Living Today Alone Together

This is the last part of my thoughts from reading Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle, a licensed clinical psychologist. Click here to read part 2.

One of my favorite all-time sci-fi books is Gateway by Frederik Pohl. This book was first published in 1976 and I first read it as a teenager in the 80’s. One of the more interesting concepts in this book was that the main character, Bob Broadhead, takes counsel from a computerized therapist, Sigfrid. I always thought that this was some fantastical dream springing out of the mind of a talented writer. In reality, he was just a good student of human nature and life now imitates art.

In Sherry Turkle’s book, she recounts an experiment she conducted at a nursing home. Turkle brought in several sociable robots, ones that can react and respond to your words and actions. In this case, it was a My Real Baby and she records the experiences of “Jonathan,” a seventy-four year old retired computer technician. After living at the nursing for two years, Jonathan feels isolated and cut-off from the other residents, mainly because he is not sociable and curt to others when they try to reach out to him.

But Jonathan warms up to My Real Baby after a few months and eventually “discusses his life and current problems–mostly loneliness–with the robot.” In fact, when questioned about this, Jonathan replies:

For things about my life that are very private, I would enjoy talking more to a computer … but things that aren’t strictly private, I would enjoy more talking to a person. … Because if the thing is very highly private and very personal, it might be embarrassing to talk about it to another person, and I might be afraid of being ridiculed for it … and it [My Real Baby] wouldn’t criticize me. … Or, let’s say that I wanted to blow off steam. … [I could] express with the computer emotions that I feel I could not express with another person, to a person.

It’s interesting that people are so cautious of being hurt by other people that we would rather talk to a robot which offers nothing more than pre-programmed responses to certain input. Have we done such a poor job of Christ’s command to “love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (John 13:34).

What does this have to do with life issues? Ultimately, life issues all revolve around how we view one another, care for one another, love one another. Do we teach our children that they were created by God for something better than a one-night stand or a hook-up or a “friend with benefits”? Do we reach out to the woman facing an unplanned pregnancy and tell her that she is loved through our words and, more importantly, our actions? Do we look at the person with a disability and treat them as if they were an inconvenience in our lives? Do we ignore the elderly by shuffling them off to nursing homes so we don’t have to care for them ourselves?

In the command to love one another as Christ has loved us (John 13:33-35), Christians are told to open themselves to relationship with each other, which can sometimes result in getting hurt by the other person. Turkle clearly makes the connection between the rise in being “connected” with others online with a desire to avoid being hurt which has clear implications to the Christian witness.

Maybe it’s just me, but I’m trouble by the thought of artificial life replacing real, living people whether in relationships or for other purposes. Eve was created by God for Adam because no other creature satisfied his need for a relationship with a like being (Genesis 2:18-25). Is this desire to seek robotic or online avatar-based relationships evidence of a yet deeper corruption or rejection of God’s perfect design for all persons?