Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Children Dream of Electric Furbies (Reading, Thinking, and Reflecting #7)

The Gray Furby
Alone Together, Chapters 1-6:

As I move deeper into this course, I am finding the connections fascinating.  I was assigned to read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, I got my second choice when I read Understanding Media, and I am now reading my first choice, Alone Together. None of these were assigned to me or selected by me with any thought to the others, yet they fit into a thought-provoking single picture of our current society.

Let me offer a series of quotes from Turkle with some commentary by me:
  • Turkle in the introduction to her book draws directly on McLuhan, warning us to notice the media themselves: "My colleagues often objected, insisting that computers were 'just tools.' But I was certain that the 'just' in that sentence was deceiving. We are shaped by our tools" ((location 101).
  • She then moves right into Dick's concerns about the loss of empathy in non-human creations: "what, in the age of smart machines, was special about being a person" (location 113).
  • As she moves into the body of her book, she draws these two ideas together, the extensions of McLuhan and the loss of humanity of Dick, into one of her main theses: "As we distribute ourselves, we may abandon ourselves" (11).
  • As she moves through example after example of children and the elderly interacting with robots, she drives Dick's concerns home: "The first thing missing if you take a robot as a companion is alterity, the ability to see the world through the eyes of another. Without alterity, there can be no empathy" (55).
  • She continues to link Dick's concern of a loss of empathy to McLuhan's warning of the numbness that comes through accepting the extensions of self: "If they can give the appearance of aliveness and yet not disappoint, relational artifacts such as sociable robots open new possibilities for narcissistic experiences" (55).
The first third of this book ended for me with two more powerful points ala Dick and McLuhan. "To say that Miriam [a senior citizen] was having a conversation with Paro [a robotic seal], as these people do, is to forget what it is to have a conversation" (106). McLuhan's the medium is the message ... and the medium of the robot is changing the definition of care to "a behavior, not a feeling" (106). What does this mean for us in the future? "The answers to such questions do not depend on what computers can do today or are likely to be able to do tomorrow. They depend on what we will be like, the kind of people we are becoming as we launch ourselves and those we love into increasingly intimate relationships with machines" (107). Who are we when we allow Dick's robots to become McLuhan-esque extensions of us?

I was with my yearbook staff as I was reading this, and I decided to do an informal study of them, since they are the very generation of children growing up with robots of which Turkle writes. I asked them if they had Furbies as kids, and without any further prompting by me, one of my staff members launched into the story of her Furby tragedy. She removed its batteries and said it was awful. She did not know she was resetting the battery, and in fact, she never put the batteries back in. Her Furby would not stop making a disturbing whine (maybe the same one Turkle's subjects heard from their Furbies), and it would not quiet down even in the dark. So she took out the batteries and separated herself forcefully this way from her Furby forever.

I lived Turkle's findings.  I leave off now with three small quotes that echo in my mind as I think about our narcissistic choice to interact with unfeeling robots:

"Does being with a robot make you feel better?" (location 361).

"'People,' he says, are 'risky.' Robots are 'safe'" (51).

"... if your lover were a robot, you would always be the center of its universe" (64).

Works Cited
Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? New York: Del Rey, 1968. Print.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Critical Edition. Ed.

Turkle, Sherry. Together Alone: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. Kindle Ed. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2011.

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