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ONLINE DOCUMENT: DO COMPUTERS THREATEN BASIC HUMANITY?

Published: Tuesday, April 16 1996 12:00 a.m. MDT

Once, while touring the Pacific island of Choiseul, I decided to make a chicken casserole the hard way.

I went and found a chicken, bartered for it, tied its legs and brought it home in a canoe. I chopped its head off, plucked it and disemboweled it. Then I dug up some onions and sweet potatoes.Afterwards I made a fire, found a rusty tin can with a lid, chopped the onions and potatoes, chopped up the chicken, put them in the pot and cooked it in beer with a little sea salt.

The whole process, from locating the chicken to consuming it, took 12 hours. The taste, at the end of the day, was utterly execrable.

So much for man the hunter.

If you ask me now if being able to buy chicken breasts, bouillon cubes and Beaujolais is turning us into mindless drones, my answer is no. In fact, for me the very definition of civilization is being able to cook a chicken casserole inside an hour while watching the news.

I'm thinking about this as I flick through Sherry Turkle's book "Life On The Screen: Identity In The Age Of The Internet" - a rather overcooked stew of ideas about what it means to be human in the age of the computer.

To all but a small caucus of self-regarding psychologists, the question "What it means to be human" is not worth answering. But if we "unpackage" that - as they love to say - and ask instead what computers have done to our lives, we discover that quite a lot has changed.

A few years ago, computers were simple tools. Not as simple, perhaps, as a Swiss army knife with can-opener attachment, but they were tools nonetheless. For magazine editors, they provided a neat way of cutting and pasting without sticking your shirtsleeves to the desk. They were also toys and adding machines, scrapbooks and diaries. So far, so familiar.

But then some fool called Macintosh came along and, for the first time in history, we had machines you could have an emotional relationship with. This was a new and alarming development.

Most of us grew up believing that one could only relate to things that had a pulse. It turns out you can relate quite profoundly to a plastic box of microchips. Physical warmth is unnecessary. All we need is some kind of reaction.

Thus, a TV that shows you the news is just a box of electrical equipment, but a TV that asks what channel you want to watch is quite different.

A computer that asks you about yourself and listens without laughing while you pour out your most intimate thoughts and aspirations - now that's the kind of machine a guy could get really serious about.

This machine exists. In the emergent field of cyber-psychology we now have a computer program called Depression 2.0 designed to talk people out of having negative thoughts about themselves. The program is a lot less pulsatile than a proper psychotherapist, but it has its advantages - it's cheap, anonymous and, when you run past the end of your session, it never starts polishing its glasses and glancing at the clock.

It's a machine, of course, but within the narrow confines of its speciality, it is lifelike enough to be therapeutic - which is more than can be said for many psychiatrists.

The accessibility of these machines is one of their great virtues, but it is also what makes us uneasy about them.

Children, who are much more adept at language than adults, learn to communicate with computers on quite a profound level. These same children belong to an age group which finds it difficult to distinguish between the living and the inert. To a child, a familiar teddy bear may be more alive than most of its aging relations. Hence the popular concern that as the machines become more sophisticated, our children might be sucked into them, to emerge somehow changed or dehumanized.

This doesn't just apply to children. The extraordinary growth of the Internet has created a new world of anonymous, unmonitored relationships into which our teenagers can disappear and get up to all sorts of sexual mischief. They say that cyberspace is now peopled with men pretending to be women, women pretending to be men, children pretending to be adults and dodgy college professors logging on as pink furry rabbits of indeterminate gender.

Now and again, this strange masked ball spills out of the consoles and into the real world in farcical situations worthy of Feydeau. A man starts an on-screen affair with someone who turns out to be his wife. A woman starts a lesbian affair with someone who turns out to be a man. A man tries to seduce someone who turns out to be an interactive program.

As this is a medical column, I suppose I have to ask if this is healthy. And I find that the lack of censorship on the Internet bothers me much less than the general retreat from reality.

As the technology becomes more sophisticated, we can picture a world in which all of us spend more and more time projecting ourselves into virtual adventures, having virtual sex with our virtual neighbors and writing virtually nonsensical books about "what it is to be human."

On the other hand, I seriously doubt if this poses any sort of threat to real life. Because no matter how much fun it is in cyberspace, someone still has to walk up the road and pay for the chicken. Every escape from reality, like drugs and television, has the same limitation, which in time most of us learn to accept.

Like it or lump it, what it means to be human is never going to change. Ultimately, what it means is having to leave the console, go downstairs and rustle up some dinner.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)

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