A few years ago I had an interview for a job at one of the leading academic departments in my field. Maybe because I knew that I wasn’t likely to be offered the job, I saw the day as a relaxed opportunity to meet people carrying out interesting research. My comfort with the day was shaken, however, when a faculty member showed me ongoing research on avatars—bots—designed to interact with (and provide therapy for) human children with autism. I squirmed. I squinted. I tried to voice my discomfort. I lost my voice. I turned away. I was shaken for the rest of the day and on my way back. That flickering image of the bot we’d one day turn our children over to still haunts me.
I don’t discount the appeal of automating such therapy. Working with children with autism is difficult, tiring work, especially since the social rewards—the smile, the eye-contact, the hug, the thank you—that make most of us tick are few and far between. I’ve never tried such an endeavor; I’m in no position to judge anyone.
Still the barely-pixelated, realistic face of the “therapist” talking on the screen scares me because it is indeed an indicator of one possible future. Much of what ails our modern life is exactly because we reduce the value of a human being to a number, say salary or consumer power. And the first to be thrown overboard tend to be the elderly, the disabled, and anyone not integrated tightly into the global supply-chain. This phenomenon, coupled with the growing powers of automation and artificial intelligence which promises to make replacing human beings even cheaper, means there is a very important conversation we need to be having—but that conversation is not about the effects of social media.
That might not have been apparent to those who picked up their Sunday New York Times to find Sherry Turkle’s latest essay arguing that social media are driving us apart. If anything, social media is a counterweight to the ongoing devaluation of human lives. Social media’s rapid rise is a loud, desperate, emerging attempt by people everywhere to connect with *each other* in the face of all the obstacles that modernity imposes on our lives: suburbanization that isolates us from each other, long working-hours and commutes that are required to make ends meet, the global migration that scatters families across the globe, the military-industrial-consumption machine that drives so many key decisions, and, last but not least, the television—the ultimate alienation machine—which remains the dominant form of media. (For most people, the choice is not leisurely walks on Cape Cod versus social media. It’s television versus social media).