Island of the Crackberry Readers

lotuseaters.jpgSherry Turkle is an MIT scholar who’s written some fascinating reflections on how humans relate to computers. As director of the Initiative on Technology and Self at MIT, she’s been pretty enthusiastic about artificial intelligence (AI) and machines that (appear to) think. But she’s started to question the acceleration of these developments recently…in ways that might intrigue lawyers and just about anyone in technology-intensive industries.

Turkle’s research began as she watched children and the elderly interact with more and more sophisticated simulacra of animals:

Children approach a Furby or a My Real Baby and explore what it means to think of these creatures as alive or “sort of alive”; elders in a nursing play with the robot Paro and grapple with how to characterize this creature that presents

itself as a baby seal. They move from inquiries such as “Does it swim?” and “Does it eat?” to “Is it alive?” and “Can it love?”

As any fan of the movie AI knows, these are profound issues in themselves. Turkle worries about a society where children no longer appreciate the difference between the born and the made….and busy adults leave their aging parents with an array of sophisticated toys to entertain them, rather than visiting.

But Turkle’s latest work broadens this concern to the array of technological devices that are becoming indispensable to urban professionals. Have you ever been left “holding the bag” as a friend rifles through email messages or texts someone? If manners are “small morals,” such activities actually represent a shift in our moral lives–toward an intense connection with a cybernetwork, and away from the presence of those around us. The devices become an excuse for constant distraction. Even more importantly, we can get on a “positional treadmill” such that a device like the BlackBerry is less a form of advantage than a necessity to avoid falling behind.

Recalling Borsook’s book Cyberselfish, Turkle argues that these devices create a “new narcissism”–not mere self-concern, but narcissism in the technical sense, of persons who are so fragile they are in constant need of being “shored up.”

She sees the new technologies of connection and robotics as not merely instrumental, but constitutive, of our ends–we don’t merely use them, but they change how we think and reinforce certain character traits.

When devices like the iPhone are heralded as life changing, and our new Cartesian motto is “iPod therefore I am,” we may well be participating in a tech culture that simultaneously enables “social networking” and displaces real world friendships. This is a theme of Richard Powers’s brilliant The Echomaker, where he describes the internet in a fictionalized Kearney, Nebraska as basically decimating old patterns of social life there.

So what to do? I have no easy answers now, but I hope to think more about “virtuality and its discontents” here. Perhaps work like Turkle’s cautions us against a world where “self-expression becomes more important than social action.” And as we shape law’s treatment of friendship, and virtual worlds, we should think about how technology tethers us in certain ways even as it frees us in others.

Photo Explanation: Clarkson Stanfield, Illustration for Tennyson’s The Lotus Eaters, a nod to the inspiration for the post title.

PS: Many of the ideas above were in an address by Turkle in New York last month. Download the podcast from the New York Academy of Sciences here or here (for the full talk).

Frank Pasquale

Frank is Professor of Law at the University of Maryland. His research agenda focuses on challenges posed to information law by rapidly changing technology, particularly in the health care, internet, and finance industries.

Frank accepts comments via email, at All comments emailed to may be posted here (in whole or in part), with or without attribution, either as "Dissents of the Day" or as parts of follow-up post(s). Please indicate in your comment whether or not you would like attribution, or would prefer your comment (if it is selected for posting) to be anonymous.

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12 Responses

  1. Greg Lastowka says:

    Hey Frank —

    Just a note: this is the second time Co-Op has had a post on Turkle and AI. But I didn’t get any comments! 🙂

    But you’ve got me interested, so here’s my 2 cents.

    1 cent: Turkle is right to be concerned about the way AI interactions displace/modify human interactions. Actually, there are some studies on the cognitive science of “mindlessness” that suggest that the effects of this kind of animistic confusion might go deeper than technologies of AI or simulated creatures.

