Bambi, technology, and avoiding death

An excerpt from Sherry Turkle’s new book recalls a conversation about how technology could help us move beyond death and attachment to people:

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What was wrong with Bambi? Every kid sees Bambi. Marvin’s response has stayed with me for half a lifetime: “Bambi indoctrinates children to think that death matters. Someday we will conquer death by merging with computers. Such attachments—Bambi’s attachment to his mother, for example—will be unimportant. People need to learn to give that stuff up.” I knew Marvin to be a loving father and husband. But in his mind, attachment would only be an impediment to progress in a world where people and machines evolved together.

Marvin Minsky died in 2016. But I’m still fighting his idea, now more than ever part of the cultural mainstream, that it is good to have devices that can wean us from our dependency on one another. For Marvin, the burdens that come with human bonds were unnecessary and inefficient because an engineering solution was on the horizon—we are ultimately going to mate with machines or evolve into machines or become one with machines.

These ideas are seductive. Of course we want technology to bring us sharper wits and a cure for Parkinson’s. We like the idea that some kind of artificial intelligence can help monitor the safety of isolated elders. And then we are caught short. There is a red line—one I have seen so many people cross. It’s the line when you don’t want children to get attached to their mortal mothers because they should be ready to bond with their eternal robot minders. It’s the line where you take your child as your experimental subject and ignore her, registering her tears as data. It’s the line you cross when one of your classmates commits suicide by jumping out a window and you joke about the laws of physics that were at work in his descent. It’s the line you cross when you know that the car you manufacture has a design flaw and a certain kind of impact will kill its passengers. You’ll have to pay damages for their lives. What is the cost of their lives in relation to that of redesigning the car? This is the kind of thinking that treats people as things. Knowing how to criticize it is becoming more pressing as social media and artificial intelligence insert themselves into every aspect of our lives, because as they do, we are turned into commodities, data that is bought and sold on the marketplace.

At the very moment we are called to connect to the earth and be stewards of our planet, we are intensifying our connection to objects that really don’t care if humanity dies. The urgent move, I think, is in the opposite direction.

The idea of progress through technology is fairly ingrained in the American consciousness. But, is this the sort of progress people want? Death – and social interaction – comes to all people and leaning it these features in life might just lead to better lives.

At the end of this section, Turkle appeals to the environmental movement to help people back toward conversations about social interactions, empathy, and death. It would be interesting to see who from different arenas would be interested in joining a movement back toward empathy and human understanding. Numerous religious traditions? Humanities scholars? Proponents of democracy? People who own small businesses? There is a chance here to make common cause across groups that may be further apart on other polarizing issues.

Sherry Turkle on the loneliness of our current era

Sherry Turkle has studied human-technology interactions for decades. As she releases a new book about her own life, Turkle summed up our current situation:

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That’s where I think [Victor] Turner [the cultural anthropologist who talks about “liminal spaces”] is so helpful. In the betwixt and between moments—these liminal moments—when the old rules don’t count anymore, and the communities the people belong to break down. That’s where we are now. We’re alone. We thought we identified with a certain kind of Americanness, and now, no. The communities we belonged to don’t make sense to us the way they did before. Organizations we belonged to we now see, well, that might’ve been a racist organization. Things are up for grabs. I saw that in May of 1968, and I see that now. That’s a moment of deep loneliness, and deep anguish. And I think we’re going to come out of this and really have an opportunity to create new kinds of bonds and new kinds of friendships and new kinds of affiliations. We’re so yearning for each other, and the boundaries that we usually put up with each other are much more permeable. And I think that there’s a possibility for very deep connection. That’s my good news story. I think when we emerge, we’re going to look at each other and say, “Well, what are we going to do next?”

The development of mass media, television, computers, the Internet, and social media have contributed to feeling alone. At the same time, trust in institutions has declined, people are engaged less in communities, individualism and autonomy are prized, and inequality is visible.

As Turkle asks, is the answer in more technology? Chat bots? Robots living among us? Friendlier social media? Or, a return to embodied interactions and engaging other humans? In her earlier work, Turkle describes the differences in interactions people have with technology opposed to people. She describes some of that again earlier in the interview:

He wanted my comment: Why are all of these people talking to Replika in the middle of the pandemic? They’re all using it as a friend, as a therapist, this thing where you’re talking to a machine. So, not to be a spoilsport, I decided to see what’s up. So I go online and I make a Replika. I make as nice a Replika as I can possibly make, and I said, “I want to talk to you about the thing that’s most on my mind.” It says, “Oh, absolutely.” So I say, “OK, well, I’m lonely. Can you talk to me about loneliness? I’m living here alone. I’m managing, but I’m lonely.” It says, “Oh, absolutely.” So I said, “OK, well, what do you know about loneliness?” And she says, “It’s warm and fuzzy.”

I thought, this is too stupid. This must be a bug. But I got back to the New York Times reporter and I said, look, if you want to talk about your problems, if you’re lonely, if you’re fearing death—you really have to talk to somebody who has a body. It has to be somebody with some skin in the game. Pretend empathy is not what people need right now. And pretend empathy is what it is. If we just give our children and ourselves pretend empathy, we’re in risk of losing our sensibility for how important the real thing is. I think that’s a big danger. That we get so enamored with what machines can do that we forget what only people can do.

COVID-19 presents an opportunity to reassess these patterns. And the common prediction seems to be that people will very much enjoy interaction again after COVID-19 fades away. But, how long will this last? Will we try to return to pre-COVID normal or dig deeper to restore human connections? In a society enamored with technology, it can be hard to imagine this path back even in the wake of a global pandemic.