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PN: Computers have become so much a part of our lives that it's almost impossible to imagine life before they came along. Let's start with your taking us back to the very earliest stages of your research. What first stood out for you back then about how people regarded their computers?
ST: My first book, The Second Self, written back in 1984, was really about the one-on-one connection that people were then developing with their computers, before the full onset of the networked Internet culture. It's hard to believe this now, but back when I first started studying technology, people still weren't sure what to do with computers. We used to have meetings at MIT in which people would say, "OK, what are we going to do with them? " I remember somebody suggesting that computers might serve as good calendars, and somebody else scoffed at that idea because we already had datebooks that made perfectly good calendars—after all, you could just easily flip through it and get a sense of your week, your month, your entire year. I mean people went on and on about the perfection of the datebook and how you wouldn't want to use computers for this. Of course, today, we can't stop thinking of things we want our computers to do. We upload every detail of our lives, store our life stories in photos, blog our innermost thoughts to the entire world on them. But 30 years ago, all that was literally unimaginable.
PN: So what did the people you hung out with at that time think computers were good for?
ST: Part for mathematical computations, scientific uses, games, and, of course, doing your taxes.
PN: Clearly a lot has changed.
ST: And I have to admit that in my early books, which were very upbeat about all the possibilities of computers, I didn't anticipate some of the problems with our anthropomorphic connection with technology. I didn't foresee the intensity of the bond people would form with the Internet and all the new possibilities for adapting technology that it created. Now we're even beginning to develop computerized robots that people can relate to as if they were friends, programmed to take the initiative and say, "I love you, let's hang!" (laughs)—making us feel that they're somehow "human" and that they "care" for us, even though they're still machines.
Many people may still think of this as science fiction, but there have been huge advances in designing robots that give the illusion that there's somebody home. They can gesture and push Darwinian buttons—eye contact and saying a person's name—that make people feel that these machines are "intelligent." When it comes to connectivity with robots, we're extremely cheap dates. But what makes humans special is that we have a life cycle. We have desires for sexuality and love, we have a story, and we eventually have to consider what it means to lose the people we love and to face our own ends. All those are things that machines don't face, don't consider. But there's beginning to be talk about using robots to care for the elderly, for example. But if you delegate the care of your mother to a robot that has no idea that she exists, how does that coarsen the quality of human connection?
PN: What's happened between the upbeat book you wrote in the mid-1990s, Life on the Screen, and your attitude today?
ST: I wrote Life on the Screen when people were just beginning to go online to experiment with new identities—men could play women, women could play men, and in this experimentation with identity, they'd learn more about themselves. I felt hopeful about the self-reflection that this might provoke. Now, I face a different environment. What dominates now is a world of always-on mobile connection. Now, the research that confronts us is how despite its seductions, multitasking degrades people's performance on just about all dimensions. People may get a shot of dopamine that makes them temporarily feel great, but there's no substitute for giving a task your full attention. And that's the big issue with technology today: the degree to which fewer and fewer things are getting our undivided attention. Some of the most poignant interviews in my new book are with children saying, "I want my parents' full attention. I don't want my mother picking me up at school while looking at her BlackBerry. My father used to watch football with me. Now he watches the game but is scrolling through his messages until there is a big play. I feel less with him."