BY MADONNA HAMEL
I’m sure this has happened to you: You’re reading something online and an annoying ad beneath your article interrupts your flow to bring you a message from the sponsor. Try as you might to leapfrog the ad and continue reading, there is something vaguely, or overtly, creepy about the ad: It represents everything the article you are reading is critiquing.
Reading online is not like reading a book. When I read the hefty tome “Empire of Things, How We Became a World of Consumers from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-first” by Frank Trentmann in book form I am not flagged by a pretty girl twirling in a variety of dresses that I might want to consider adding to a closet replete with pretty dresses. Or, when I read “Soul of A Citizen” by Paul Rogat Loeb about how to live “with conviction in Challenging Times”, which addresses, among other things, the media’s tendency to “bury the consequential beneath the trivial, creating a culture of distraction”, I can focus on the page, not the distractions seducing me in the slick sidebar.
In 1995 I performed a piece I wrote called “Sacred Agent, an Embarkation.” It was a look at re-locating from one geographical spot to another, ( I was moving from Vancouver to Quebec City at the time) but it was also examining how, in the emerging cyber world, we can live in the illusion that we are actually moving, doing, experiencing a life we are only experiencing through the computer screen.
In the performance I recited a list of cyber-sickness symptoms. It listed “motion sickness” and “severe disassociation” among them, but the one that truly disturbed and challenged me was “cognitive dissonance”, a form of mental discomfort and psychological distress experienced when trying to hold two different beliefs, values or ideas at the same time. We all try to find a way to resolve the myriad dissonances that arise in our daily life or we’d go nuts. But if every time we access information on the computer we face contradicting values in the form of article vs ad, we are caught in a state of dissonance for most our waking hours.
Three days ago the dissonance was epic, nauseating, alarming. I was reading an article on the nature of ‘”rust”, without which it is difficult to form bonds, generate hope, make commitments. Under the second paragraph popped an ad with a picture of a happy and diverse staff holding clipboards and pointing at screens. They were, apparently, busy earning our trust in the “Transformative Age” , an age in which “the pace of future change will be so fast that incremental thinking and action will be too slow”. (Ie: pokey people will get in the way of profit. )
The company was a multinational accounting firm whose latest focus was setting our minds at ease about artificial intelligence(AI). It highlit the many ways that AI “can do the buying” so companies can focus their energies on working “harder to create relevant consumer experiences that feel natural rather than contrived.” (Even though they are. )“Functional utility is not enough” they exclaim, “emotive connectivity” is what will rescue your brand!
Enter “confidantes.” The website had a link to a magazine article about “AI confidantes”, “super-smart voice-controlled helpers that” – ‘that’ being the operative word here, reminding us that ‘who’ implies a ‘being’, and ‘that’ confers ‘thing’ status- “add something to [our] lives and help develop a sense of balanced equilibrium.”
Last time I checked a confidante was someone you trusted with your deepest secrets, your hopes, dreams and fears. A sister, a best friend, maybe a sponsor, someone who has your best interests at heart, who loves you enough to tell you the truth not just what you want to hear. Someone who challenges you, reminds you of your values and beliefs, points out your blind spots with a blend of honesty, compassion and even humour.
But, apparently the AI “confidante” will be there for you when others are not, sitting on your kitchen counter while you make your morning coffee or pour your nightcap, saying the soothing words you need- because you have programmed it to do so. It will “suggest choices and experiences”, “so attuned” to your “needs that they intuitively decide when and what to share.” Well, hallelujah, because there is nothing worse than a partner or a child sharing when I don’t want them to, or telling me something I don’t feel like hearing, or, worse, expecting me to listen and be a shoulder to cry on. Here’s a confidante I can trust; of course I can, I programmed it, it’s a mini-me.
The author of the article claims “we’re in the age where it doesn’t matter if a thing is alive or not.” That way we don’t have to learn skills like empathy, listening, sacrifice. And, while we’re at it , if ‘things’ like friends don’t need to be alive, why bother with rivers, trees, turtles, etc? “AI friends”, she goes on to explain, can be programmed with an “emotional dialect” so their responses are “weighted toward sadness, anger or joy.” If you “don’t have time to talk to your grandmother.” The AI friend will talk to her for you and come back with “a summary” as to how she is doing. In the future, the article suggests, more finessed services can be purchased for a small fee. There may be new “friends” you can buy, but I bet your grandma won’t be buying it.
The face of the “Transformational Age”, as described by the hijackers of a word meant to describe deeper transformative experiences than shopping, is faceless. Do not trust it, no matter how seductive the pictures and the promises. Leave your computer now. Become a ‘sacred agent’ and claim personal agency, put on your coat and embark on a walk, if even around the block, or in my case around the Frenchman River. Or go visit your smart-enough, flesh and blood friend or grandmother whose opinions drive you nuts half the time but who knows how to make soup and laugh at your puns, who gives great hugs, mirrors your concerns, encourages you to be accountable, who drops things, makes a mess, and weeps when they see you cry, who bestows these and other monetarily unprofitable unprogrammable beatitudes.