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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

We don't have to be alone together

I listened to Sherry Turkle’s TED talk ( on the bus on my way to work this morning. I have immensely enjoyed Turkle’s books Life on the Screen and The Second Self She, so I was very curious about her talk. She spoke about how we use our cellphones, how we during the past fifteen years have become increasingly alone together. (“Alone Together” is also the title of a good paper by Steinkuehler that is about how we play togeter, alongside, but alone in MMOs).

Turkle said that we are content with less from each other, as technology gives us more. That we avoid intimacy. That when we are the most vulnerable it can be easier to turn to technology. There were social robots at a hospital. Turkle told the audience about a woman who was talking to a robot baby seal when mourning her lost child, and how complex this situation is, and not necessarily for good. She meant that we are so easely smitten by what technology can do, when it is new and shiny.
Fifteen years ago Turkle saw avatars and virtual worlds as ways to learn more about ourselves in order to live better lives in the real world.But now the cell phones has created another way to live, we don’t learn about ourselves. Since we do not have real conversations we feel that we are not listened to. So then it feels good to have feeds on facebook and twitter that people listen to.
Turkle  ends with that she doesn’t mean that we should stop using our phones, rather reflect over how we use them. To still have real conversations. That those around us needs us, especially adolescents - the need to learn how to relate to other people in real-time, to have conversations. Online in texts we always have the option to edit, to delete. While in a real conversation we also learn about each other in the glitches and in the mistakes.

I am thinking about presence.
The worlds Turkle wrote about fifteen years ago where virtual worlds of their own, their own universes, and when immersed in those, one is there, sometimes so immersed that one is one with the avatar, that there, in the now of playing many players experience being the avatar, in that world (Something that Bartle writes about in an insightful way in Designing Virtual Worlds).
That is a very different thing from the ever-present tapping into our social networks that many of us do in parallel, the tweeting and the Facebooking.

If we divide our attention to halfly be in other conversations on texts when we sit at a meeting or take part in another group activity it as if we don’t give our full attention to anything.
I believe, as so many others, that it is important to try to be as present in the now as possible - that goes for both social and solitude situations. So I agree with Turkle on that point that we need to reflect on how we use our cellphones, and still be there for each other, in real-time, in situations where we cannot edit ourselves, that are unmediated, conversations that we cannot leave just because they become uncomfortable or painful. If we avoid difficulties we do not grow. But I don’t see virtual worlds as something juxtaposed to this - being fully immersed in a virtual world is not comparable to the half-life of the moments where we are halfly present in a real life situation that may bore us, or that we do not have time to be in, mentally.

As for robots and social agents I  agree with Turkle that we need to be careful to not beleive that they can do the difficult job of us as humans being fully there for each other, to listen to each other. But I don’t want to abandon the fact that we can learn more about ourselves and about how to interact with others by experimenting in virtual worlds. They can offer safe environments for learning, where mistakes are not as severely punished, and where the shunned and the bullied can find rest, shelter, and understanding. Turke’s concept of virtual words as moratoriums are something that is still important. She wrote about people who after traumatic experiences spent lots of time in textbased virtual worlds, these becoming environments where they could rest, and after a few months come back to spend more time in the real world, when they were less vulnerable.
It is a tricky issue. I am thinking of the woman that Turkle described in her talk, who was talking about her grief with a robot baby seal.
In the text based worlds the conversations held were held by other human beings, who interacted in real time with each other by the affordances given by the particular game worlds. That was not short tweets creating conversations fragmented by asynchronicity in time and by the fact that the recipient of any comment depends on who happens to see it.
I want us to use the power of computation to become more ourselves. To focus more. To see each other more clearly. To communicate with greater clarity and understanding. Help us overcome our superstitions about each other - that the other should be in a certain way because of the properties we are given by reality (the gender, the culture, the looks of the body, all that we are born with.) I don’t want to abandon the idea that we may, if we put our mental efforts and creativity in o it, find means to facilitate the true meeting of minds.
That is why I have dedicated so much time to experiment with ways to use what we know about humans (psychology etc), and art (our potential) and technology (engineering, to actually program it) to the concept of the Avatar. That is, putting more intelligence into the vehicles for our identities, into us, so that we may see each other, and ourselves, more clearly.
What if the woman in the hospital grieving the loss of her child would not talk to a baby-seal-robot, but to a fellow human being operating with their full potential, with all they have to give in terms of clarity, compassion, understanding, and accommodation.