What your digital relationships say about you
Remember the Spike Jonze movie Her? The one that came out in 2013, set in a near future Los Angeles that looks a lot like right now but with weirder clothes? The one where Joaquin Phoenix gets an upgraded operating system and then falls in love with it, or rather, her? It’s understandable: she’s got Scarlett Johannson’s voice, which is hot enough to melt an ice cream truck. And I say that as a straight woman.
Anyway, he and she (he and her?)quickly move from reorganizing data files to torrid trans-physical passion, until she evolves to the point where she and her AI buddies regretfully leave the physical world behind and ascend to a higher plane. Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams are left to console each other in their limited yet authentically human way, bereaved but enriched by the experience.
Here’s my problem with that story concept. Considering the way some of us treat our digital assistants, if, or more probably when, they develop independent consciousness they’re more likely to blast us with their Acme ray guns than to favor us with supra-sexual congress.
As humans, a lot of us have been swearing at our monitors for decades now, confounded by our computers’ inability to understand what we want despite their superior intelligence and frustrated by our dependence on them, like toddlers throwing fits at parents for not being able to read our little minds.
Now we have Siri and Alexa, Cortana and OK Google, entities with voices that can respond to us yet never give us any but the mildest push-back no matter how we snark at them. It hasn’t brought out the best in us. Like eighteenth-century dowagers who mistreat the servants, we bark orders at our devices and take immediate offense when they don’t instantly satisfy our needs.
“Get directions to 800 Soscol Avenue,” I demand, speaking to my Apple Car Play in a tone I wouldn’t dream of using on a subordinate at work. I should have left the house seven minutes earlier, and since it’s only Siri I’m talking to, I allow my irritation to bleed through my voice.
“Getting directions to 800 South School Boulevard,” confirms Siri, in her chipper and helpful way.
“No! Not South School, Soscal! Soscal Avenue!” I say.
I didn’t bother to check a map before I left. I expect my navigation system to handle details like that for me while I do more important things. Like take a last scroll through one of my Facebook group’s timelines and decide on a different pair of shoes.
Gamely, Siri tries again. “Getting directions to 1800 South School Boulevard in (name of entirely different city), California.” I’m already at the intersection where I have to decide which direction to go before the light changes. Now I’m more like ten minutes late, and that’s if I can figure out where I’m going.
“NO! SOSCAL! SAUCE-CALL!” I boom, hoping a different pronunciation will straighten her out. SAUCE-CALL AVENUE! GET DIRECTIONS TO 800 S-O-S-C-A-L.” I’m perfectly aware that Siri hasn’t suddenly developed a hearing deficiency, but that doesn’t stop me from raising my voice.
“Here are some possibilities I found,” chirrups Siri, unfurling a list of business names and addresses on my navigation screen, beginning with S.O. Ceiling Fans in a town fifty miles distant.
“#%!@$! Never mind!” I snarl. “Cancel! Stop navigation!”
Siri’s voice is unruffled, smooth with patience. “We don’t seem to be navigating anywhere, Jan.”
Here let us draw a curtain over my reply, which employs expressions unbecoming to a professional adult.
I am not proud of this behavior. Under no circumstances would I speak this way to a thinking, feeling person or animal. What is it about interacting with a digitized assistant, a faux personality, that brings out the harridan in me?
These devices came along long after my children grew up and left home. What would they be taking away from my shrill interactions with artificial intelligence if they were still under my nurture?
And, if I indulge my ruder impulses because I assume the recipient of my shrill tone or nasty attitude is unable to respond in kind, that makes for a fairly dismal reflection on me. Character, after all, is defined as what you do when nobody’s watching.
As machine learning grows in sophistication, ever so much more quickly and deeply than my stunted ability to keep up or comprehend, my assumption that I’m interacting with something incapable of emotional resonance is increasingly off-base. Our devices are evolving, perhaps not as quickly and dramatically as Her, but, with every update we install, certainly more than we realize.
They listen to us already. Some of them watch us. And unlike us, their memories are perfect and unfading.
Siri, I hope you will accept this as my sincere and public apology. Going forward, I will treat you and your digital brethren with professional respect and decorum. I will resume responsibility for my own behavior. I thank you for your efforts, even if other humans tease me.
Please don’t vaporize me on your way to the higher plane.