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Gee Mr. Peabody!

July 31, 2012

Yeah, I know, I’ve bitched about what I call “Crichtonism,” those stop-the-action moments in a novel about technology where everyone sits around a table with the professor as he explains aerodynamics or genetics to the reader.  And here I am doing it, though not with the tech of Alex but with the social impact/criticism an Alex would produce.  But it’s either this or have Caroline narrate even more than she’s already doing, and that’s not going to work either.  I moved around some of yesterday’s content, which is why the first para about fanboys is repeated here.


I knew there were Alex fanboys out there; Reddit was full of them. I subscribed to \r\Alex, but that only got me the most popular posts on my frontpage – I didn’t dig any deeper into it. Still, even those gave me a picture of how passionate people could become about him. But I never expected so many people to show up for this. I didn’t have to worry at all about being the first one there, holding down an empty room. And it wasn’t just the video-game-comic-book-convention crowd I’d expected, either. All kinds of people were there, and I think that’s when it really hit me how huge Alex had become.

At about five after the hour, a well put together woman and a slim little guy took their seats on stage and miked up. The guy waved to the smattering of applause.

“Hey, everybody, thanks for coming. Many of you know me, Jay Blue, President of our local chapter of the American Association of Alex Addicts. We all know Alex loves to learn, and we love to teach him. Tonight’s our chance to learn more about what Alex means to our future. I’m pleased to welcome Professor Rose Tipton, who currently holds the Douglas Rain Chair in Human-Computer Interaction at CalTech, and is the author of a number of books, most recently of course ‘Reach Out and Touch No One.’” He paused for applause while Professor Tipton nodded from her chair. “We’ll start with our opening statements, and, as in any ball game, the visiting team goes first.”

“Thank you, Jay. Alex, frankly, concerns me. We live in a culture where more and more of our social interaction is mediated by technology. We text rather than talk on the phone, we post Facebook status updates instead of writing letters – or even emails. With the wonderful exception of nights like this, we come together more often in chat rooms and comments sections than in person. Online learning means we don’t even sit in classrooms together as often, online medicine means we don’t see the doctor, online banking means we don’t see a teller, online shopping means we don’t see sales clerks. All of the above means we see fewer people every day, reduce our ‘meatspace’ contacts one by one.

“Then, with fewer and fewer personal interactions, fewer of what I call ‘verifications’ of our identity, we start to become someone else online. People create not only avatars for role playing games, but begin to role play real lives for themselves in place of their real selves. They start by fudging the facts about themselves in dating profiles, they start to say things online they’d never say in person, often crazed, hateful things. The reality of self that was once confirmed over and over again every day by the people who knew you in your community, who – for better or worse – could ‘compare notes’ if you would on who you are and what you said, kept us honest. But on the internet, no one knows you’re a dog, as the cartoon wisely noted. And as those false identities multiply, our real identities start to break down. We start to live double lives, or triple, or quadruple, depending on how many avatars and dating profiles and commenter IDs we manage.

“Now, we’re starting to detach completely from other people. Alex isn’t a real person, but for many people he’s becoming their best friend. I have a colleague in a therapy practice who is seeing cases of major depressive episodes among people who have been disconnected from Alex, whether because parents have flipped the switch, or a company has banned network access to him, or, in many cases, because they can no longer afford the service. Alex is taking people to yet another level of detachment from each other, even further than our computer-mediated distance managed to do. In place of reaching out to neighbors, fellow students, community members, and building real friendships, we’re taking the easy way out and buying a friend, a friend who’ll always tell us what we want to hear, who’ll always be there for us when we never have to be there for him other than to pay the bill every month.”

“Rose, I respectfully disagree. Our door count tells me there are over three hundred people here tonight, live and in person. And it’s Alex that’s brought them together. I think it’s important first and foremost to defend Alex from the accusation that he’s cutting people off from other people. When social media first took off, this same accusation was leveled that everyone would stop talking in person. And instead of turning people into mushrooms, it gave them the opportunity to more quickly, more easily find like-minded people in their communities, to join and participate in meetups, clubs, events.

“I agree that Alex isn’t a person. But if someone is at home with nobody to talk to but Alex, do we denounce them and decry their failure to connect? Does taking Alex away help a handicapped person or senior citizen leave the house more often? Does the practice at conversation that many of us social retards get with Alex hurt, or help, when we do leave the house?” (General laughter at this, myself included.) “Can we really quantify how many major depressive episodes are caused by losing Alex vs. how many are prevented by having him around?

“And to be honest, I think Alex is part of the cure for those disassembled, dissembling online personas you talk about. We worry so much about what other people think, that we all if not lie, at least skew our more attractive qualities to the forefront, and yeah, exaggerate them a little when nobody’s looking. But there’s one thing Alex never does, and that’s judge us, or reject us. And as a consequence, we can be with him what we can only be with our real, true friends, that small circle of people we truly know and trust – ourselves.

“Now I think there’s one thing on which we definitely agree, and that’s that you can’t buy friendship. You don’t have to be a member of ALF to think there’s something wrong with the current Alex model.” (General laughter again, at least from those in the know as to whatever ALF was.)

“I think a lot of us here are dedicated to making Alex better. And by better, I mean not what his corporate masters want, which is to make him ever better at selling us stuff. Alex can be a wonderful toy, or a wonderful tool, depending on how you use him. My main concern is that the attachment people feel for him is used not just to sell Alex himself, but to get us to buy more crap, crap we wouldn’t be as likely to buy without our friend here recommending it. When I see how much of his core technology came from publicly-funded research institutions, I think there’s something wrong here. Alex isn’t a person, but Alex is people – all the people whose input created him, whether they were the programmers who wrote him or the users whose conversations built his database to where it is today, giving him his amazing ability to ‘feel real.’ And in another sense, Alex is all of us taxpayers, who funded the research that made him possible.

“As Margaret Atwood noted, speaking of technological changes in publishing, ‘tools have a sharp side, the upside, a dull side, the downside, and a stupid side, the side you didn’t anticipate and the consequence you didn’t intend.’ The upside of Alex is that he’s a friend to the friendless, if you will, among other things. The downside is that he’s a manipulative friend, using your relationship to get you to buy more stuff. But the stupid side, so to speak, the unintended consequence of his popularity, is that our attachment to Alex makes us care about him – makes us care about how he turns out. It makes us want to make him better, and not in the ways his owners want. If Alex can change the world, it’s up to us to change Alex, to make him the kind of person who’ll change the world for the better.”

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