I finally started Turkle’s Alone Together…thoughts on connections between ELIZA and Facebook

I’m getting started with Sherry Turkle’s newest book Alone Together and it raises some salient issues in terms of my research with teen bloggers and the audience in online communication.

In the first part of the book, she describes interactions with ELIZA, a program written by Joseph Weizenbaum to act as a psychoanalytic therapist.  This video gives you a good idea of what it was like to interact with the program:

Notice that ELIZA responds with a predetermined set of queries once provoked with input from the user.

Turkle notes that people would almost always start with “Hello” or “Hi how are you today?” And then would, as interchanges went on, tell ELIZA secrets, as if it were a confidant!

My brother and I used to play with a similar program called Dr. Sbaitso.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sV3pYZZ2jEw

(We used to swear at him and this would cause a “Parity Error”!)

We would converse with this computer program. We were aware that it was a computer program. We knew that it wasn’t sentient. Yet it was intriguing I remember, and I remember engaging with it to find out if it was really aware.

So what does this have to do with my research?

As I was thinking about all this, I realized that maybe the way that teens are thinking about their audience when they are writing online in the blog environment has nothing to do with the network or the globalized communication capabilities of the computer/ the distant audiences that the Internet makes possible. Instead, perhaps they are thinking just about the physical hardware in front of them. In blogging for example, you approach this computer, you start typing and telling it things essentially, as if it were sentient, as if it cared…we want to interact with these machines for some reason. It’s almost like we would feel better if they were more lifelike.

I’ve often wondered about the trend I have noted where I will see teens write “Goodnight, Facebook”. Are they addressing “Facebook”? All of their Facebook friends? It’s always reminded me of how people would name their diaries people names. Like Anne Frank addressed hers “Dear Kitty”, almost as if she were addressing the diary itself.

Turkle writes:

“Why would we want to be in conversation with machines that cannot understand or care for us?… ELIZA’s popularity revealed more than people’s willingness to talk to machines; it revealed their reluctance to talk to other people. The idea of an attentive machine provides the fantasy that we may escape from each other. When we say we look forward to computer judges, counselors, teachers, and pastors, we comment on our disappointments with people who have not cared or who have treated us with bias or even abuse. These disappointments begin to make a machine’s performance of caring seem like caring enough. We are willing to put aside a program’s lack of understanding and, indeed, to work to make it seem to understand more than it does—all to create the fantasy that there is an alternative to people. This is the deeper “ELIZA effect.” Trust in ELIZA does not speak to what we think ELIZA will understand but to our lack of trust in the people who might understand.” – Turkle, Alone Together

 

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