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?