meat is tough.”

A Russian natural language translation program is fed the biblical expression “The spirit is strong  but the flesh is weak,”  to which the computer replies, “The vodka is good but the meat is tough.”

Perhaps when computers are smart enough to get that right, there won’t be a difference between us. That ought to allay Turkle’s concerns.


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