Little Kindnesses

A clockThe COVID-19 pandemic makes me think deeply about my mortality and the mortality of the people I love. Making it to the next birthday seems more of an accomplishment now than last year. I don’t know what will happen between now and December. Who that I know will have become sick? Who will have never recovered? How will I deal with so much grief?

I think about what to do while I’m at home. (I won’t say “stuck at home.” It’s a privilege that I have a home.) Fortunately, I’ve got projects to keep me busy. I can focus on them more intently if I’m not thinking about going out for groceries, planning my next trip to Fort Wayne and looking for the best gas price.

With heavy feelings so infectious, it’s easy to forget the humanity of the people I don’t know. But, it is more important than ever to recognize my neighbor as like me. The one who lives in the next apartment or the stranger who comes to the store at the same time as me. The neighbor that is the “other” I don’t trust. In this crisis, there is no “other” in the eyes the coronavirus. I don’t know their names, who their kids are and whether putting food on the table is a burden. But, they are all facing the same end as me.

Unity in suffering.

It’s more important to me than ever to do small kindnesses for the people I meet. They might be hungry, angry at the people stuck inside with them, lonely for human contact that they’re trying to distance themselves from. I don’t know what they face, but I can be confident that it is hard. I can acknowledge their burden with respect and not add to it.

I’m alone in my house, but I don’t feel lonely. I am busy and can talk to a person or two each day by phone. It is kind for someone to take or return my call. I try to do the same.

The mathematics are against us. Italy is an example of the nations a few days ahead of us that is suffering badly. Others countries that have been taking stronger measures appear to be keeping up. I want to not add to the suffering in my country. Being willing to do whatever I need to is a way to do that.

If the guidance I get is not based in the epidemiology and science, I can be confident that ones providing that guidance don’t value my life or the life of my loved ones. I don’t have time for that.

When you don’t have a face

I’ve been reading the book “Alone Together” by Sherry Turkle.

In the first half, she shows that social robots can feel real. Her subjects treated robots with very few skills as authentic, living creatures. Even the software engineers were sucked in. Although they knew that the devices were just some motors, a speaker and microphone with some software, the toy still became family.

One effect I saw in Turkle’s experiments was that people are vulnerable to a human-like face. People interacting with facial systems gave the equipment a pass. They didn’t criticize the robot for its limitations. They explained them away. Some people romanticized what the experiment could evolve into, not what is was. Broken robots were sick and not malfunctioning.

What makes us human then? Is a recognizable face an important criteria to be a human?

I think that the facial criteria transforms online relationships. People can deny the humanity of the person on the other end. If the other’s only face is a 100 x 100 pixel avatar of a kitten, they’re not some -one-, they are some -thing-.

A person that is more abusive, at a visceral level, is not interacting with a human. Some online communities enhance the level of denial. Others are more successful and avoid that trap.

A letter Y that is smilingOne of my avatars is a “Smiling Y.” It has a mouth, nose and eyes. It looks happy. Perhaps I would be treated differently if I had a block letter ‘X’ as my avatar. What do your avatars look like?