Not long ago I had a bad habit of asking my friends ridiculous hypothetical questions just for amusement’s sake, which probably indicated that I didn’t have anything better to talk about.
But one day in college, I formulated what I thought was a brilliant, or at least thought provoking, question. And so I systematically polled the guys on my cross country team with the following query:
“You meet the woman of your dreams, and she is everything, and I mean everything you’re looking for in a woman—gorgeous, fun, great conversationalist, and etcetera—except…she’s a robot. Would that be a deal breaker?”
Now of course, a question like this requires a bit of qualification. No, she wouldn’t look like the Tin Man from Wizard of Oz—she would have a normal, physical body, except with an artificial robot brain. And no, she wouldn’t be a lifeless automaton—her computer programming would be so fine-tuned that in every way, she would mimic genuine human behavior. Basically, if she didn’t tell you she was actually a robot, you wouldn’t know. The only difference would be that in her mind, she wouldn’t be real—just one’s and zero’s.
Little did I realize that I had unleashed a social thought experiment that would sweep my hyper-geeky campus like wildfire. The mantra became, “Pro-bot, or no-bot?”
Slightly over half of my team was pro-bot (i.e. they would be fine with a robot girlfriend or wife). The women’s team was more no-bot. And I hear that those who frequented the bars just off campus tended to lean more heavily pro-bot. Material reductionists, who believe that human experience essentially consists of the activity of axons and synapses in the brain, tended to see no difference between a human brain and a robot brain—pro-bot. Theists, who acknowledged the reality of the supernatural, tended to think that a robot brain would lack something essentially human, call it a soul or a spirit—no-bot. And people who weren’t sure what to think fell somewhere in between.
Reading this, you might think that such an inquiry is silly, or at least, you might assume that real people in the real world don’t operate with such assumptions.
And so it is that I find Sherry Turkle’s piece from April 21st of the New York Times, “The Flight From Conversation,” to be most fascinating. A psychologist and professor at M.I.T., she has spent years studying the sociological implications of electronic media and communication devices on human lifestyle and culture. And with keen insight she comments on the phenomena of the digital age. With our iPhones and iPads, texting and Facebook posting and Twitter tweeting, she argues that “we have sacrificed conversation for mere connection.” She argues:
“In the silence of connection, people are comforted by being in touch with a lot of people — carefully kept at bay. We can’t get enough of one another if we can use technology to keep one another at distances we can control: not too close, not too far, just right. I think of it as a Goldilocks effect.”
Maybe we would prefer to have robot friends and lovers after all. Based on her research and interviews, Turkle would seem to agree.
But as my friend Matt and I have taken to saying this year, “We’re pushing back against the Beavis and Butthead’s of the world!” Yes, I’m pushing back. I desire genuine conversations and meaningful relationships with real, flesh-and-blood people. We’re fond of wearing masks that project an image to the world of who we want people to think we are, but I’d rather we burn the masks.
We are not our marketed Internet profiles, or our carefully edited tweets and texts. Turkle says that “it is often in unedited moments, moments in which we hesitate and stutter and go silent, that we reveal ourselves to one another.” That’s the kind of person I want to be, and those are the kind of people I want to know.
If there is one thing I have especially learned this year, it is the importance of living coherently and being self-aware of the subtle things I do everyday. Because as James K. A. Smith says, the things we do, ultimately do something to us as well. Liturgies shape us and form us, even the liturgies of the digital age.
I confess that I have explored online dating websites, and like everyone else, I have a Facebook page. I even recently—finally—purchased a text plan for my phone (in some ways I’m slowly crawling into the 20th century), but as I discern what it means to live authentically in the modern world, I need to continually ask myself everyday, “Pro-bot, or no-bot?”
By the way, I prefer no-bot.
Jay Bilsborrow interned at The Washington Institute during his fellows year and currently attends Emory Law School.