Saturday, April 7, 2018

Technology and the Objectifying of People

I’ve been wondering about the role of technology in our everyday lives. I’ve heard a claim that a study suggested we naturally view others online (such as in social media platforms) as objects. Objects are there for us to be used, and when they don’t conform to the usage we require (or when they fail to meet our needs or wants in some other way), we become frustrated with them. That frustration is likely due to a lack of control over the object that we should have (or think we should have). So when the TV remote fails to work, or when our phone’s battery inexplicably starts draining toward zero in the middle of an activity, we get upset.

Sometimes that frustration translates to outward words and actions, such as throwing the remote down in disgust, yelling at the “stupid” phone, etc. But what does this have to do with social media and technology? With Facebook (or Twitter, especially), we are or can be isolated from any other humans while communicating online. This communication often occurs with little context beforehand, often allowing us to communicate both with loved ones as well as complete strangers. When we view people online as objects, we fail to view them as human beings. That may sound simplistic, but it’s worth ruminating on.

Perhaps the best analogue may be video games. I grew up with the Super Nintendo, and played a little of xbox (the original, kids!) in college. Whenever you played by yourself (or maybe with someone else who was in the same room), you would play against the “computer,” or, as we say now, the “AI.” The AI could be easy to defeat. In these cases, you don’t mind much the AI, because it poses virtually no real challenge; it presents an obstacle to your success almost in name only. Consider the very first walking mushroom bad-guy thingy on Super Mario Bros. for Nintendo. You only die off there if you’ve never played before, there’s a malfunction, or you got way too cocky to pay attention at all. Even though the AI is an object (or objects), you don’t mind—you may even be pleased—because it’s pretty much doing what you want it to do.

But the AI, especially in today’s gaming world, can often be maddeningly difficult to overcome. In these cases, it’s a very different story—one that often involves some colorful language, and perhaps the violent throwing of an unsuspecting fellow object. The more the object fails to perform in the way we would like or expect—the more we are prevented from achieving our goal or goals—the more frustrated, and abusive, we become.

So it is with our fellow humans on Facebook, Twitter, etc. Perhaps our goal is to convince someone of our political position, or just to express approval for the “best” kind of dog. But then these goals are not always realized, because someone disagreed, or someone wasn’t even talking to you but posted something we thought was clearly wrong. We may be viewing people on the Internet as AI. Inasmuch as the AI online are doing what we want, we approve. When the AI does not or impedes us in some way, we become frustrated, and unleash all the abuse and vitriol that goes along with it.

“Now wait a minute,” you might say. “I don’t do that!” And perhaps you do not. Not everyone does. But nearly always this person is intentional about it, or has cultivated the kind of character that shows kindness to people, as creations made in the image of God. Our default, without this cultivation and intentionality, is to treat people online as AI. And this is not necessarily limited to strangers. To the degree we are prevented from realizing our goals we are also frustrated by the AI. So in a situation where we care greatly about the outcome (say a political or theological debate), even our loved ones may suffer online in a way they may not were we to discuss it in person.

Why is this? We were created to be in community. This community is naturally intended to be face-to-face. This can be replicated to some degree online, with Skype and phone conversations (not so much for text). But it is very difficult to do much with e-mail, text, Facebook, etc. To be sure, there are exceptions, but even these seem to have such relationships increase greatly with more “traditional” forms of contact. When we lack this face-to-face community, we suffer social consequences of isolation. This affects us as people. Even if we have a robust social life outside of online interactions, the people we lack real community with are closer to the AI: they are meeting some need or goal (entertaining us, paying us compliments, etc.) or failing to do so (opposing us intellectually, communicating things or in ways we do not approve of, etc.).

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about AI is that if they oppose you, you cannot control them. You can only overcome or destroy them. So it is online. With people, you cannot make them change their views or their behavior. So you can only overcome them (e.g., overwhelm them with your arguments, unfriend them, etc.) or destroy them (e.g., berate them until they go away). And the best part? In this scenario, the AI also treats you like you’re AI. So good news.

What do we do? I propose we recognize the Christian doctrine that teaches all humans are made in the image of God. Second, we seek to serve people online, rather than have them serve us (Philippians 2:4). Third, we should be involved in our real-world communities and spheres of influence. I have been guilty of viewing people as objects in the past, and perhaps together, in communities both online and in the real world, we will grow.

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