Digital Wilsons

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I wrote last time about hyper-personalization in social media exchanges. In this concept, social media represents a reduced sensory experience, missing the verbal and non-verbal cues inherent in physical interactions. In the absence of this information, people tend to “personalize” their digital communication by leaning on their interpretations of what was said, how it was said, and what all of it meant. I speculated that this personalization is another form of control and is why some people may prefer digital to physical communication, sometimes, even me.

The other day, I had trouble texting a question to a service provider. I couldn’t figure the problem out. I thought, why not just call the number? I realized I didn’t want to call; I’d rather text. If I called, what if the person reacted badly to my question? What if the call lasted longer than I wanted? If I texted, I “controlled” the conversation. If I called, who knew?

The more we adapt to technology, I’m afraid, the more we might seek shelter within it, as a buffer from people. If technology can act now as a buffer between people, might there be a time when technology just replaces people? There are already examples of robots replacing people in a variety of interactions.

Dr. Julie Carpenter works with human-robot social interactions. About a year ago, for the release of her book, “Culture and Human-Robot Interaction in Militarized Spaces: A War Storyi,” she gave an interview, where she talked about the emotional attachment between people and robots, after studying military bomb disposal units who use robots in their work. Dr. Carpenter said those using robots understood they were machines but “at the same time, that doesn’t prevent some level of social or pseudo-social interaction with the robots . . . in addition, sometimes robot operators insert a very clear extension of themselves into the robot much like we see people invest in game avatars.”ii

People have always anthropomorphized inanimate objects. How much more seductive is the anthropomorphizing tendency when objects aren’t inanimate but animated through technology? Siri and Echo may be nascent versions of Samantha, the operating system from the 2013 movie “Her”with Joaquin Phoenix. iii

Before there was “Her,” there was Wilson. In the movie “Cast Away,” Tom Hanks plays a man, Chuck Noland, who survives a plane crash and winds up alone on an island. For years, Chuck has no one to talk to except “Wilson,” a Wilson volleyball he anthropomorphizes in his loneliness. When Chuck escapes the island, he takes Wilson. When Wilson is lost at sea during this escape, Chuck weeps over the loss. After rescue and return to civilization, Chuck replaces Wilson by purchasing a new volleyball.iv

Chuck relied on Wilson for company. Theodore Twombly, in “Her”, had Samantha. Today’s kids have cell phonesv. How might technology be changing the nature of their relationships? As technology’s convenience and control tempts them to reduce their physical interactions, will they move toward digital substitutes? Will they find the increasingly “realistic” virtual world more compelling then what’s real? How are they to resist this tendency when technology is evolving to become “constantly available, always curious and interested, supportive and undemanding”? vi

I work with people who isolate from family and friends, spending hours interacting with video games. I work with people who are in their twenties, brilliant toward technology, with no clue how to physically interact with others. I work with people who consider technology safe but not human beings. In the mental health world, we sometimes see the leading edge of a societal wave before it fully arrives because we deal with the outliers.

Once I realized I was avoiding talking to another human being, I was embarrassed and made the call. I ended up having a longer-than-I-wanted conversation with a person who wasn’t upset with my question and turned out to be surprisingly helpful.

Authored by Dr. Gregory Jantz, founder of The Center • A Place of HOPE and author of 35 books. Pioneering whole-person care nearly 30 years ago, Dr. Jantz has dedicated his life’s work to creating possibilities for others, and helping people change their lives for good. The Center • A Place of HOPE, located on the Puget Sound in Edmonds, Washington, creates individualized programs to treat behavioral and mental health issues, including eating disorders, addiction, depression, anxiety and others.



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