Look Ma, no hands! (It’s all virtual now).

May 17, 2020 § 4 Comments

I am good at reading people. You are too. We humans get the meaning of gestures. We stand close together so we can make eye contact or put a hand on an arm. We choose our words and the tone in which we say them, we listen for signals that are not embodied in words—just the intake of a breath can be enough to cue us.

Human to human communication is nuanced and subtle, but we get it.  Life is a dance we do with others. We lead, we follow. Either way we are attuned to each others’ signals.

But, at least for now, we can’t do that. For now other people are off-limits: people in close proximity; people within range of a hug, a subtle gesture, a facial expression; people close enough to be read human-to-human.

All situations that require cooperation and advice are now mediated through one device or another. Sometimes a human face appears, sometimes a human voice speaks, but often the human is prerecorded, not there in the moment at all.

That face, that voice are no longer connected to a human ear, a human mind, a human heart: “We are currently experiencing longer-than-usual wait times due to the unusually high volume of calls. Hold time is now three hours.”

No human would say that so cheerfully in real time, but the human who said it has no connection to the desperate person on hold.

The voice chirps on: “Continue to hold or press two for a call back.” The caller presses two, but knows, no one is calling back.

In this time of crisis the call that is going unanswered is not frivolous. It is made to procure food, or rent money, or medical advice. It is made after the caller has tried to get an answer through a search of the ether, a search that hit a dead end, the algorithm saying in computer-eze: You have failed to jump through the hoops properly. There is no help forthcoming for you, oh unworthy nitwit.

If only the caller could explain the situation to a human being…

But there is no human being. So the unworthy nitwit gets no answer and feels like a failure into the bargain. In truth, it is The Machine that is the unworthy nitwit. The nuanced, intuitive, thinking, human, who is capable of solving problems in myriad different ways, interfaces with The Machine which thwarts the human for not following its baroque, un-intuitive protocols, for not executing perfectly a series of Mother-May-I steps no human would ever require.

And so, the subtle, thoughtful (and desperate) human being is told. No answer for you. You’re doing it all wrong–but to get by now, we must figure out how to do it right.

As imperfect as the match is, we now interact with The Machine, or if we are interacting with each other, it is often mediated by some form of technology.

We deal with each other, hands-off. No human touch. No human warmth, and every time we are unable to manage the virtual world, we take the blame.

We are stupid, slow, old, frustrated. Stuck.

No we’re not. We’re human.

For the entirety of our evolution we have relied on subtle, person-to-person communication. We have cooperated and collaborated. We have sought each other’s advice, solved problems together. We have lived real, not virtual lives.

There is much to be said for the high-speed, super-fast, data-driven virtual world, especially in a time when we are literally a threat to each other’s health, but if you don’t believe in the greater nuance and power of human-to-human contact step in front of a mirror and make a couple emoji faces. You look insane, right?

The cues we send each other are subtle, multi-layered. Artificial intelligence cannot replace human intelligence and the ingenuity, kindness, and understanding that resides in our gestures, our facial expressions, our voices, our touch—our humanity.

Note: I write this because I miss all of you–and I am mad at a printer that will not do my bidding. I believe if it could, it would be making the face that is at the far right on the bottom row above. It is disquieting to have a printer LOL at me.

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