The 1982 Ridley Scott film, Blade Runner, featured "replicants"—mechanical devices visually indistinguishable from humans, although a test of human empathy could distinguish replicants from actual people.
Harrison Ford—playing a burnt out blade runner, a former policeman who hunts down replicants—falls in love with an enhanced model, Rachael, who has had a human's memory implanted. Of course, a beautiful human actress (Sean Young) plays Rachael, since no robot—then or now—comes close to being a convincing human being.
The film ends with Ford and Rachael going off into the sunset—possibly.
How does that ending make you feel? And, if you were around in 1982, have your feelings about it changed in the 30 years since the film was made?
MIT social psychologist Shelly Turkle has written Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. The book description is: "Developing technology promises closeness. Sometimes it delivers, but much of our modern life leaves us less connected with people and more connected to simulations of them." (See my post on this matter, "The End of Solitude, the Eternity of Aloneness.")
For Turkle, human contact—represented best by conversation—is fading fast. Conversation simply requires too much energy and takes our concentration away from ourselves. What's more, we—and especially young people—are losing the ability, along with the motivation, to converse.
Which is why people prefer to keep up with friends through Facebook and Twitter—generic recitations and life announcements. Or why you see people texting in the middle of their interactions with actual people. Or why, when walking someplace beautiful, many (soon to be most?) people are looking towards the device in their hands rather than at the ocean, the sky, the trees, or the people around them. Or why, if you want to ask someone on the street for directions, it seems impossible to find a person not cocooned by earphones.
Turkle notes in a New York Times opinion piece, "The Flight from Conversation," that, for our most intimate moments, we now have—or are developing—machines that people prefer over human contact. In the classic 1983 Lawrence Kasdan film, The Big Chill, the seven former college friends meeting again years after their graduation all lay out their chemical aids (cigarettes, tranquilizers, booze) by their bedsides.
Oh, we still have all of those props (except maybe not cigarettes so much, but these have been more than replaced with new meds). But we have gone well beyond them in finding ways to block out external stimuli. A corporate executive related to Turkle the protective worlds young people now create for themselves:
Young associates lay out their suite of technologies: laptops, iPods and multiple phones. And then they put their earphones on. “Big ones. Like pilots. They turn their desks into cockpits.” With the young lawyers in their cockpits, the office is quiet, a quiet that does not ask to be broken.
But here is what is most chilling in Turkle's vision of our "brave" (actually fear-inspired) new world—what might be called, "intimacy with a Cyborg":
Serious people muse about the future of computer programs as psychiatrists. A high school sophomore confides to me that he wishes he could talk to an artificial intelligence program instead of his dad about dating; he says the A.I. would have so much more in its database. Indeed, many people tell me they hope that as Siri, the digital assistant on Apple’s iPhone, becomes more advanced, “she” will be more and more like a best friend — one who will listen when others won’t.
Siri right now is a joke. What if subsequent technical improvements enabled "her" to be your best friend? Your truest confidante? Your lover? (Have you seen the ads where the man falls for the female voice on his GPS?)
Iterative computer programs now pick up and mimic the language a person uses in writing to the program — which then succeeds in convincing the person they are communicating with another person. But nothing that elaborate is required for a cyborg-replicant-dummy to gain the trust—the surrender—of a living human, as Turkle describes:
I have often heard the sentiment “No one is listening to me.” I believe this feeling helps explain why it is so appealing to have a Facebook page or a Twitter feed — each provides so many automatic listeners. And it helps explain why — against all reason — so many of us are willing to talk to machines that seem to care about us. Researchers around the world are busy inventing sociable robots, designed to be companions to the elderly, to children, to all of us.
One of the most haunting experiences during my research came when I brought one of these robots, designed in the shape of a baby seal, to an elder-care facility, and an older woman began to talk to it about the loss of her child. The robot seemed to be looking into her eyes. It seemed to be following the conversation. The woman was comforted.
Consider Spencer Tracy, esteemed as one of a handful of the best American film actors, as depicted in a biography by James Curtis, nearing the end of his life (Tracy was prematurely aged when he was in his fifties, primarily due to his drinking). An old friend said: "He would come up every once in a while. I really think he was lonesome."
Tracy's favorite thing in the world was to drive up the coast. . . . he'd take Sally Erskine with him. . . . She never saw him take a drink, but he would talk about it. "He would say, 'Oh Sally, I used to be in the gutter.' He told me the most horrible things about himself. I was somebody new to confess to, perhaps—I don't know what it was, perhaps [someone] younger."
Seemingly any person—and especially, of course, an attractive younger woman—can make almost any other person—and especially an older roué—happy by simply listening attentively while they talk about themselves. It isn't very far from these feelings to ones of love, and of being loved.
Infants and children hold close to their bosoms stuffed animals and substitute imaginary companions for challenging relationships — or for absent people who love them. But we as adults require only slightly more cinema verité to exhibit exactly the same proclivities.
As a society, we are descending into our second infancy.
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