Academic journal article Information Technology and Libraries

Editorial: Singularity-Are We There, Yet?

Academic journal article Information Technology and Libraries

Editorial: Singularity-Are We There, Yet?

Article excerpt

In my last column, I wrote about two books--Nicholas Carr's The Shallows and William Powers' Hamlet's Blackberry--relating to learning in the always-on, always connected environment of "screens." (1) Since then, two additional works have come to my attention. While I won't be able to do them justice in the space I have here, they deserve careful consideration and open discussion by those of us in the library community.

If Carr's and Power's books are about how we learn in an always-connected world of screens, Sherry Turkle's Alone Together and Elias Aboujaoude's Virtually You are about who we are in the process of becoming in that world. (2) Turkle is a psychologist at MIT who studies human-computer interactions. Among her previous works are The Second Self (1984) and Life on the Screen (1995). Aboujaoude is a psychiatrist at the Stanford University School of Medicine, where he serves as director of the Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Clinic and the Impulse Control Disorders Clinic. Based on extensive coverage of specialist and popular literature, as well as numerous anonymized accounts of patients and subjects encountered by the authors, both works are characterized by thorough research and thoughtful analysis.

While their approaches to the topic of "what we are becoming" as a result of screens may differ-Aboujaoude's, for example, focuses on "templates" and the terminology of traditional psychiatry, while Turkle's examines the relationship between loneliness and solitude (they are different), and how these in turn relate to the world of screens--their observations of the everyday manifestations of what might be called the pathology of screens bear many common threads. I'm acutely aware of the potential for injustice (at best) and misrepresentation or misunderstanding (rather worse) that I risk in seeking to distill two very complex studies into such a small space. And, frankly, I'm still trying to wrap my head around both the books and the larger issues they raise. With that caveat, I still think we should be reading about and widely discussing the phenomena reported, which many of us observe on a daily basis. In the sections that follow, I'd like to touch on a very few themes that emerge from these books.

"Why Do People No Longer Suffice?" (3)

A pair of anecdotes that Turkle recounts to explain her reasons for writing the current book seems worth sharing at the outset. In the first, she describes taking her then-fourteen-year-old daughter, Rebecca, to the Charles Darwin exhibition at New York's American Museum of Natural History in 2005. Among the many artifacts on display was a pair of live giant Galapagos tortoises: "One tortoise was hidden from view; the other rested in its cage, utterly still. Rebecca inspected the visible tortoise thoughtfully for a while and then said matter-of-factly, 'They could have used a robot.'" When Turkle queried other bystanders, many of the children agreed, with one saying, 'For what the turtles do, you didn't have to have live ones.'" In this case, "alive enough" was sufficient for the purpose at hand. (4)

Sometime later, Turkle read and publicly expressed her reservations about British computer scientist David Levy's book, Love and Sex with Robots, in which Levy predicted that by the middle of this century,

   Love with robots will be as normal as love with other
   humans, while the number of sexual acts and lovemaking
   positions commonly practiced between humans
   will be extended, as robots will teach more than is in
   all of the world's published sex manuals combined. (5)

Contacted by a reporter from Scientific American about her comments regarding Levy's book, Turkle was stunned when the reporter, equating the possibility of relationships between humans and robots with gay and lesbian relationships, accused her of likewise opposing these human-to-human relationships. If we now have reached a point where gay and lesbian relationships can strike us as comparable to human-to-machine relationships, something very important has changed; for Turkle, it suggested that we are on the threshold of what she terms the "robotic moment":

   This does not mean that companionate robots are common
   among us; it refers to our state of emotional--and
   I would say philosophical--readiness. … 
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