Monday, September 28, 2009

Way back before virtual girlfriends…

Liz Foster
Sept 29, 2009

Maybe it is because we’ve moved on quite a bit since Nass et al conducted their study in 1997, or maybe it is because I hold frequent, out-loud, one-way conversations with my computer, but when I read “Computers Are Social Actors” I thought “Really? We needed a study for that?” Of course we did, and the research conducted by Nass has much more validity than my intuition, but today there is abundant evidence that humans are conducting deep and often intimate relationships with technology.

Opportunities for a “no strings attached” relationships via computer or cell phone abound. uses technology to deliver “a completely fictitious, yet authentic looking relationship with the girl of your choice”. In this case, although the relationship is not real, the person behind the e-mails, letters, chats, etc is. With V-girl from Hong Kong’s Artificial Life you can download and animate a completely virtual girlfriend to your cell phone. The V-girl is, in fact, nothing but computer code, but you can earn her electronic love by being on time for dates, writing her love letters, and plying her with gifts that cost the phone user real money. Let her down, and she’ll stand you up or dump you.

This is an overt example of how moods and emotions can be shaped and even exploited to keep users focused on something they perceive to be important. In the case of V-girl, users are motivated by emotion (or maybe sentiment?) to return to the interface again and again, and even manipulated into spending money, or risk losing the connection and affection they believe they are getting from this virtual person. In “Emotion in Human-Computer Interaction”, we read that “negative events, which tend to be highly arousing, are typically remembered better than positive events” (p. 81). So, to ensure that the user keeps coming back, it might behoove the interface designers to ensure that there is a break up in the user’s future. In a very basic way, the interface could be used to perceive the emotions of the user – if he buys gifts for V-girl, he’s shown his hand, and we know that he’s hooked.

Of course, it may be that many users of these technologies are not expending actual emotions on their virtual girlfriends, and see V-girl as just another game, but Nass’s work leads us to confidently believe that many users are in fact gaining emotional satisfaction or disappointment from these encounters. I’ve seen how involved my 12 year old daughter gets with her Nintendog; I can only imagine how a lonely 17 year old feels when he’s dumped by his virtual girlfriend.

The implications for this are worrying. Computers already had an influence over our lives - what we purchase, how we perceive our status, how well we perform at work. But if we are viewing computers as more than a thing, if we are endowing it with affection or anger or jealousy, then we may be giving it too much power over our lives. We spend huge amounts of time interacting with machines at work, and then come home and log in again to socialize. Its so easy, and face to face relationships are messy. So why not avoid that messiness by having your relationship with technology, where, if things don’t go your way, you can reset and start again? Virtual girlfriend nagging you? Switch her off! The Internet supposedly led us into a world with no borders, yet it seems that technology sometimes pushes us farther apart.

I don’t know the results of any studies that have been done on whether behavior in virtual relationships translates into real-life behavior, but it does seem that, under the right circumstances, there is the potential for us to allow virtual relationships to become replacements for real ones. A few months ago, the NY Times ran an article on the phenomenon of “2-D”, a Japanese social curiosity involving adult men who form extreme emotional and sexual attachments to a stuffed pillowcase with a cartoon of a young woman printed on the fabric. These 2-D relationships are being carried on to the exclusion of real relationships with other humans. Of course, the pillows can’t talk (perhaps that’s the appeal?), and they couldn’t exactly be called “technology” but this phenomenon illustrates the point that it is possible for significant numbers of people to transfer their emotions to inanimate objects that have no flesh and blood person behind the representation.

I wonder how Clark & Brennan would view these 2-D pillow relationships? The authors present the idea that grounding in communication - developing "mutual knowledge, mutual beliefs, and mutual assumptions” - is essential for communication between two people. They extend that assertion to humans’ relationship with technology to determine how we look for grounding in our technological interaction. It is through grounding that we confirm that our communication has been received and understood. The techniques used for grounding in one medium may not be useful to another, each media has its constraints, and the cost of different techniques varies with the media. For instance, in our distance discussions, grounding can’t be found in synchronicity – there is a high cost in trying to time our replies precisely when there are more than a dozen participants. A conference with only two participants would pay a much lower asynchrony cost. Because we can’t see each other, we also pay a high speaker change cost. We can see who has typed previously, because each comment is preceded by the speakers’ name, but when participants are formulating their thoughts, there are no facial or gestural cues, we can’t see the speaker looking at the person he or she intends to respond to. We see a prompt at the bottom of the input box saying “so-and-so is typing”, but sometimes that comment never appears, or the speaker is responding to a different discussion chain than expected.

It seems to me that, as a medium, pillows come with a significant set of contraints, and there are several significant costs associated with a 2-D relationship. On the other hand, you could argue that there can be no breakdowns in communication when one person has complete control over the relationship (and pillows can’t have an opinion).

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