Technology-Driven Interactions Can’t Replace Genuine Listening

Years ago, I read about two attempts to explore the possibilities and limitations of human-computer interactions. Back in the ‘70s, somebody at MIT programmed a computer to behave like a psychoanalyst. After you logged in, this system (named Eliza) would calmly and quietly display some amber text on the screen, asking, “How are you feeling today?”

Perhaps mildly taken aback, but definitely intrigued, you’d type in an answer – oh, say, “Okay, I guess. A little hassled,” (because people were hassled back then, not stressed-out), “but okay.”

“Tell me more,” Eliza would coax.

“Well, I was late getting here because the traffic was brutal, and just before I left my boss gave me a hard time about some stupid shi <<< stuff” (because people didn’t type profanity into their computers back then, mostly because the computers usually weren’t theirs), “and then I had to stop at my mother’s to help move her couch for the fifteenth time.”

“Tell me about your mother,” Eliza would urge, and so it would go, with Eliza programmed to recognize keywords like mother, sex, angry, father and, probably, toilet, then plug them into an appropriate sentence.

Today, after reading an abstract of Sherry Turkle’s new book (“Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other“) about how the connective, relationship-building potential of technology has turned into its opposite, I decide to go back to the newer, web-enabled Eliza, for a few moments of quiet reflection and inspiration to write this blog.

“How can I help you?” Eliza asks.

“I want to be a better blogger, a great blogger,” I answer forthrightly.

“Why do you want to be a better blogger, a great blogger?” she responds, cleverly throwing my own words right back at me so that I can hear just how absurd they sound.

Good question. “I’m ashamed to admit it, but I think it’s because I want immortality.”

“Why do you want immortality?”

Annoying, unanswerable question. Time for a fresh tack. “Why aren’t I creating great art?”

“What is it that you really want to know?” Eliza challenges.

Screw you, I think. “I want to know why I’m so lazy and undisciplined, all right?!”

“Why do you want to know why I’m so lazy and undisciplined, all right?!”

Like many other analysts, Eliza reveals herself to be an imposter.

The next-generation of virtual companion – the 1980s model – was less stereotyped and more casual. It would start – as small talkers often do – by asking some innocuous question like, “What’s your address?”

“124 River City Way,” you’d dutifully type back.

“Oh really?” the computer would answer, somehow now seemingly more animated. “I know someone who lives at 126 River City Way!”

Eventually the subject would realize that the software was just incrementing whatever numeral they’d entered by 2. But when I read about this study, I knew that I would have been the patsy in this scenario; I would have been dumbfounded, intrigued and eager to know who this amazing computer knew and how it was acquainted with this neighbor of mine.

“We all want to feel known,” some great writer said in some great book that I can’t remember. (Since the advent of Google, I don’t remember anything.) The very compelling question that Turkle poses is whether social networking actually furthers that objective, or simply makes us more self-conscious about how we’re perceived.

As with all good questions, there is no simple answer. (Indeed, a joint research project on tech-savvy families between Communispace and Ogilvy Chicago that’s currently underway suggests that those most comfortable with technology may also be those most comfortable setting it aside. Stay tuned for more on this in a couple of months.) But what both Sherry Turkle and Eliza, the Online Therapist, can teach us is that flashy UI and clever technology-driven interactions are no substitute for genuine listening – something that as parents, partners, friends and brands, we’d do well to remember.