    2 cent: Re the blackberries and all, I don’t know. People have made this pitch before. Remember Clifford Stoll and Silicon Snake Oil? I’m pretty sure people said the same things about the telephone. I think there’s some substance there, but there are limits to how far you can take the criticism, even in the case of contemporary technologies.

    E.g. If you’ve got people watching TV 20 hours a week, are they better or worse off if they are socializing online for those 20 hours?

    Some thoughts here:

    You might say it would be better if they were socializing face to face for those 20 hours. And I might agree with you… if I weren’t commenting on your blog post!!! 🙂

  2. Bruce Boyden says:

    My preferred take on this issue is from ScrappleFace:

    “Study: Family, Friends Reduce Quality Internet Time”

  3. Frank says:

    BB: Ha! Yes, perhaps it’s not as serious as all that.

    GL: I look forward to the mindlessness research. As for the baseline: yes, perhaps ala Benkler we’re better off as creators of culture (even dreck culture) than solely consumers of it. As for you last point…that’s the hardest. Perhaps only a committed band of technology users can resist tech-hegemony!

  4. GTH says:

    Turkle’s life on the screen book is a better view of all this than the late stuff.

  5. anon says:

    and maybe tech can be the answer, by connecting people better.

  6. Frank, there’s a PDF here with an example of the research I’m talking about:

    Thought being: it may not be so much an intentional and mistaken ascription of agency to technology, but may instead be the working of a generally sensible heuristic.

  7. Nate Oman says:

    I didn’t think that there were any fans of the movie AI. I myself think of it as an instructive example of the havoc wrought by the decline of the studio system and the rise of superstar directors to power. In an appropriately Stalinist corporate culture, such an enormously long and meandering mostrosity would have been left on the cutting room floor…

  8. Frank says:

    GL: Thanks for the link. The “mindlessness” issue could get us pretty quickly into the counterideal of “mindfulness” from the Buddhist tradition…but I’ll wait till the March window is over to get into that topic! It deserves a hearing.

    NO: Say it ain’t so! Yes, the last third is Hollywood pablum….I’d go so far as to say a secular humanist vision of a tech utopia put in the place of traditional soteriology. But the first parts are, I think, unusually sensitive portrayals of how technology can be misused.

  9. If AI is about the “decline of the studio system and the rise of superstar directors to power” — it’s unusual because it’s about the rise of *two* superstar directors (Kubrick and Spielberg), who had wildly divergent visions of how to make a film about a short story by Brian Aldiss.

    More background here:

    and too much on IMDB

    In short, Spielberg wanted to be honoring Kubrick who was translating Aldiss while still having a Spielberg vision — in a way, the film is really about the *lack* of the vision of a single superstar director.

    And that said, for me, the incoherence actually makes the film much better. There’s a whole lot of effort, by writers, actors, and directors, to put things into the film. There’s great stuff there that, yes, doesn’t tie together, but is still great stuff. The end is pure Spielberg while the plot is mostly Kubrick.

    But at this point, the last thing I want from Hollywood is another clean consumer package with well-rounded edges where all the pieces fit. I honestly like it better when Hollywood bites off more than it can chew.

  10. Bruce Boyden says:

    I’m sort of between Nate and Frank on AI — everything after he gets left in the woods sucks, and the ending made me ashamed to be a member of the same culture.

    But the first bit was actually pretty good, until he leaves the house. Chop it off at about 30 minutes, and it’s a good short film.

  11. Hey, your spam filter caught my last comment — can someone approve it? I want to be heard in defense of the movie. 🙂

  12. Can I briefly defend the ending here?

    Yeah, the aliens are hokey. Yes, the sentiment is Hallmark. And yes, the whole thing offends logic. Spielberg is pulling out all the stops, appending to the script just to get you to reach for the box of tissues.

    But two things… 1) consider that *any* film you see about a “real fictional person” is a first-order simulacra. Spielberg clearly gets this and is playing with its implications for a film about a simulated person. 2) Check out the Teddy Bear! Spielberg understood the Teddy Bear as a foil to the artificial child — he did some really nice things with that.