Reading Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together, My Smartphone is A Near-Robot

While on my way to the Biola Digital Ministry Conference, I finally started reading Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together. So far, am finding it more or less a perspective on technology and relationships that sits nearer to my generation and modes of thinking that many other reads. A few things got to me as I read thru the many chapers on robots and our associations to them. In a fair amount of respects, what I’ve been wanting from my smarpthone/PDA/feature phone/calculator has been for it to be a robot. This opened a door I wasn’t expecting.

I don’t want to leave this blog for the psychological path on that conclusion, but I do want to talk towards the technological one. If you’ve been paying attention to my tech writings for any amount of time, you know that I have a distinct distaste for much of what happens in mobile today because it is so attention-needing. Alarms, apps, tasks, and even just the process of responding to calls/SMSes are all about whatever can be done to take my attention off of life and towards that little screen. Eh… we can do better.

What I’m more in favor of is when I don’t have to pay attention to the device. When I can set it down and when I need it, it would be ready to act as I need. Whether this is something as simple as engaging the power-saving, sound-defeating, “Night” profile so that I can be assured of a decent night’s sleep and a device that wakes with me the next morning. Or, something a bit simpler (but just as effective) as QuikCam, which enables me to launch the camera app wihtout unlocking my phone to do so. I think that mobile enables us to thrive when aspects of our lives a better woven into the features and functionality of these devices. And to some degree, that they take on a sort of life of their own as they are programed to adapt to us.

As I read Turkle’s observations on kids with Furbys and Tamoghchis – neither of which I owned as I was well into my teens and it just wasn’t part of my demographic for many folks to even have these – I started to see how smartphones are being bent into this near-robotic shape as well. There’s something of a personal relationship that’s slowly being formulated towards these devices. One can argue that the shape did something like the Tamoghchi in that it got simple and easily customizable by the owner (black glass slabs which have a social requirement of some kind of unique casing). You can argue that its a lot like a Furby in that there are these ringtones (and ringback tones) in which we’ve trained our devices to emit so that we know when its hungry or needs attention. It is really interesting right?

Then I started to think a bit more on some of the newer features. For example Siri. Now, I have a vocal interface to this personal object that could first only beep at me. It can talk back now, and in a near conversational manner. Siri even “acts” as if it has a personality depending on the questions that you ask it. I wonder how long it will be (its been almost a year since the 4S and Siri’s introduction) before we start to hear people talking about not moving past the 4S because they feel so attached to Siri and that purchasing another device won’t be the same for them, even though the programming of Siri isn’t local to that device? A similar philosophy that early owners of the Sony AIBO faced.

If these smartphones… these mobile phones were really an aspect of training ourselves to live with robots in an interpresonal manner, what kind of reality for ourselves do we want? Is the smartphone-as-robot something that needs to be designed to make our parents feel at ease (large buttons, high contrast screens, simpler functions, memory games)? Should we be paying attention to the addicitve methods within them (the vibrate feature, texting instead of calling, in-app purchasing, etc.)? Should we be expecting more than a day of battery life (Blackberry and Nokia E-series owners excused from this “advancement”) – or that smartphones are smarter about the batteries they do have, sipping power when not in use and using wireless charging to stay “alive” for when we need them?

To be honest, I don’t know how to process this all. I’m kind of glad though that I read this much of it before getting to the conference. I think Turkle as given me a different lens with which to see the events at Biola Digital. I don’t know if the idea of robotics/cybernetics is something that religious tech conferences are ready to start talking about. But, we probably do need to. I keep saying to folks, “mobile is present, the future is disruptive.” There’s nothing about how we now do things that will be any more permanient than the last disruptive thing. The key is making sure that you get the lessons from whatever it was that came before, so that you can better see the moment you are in and the ones which are possible to come.

I’m on West Coast time, but my phone doesn’t know that. Its AI apps only know one time zone at a time, and only know how to deal with whatever the clock says in order to adjust itself. I’m three hours ahead of the “Night” profile, and this might come back to me later in the day. I don’t think I’ve trained my robot enough for this kind of situation… perhaps there’s more for me the admin to learn.