by Derek Morrison
Souls sucked through seductive screens
Connected to the matrix; sharing
But somehow not; communicating
In 140 characters or less
Over 1000 miles or; sending
Just 1 metre.
From ‘likes’; by ‘friends’
Or is that strangers; providing
A brief heat, but no lasting light
From virtual Tinder
Courtship, intimacy, touch, and time.
Edited stories; scripting
Perfect worlds; portraying
And self; deluding
Projected idyllic lives; cloaking
Twittering egos the Cloud; seeding
Silent yet strident prattle; creating
A cold polluting fog; obscuring
Metamorphoses as yet unseen;
Digital disciples; surfing
Vast oceans of distraction; digesting
Small fragments only; drowning
Vestiges of reflection.
Or is that draining?
Vested interests; promoting
Autistic slaves; serving
Intelligent machines; making
Souls sucked through seductive screens
In virtual space we hear no screams.
[To listen to this verse select below]
In a previous long-running venture of mine called Auricle (www.auricle.org) a frequent theme was one of techno-determinism, i.e. the shaping of human activity and behaviour by the technologies said humans create. At the extreme end of such determinism lies the risk that rather than technologies serving human needs, humans come to adapt their needs to the needs of their technologies. Not a particular problem when our technologies were pens or books but more of an issue when business, education, health, transport, or defence are being re-engineered under a banner of inevitable communication technologies advance – real or, more worryingly – imagined. And particularly, where Trojan concepts such as ‘intelligent’ or ‘autonomous’ applications or systems are utilised as part of an armoury of persuasion by vested interests promoting or selling the efficacy or power of the supposed advance, e.g. autonomous weapons, autonomous vehicles, intelligent teaching machines.
“I have long proposed that Turing misinterpreted his thought experiment. If a person cannot tell which is machine and which is human, it does not necessarily mean that the computer has become more human-like. The other possibility is that the human has become more computer-like … We have simplified ourselves in order to be comprehensible to simplistic data-bases, making them look smart and authoritative. Our demonstrated willingness to accommodate machines in this way is ample reason to adopt a standing bias against the idea of artificial intelligence … We are vulnerable to making ourselves stupid in order to make possibly smart machines seem smart. ” (Jaron Lanier)
I am also fascinated, and sometimes appalled, by the fixation – of otherwise normal people – on the screen of their mobile devices. A fixation sometimes to the detriment of their own and other’s safety, e.g. driving, or cycling, and eschewing politeness and face-to-face social interaction – even with their own infants or colleagues in the same room. The mother with the pushchair with headphones in ear listening to music and looking at or sending messages while her infant cries in the front. The work colleagues within sight who would rather send text messages or emails to you rather than walk over from their workstations and talk. Back in 2002 K J Gergen noted the phenomenon he called Absent Presence where despite their physical presence the consciousness of a device-user is divided or diverted elsewhere. The multi-functionality (and therefore the attractiveness) of mobile technologies has rocketed since 2002 and so from my observations Absent Presences are now ubiquitous.
There is an irony in that our fixation with the apparent efficiency of communication via devices this risks being preferred over more human forms of interaction and, consequently, even communication directly with machines becomes normalised, e.g.
“When people give us less, talking to machines doesn’t seem as much of a downgrade.” (Sherry Turkle, 2015)
A significant proportion of the human brain is dedicated to visual processing albeit at an unconscious level. We should not be surprised, therefore, about the attention-grabbing and persuasive power of the image – both still and moving. There is much written about this but a very accessible illustration of the power of visual processing and visual memory has been undertaken by the well known author and academic Richard Wiseman. For example Wiseman states in his book Quirkology “We don’t process verbal information anything like as efficiently, [as images] so associating names and lists with images is probably a good strategy.” The Quirkology web site also shows the live Total Recall experiment he ran to replicate the original studies undertaken by Lionel Standing in the 1970s. See also Think your memory is poor? Forget it (Times, 19 May 2007) or the VizThink blog. Image capture and sharing is among the most powerful capabilities of mobile phones; a capability much amplified by the current generation of ‘apps’ like Instagram. This can have unexpected and detrimental effects on behaviour, e.g. Oxford Internet Institute research indicates that Instagram made users feel 11% worse about their lives than any other social media platform.
But why should this happen?
The synergies of a contract phone upload quota to utilise, an easy to use device/app, plus the essential deceptions of being human can lead to the presentation of a highly edited and illustrated representation of what we would like others to think is our exciting, and perhaps perfect, life. From there arises a sort of competitive arms race with each invariably upbeat illustrated personal narrative raising questions in the souls of those who feel less secure, less mature, less clever, less successful, less attractive, less thin, less healthy, less wealthy, or whatever. The advertising and propaganda industries have mastery of engendering such feelings and “fear of missing out” (fomo). In its more extreme forms, however, it can be the source of, at best, envy and discontent or at worst, pathological behaviours and illness when the ‘perfection’ being promulgated is unreachable, distorted, or socially detrimental, e.g. anorexia.
The apparent efficiency of communication technologies fronted by mobile devices such as phones is undoubtedly a major ‘pull’ factor (excuse the pun) epitomized perhaps most vividly by the current lead mobile app in this genre Tinder who describes itself as “… how people meet. It’s like real life, but better“. Slaves, however, takes a less positive view of such apparent efficiency arising from the erasure of the potential discomfort of establishing conversational-based first interactions to be replaced with the swipe right/left semi-automation of romantic/sexual encounter and the loss of relationship opportunities with those consigned to the left swipe for whatever reason. Bryan Appleyard in his review of Sherry Turkle’s book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age (Sunday Times, Culture, 25 October 2015) states:
“This leads of a courtship freak show. Using apps such as Tinder, teenagers, flick through the faces and brief profiles of possible partners. The risk of the conversational approach is removed but so is the opportunity.”
Slaves represents this in rather dystopian form:
Encounter vending-machines; degrading
Courtship, intimacy, touch, and time.
Sherry Turkle (2015), Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Penguin Press
Jaron Lanier, Mindless Thought Experiments (A Critique of Machine Intelligence)
The Myth of AI: A Conversation with Jaron Lanier, Edge.org, 9 November 2015
Instagram show-offs prompt backlash against over-staged shots, The Independent, 23 September 2015
Kenneth J Gergen (2002), Cell Phone Technology and the Challenge of Absent Presence, in Perpetual Contact Mobile Communication, Private Talk, Public Performance, Cambridge University Press pp227-241