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The Laptop Generation: Robot Friends And Cyber Intimacy

Veronica Cianfrano

Fall 09

Have you ever heard of Teddy Ruxspin?  When I was little, my father was a handyman on the weekends and he would sometimes have to drag me along.  I remember one if his clients was a very nice older woman who let me play with her grandchild’s toys, one of which was Teddy Ruxspin.  She would bring me into some wood paneled room with a blanket and some cassettes and plop down this robotic bear with a tape player on its back.  She pressed play and left the room and I would just sit there talking to this robot bear about his latest camping adventure.  Once the tape ran out, I would flip it over and press play and there would be so much more to talk about with old Teddy.   Apparently Teddy was designed to teach verbal skills to children in a time when parents were proven to be spending less and less time with their children.  At the time, Teddy was very expensive and incredibly sought after for its realistic conversational skills and automatically moving parts.  They even had special cassettes you could buy that synched up to television programs, and later they introduced Grubby who would sing and hold conversations with Teddy.  *A funny side note about Teddy; they ended up taking him off the market after Chucky came out (the movie about a possessed doll that kills people), kids started getting terrified by the bear because as the batteries ran low, his voice would sound demonic.

  I mention this toy because it represents my very first experience in a world of pseudo intimacy and technology.  I realize that I have been talking and assigning personalities to machines and computers since I was able to talk.  I believe that I am a member of the first fully integrated computer generation, or perhaps I should say technological generation since technically Teddy was a robot, not a computer.  According to most psychologists, it is perfectly normal to talk to inanimate objects.  Anything that we rely on to get us through the day is assigned specific importance and therefore takes on a kind of personality.  If the coffee maker is on the fritz, I’m sure most people would start to bargain with it, “ Please just work today and I’ll clean you this weekend”.   Personally, I have named every one of my cars and have spoken to them on more than one occasion, mostly begging them not to break down and I’m sure I’m not the only one.   Often times we become emotionally attached to these objects, ie. A child and her Teddy, your favorite car, etc.  So, if we can build a level of intimacy with inanimate objects, can we have true intimacy and human connection purely through cyber communication? What role does physicality play in all of this?

According to Allpsych.com, an online Psychology database, these tendencies to assign personalities to inanimate objects are functions of the ego’s defense mechanisms. When we are feeling down on ourselves or anxious about something, our ego resorts to its defense mechanisms in hopes of preserving identity.  Projection is one of these defenses and it’s responsible for our subconscious need to take our unwanted thoughts or emotions and assign them to something or someone else.   It’s a way for us to remain unaware of the impulses and desires we have but disapprove of in ourselves while simultaneously expressing those desires through a second source.  This seems to help explain how someone can have an imaginary friend or feel comfortable talking with a robot bear.  This also explains how people can be completely comfortable expressing themselves through an avatar online; but what happens when society becomes so engrossed in this behavior?   There must be cognitive repercussions when most of our personal connections are communicated electronically sans physical presence?


  In Life On The Screen, Sherry Turkle discusses the possibility that living in a postmodern world is what causes our need to project, to escape, through Frederic Jameson’s theory on Postmodernism.   She states, “ –In a postmodern world, the subject is not alienated but fragmented.  He explained that the notion of alienation presumes a centralized, unitary self who could become lost --- But as a postmodernist sees it, the self is de-centered and multiple, the concept of alienation breaks down.  All that is left is an anxiety of identity” (49).  If we follow Jameson’s theory then we can assume that this anxiety of identity is what causes this need to branch out into multiple selves and project our fears and desires onto a harmless avatar in a world where nothing is really ‘real’. 

Katarzyna Paprzycka Ph.D., wrote a review on metapsychology.com of John Rowen’s The Plural Self , a book that discusses these same issues of identity anxiety.  In this review Katarzyna describes the postmodern individual in further detail.  “They sketch an ‘ideal type’ for a pluralistic postmodernist individual, i.e., an individual shaped by the postmodernist world. Such a person is complex, flexible, morally relativistic, diversity-seeking, with a "Monty Python" style sense of humor, whose general outlook is dominated by uncertainty, and who (for not all too clear reasons in view of his nature) is predisposed toward some form of dissociation and escapism” (1).  Upon further reading, Katarzyna seems to question whether these traits are really that specific to the postmodern individual. She states, “For example, how is one to explain the predisposition toward dissociation and escapism? Both seem to be desperate attempts to force order into chaos. The most natural explanation, then, is that the ‘postmodernist’ individual is really ‘modernist’ at heart. Her ‘postmodernist’ features are acquired. They result from her failure to manage her too complex and overwhelming reality. After all, a ‘postmodernist’ individual at heart ought to welcome her head-spinning complexity and have no need for dissociative or escapist tendencies” (1). http://metapsychology.mentalhelp.net/poc/view_doc.php?type=book&id=393

According to these theories, most people today are filled with uncertainty in themselves and in the changing world around them and are simply looking for control.  If you fear rejection or abandonment, the easiest way to maintain a relationship with someone is to never meet them.  Video blogs, dating web sites, chat forums, and many more allow us to remain in our comfort zone while making connections with others.  And if things get too complicated or confusing, we still have the comfort of anonymity and all we have to do is press a button to make it all go away.  If you look at the history of computer communication, it seems that the very first heavy computer users were predisposed to this kind escapist behavior.   They were a part of a subculture; the kids who got picked on in school for their interests in science or fantasy were against social “norms”.

In Life On The Screen, Shelly Turkle discusses MUDs, one of the very first multi-user programs.   “ --MUDs, Multi-User Domains, or with greater historical accuracy, Multi-User Dungeons, because of their genealogy from Dungeons and Dragons, the fantasy role-playing game that swept high schools and colleges in the late 1970s and early 80s” (11).   According to the book, MUDs were created by Dungeons and Dragons enthusiasts.  The program presented a city of sorts where each player had a character and a home.  Players in the program could walk around, talk, and interact with each other by typing in commands; their avatars and surroundings were limited only by their imagination. This program, designed to provide an escape from everyday life was the predecessor to the internet lives we all lead today.  Now, what once was a subculture has become the culture.  It is normal, if not expected to participate in some form of electronic communication.


Merel Mirage was simply a woman looking for information on butterflies one day and decided to join an entomology chat room.  A simple informative encounter with a silkworm expert led to a tale of cyber intimacy.   In her story, Memories of a Virtual Butterfly: The World and The Screen, Merel became unable to resist logging on daily to speak to this silkworm man. Initially, she questioned these encounters as a new comer to the cyber scene.  She says, “Is any sort of human emotional exchange possible through the wires?  -Do words hurt in cyberspace?  -Who am I in here? And what is the fate of our virtual selves in this world without fixed models for space and character recognition” (3)?  As their conversations became more intimate, a level of dependency began to form.  She explains how strange she felt if her cyber friend didn’t contact her for a day and how lonely she felt if he didn’t leave a window open for her while she worked on the computer. Finally, the two cyber lovers came to reach a point where they couldn’t ignore their physicality; they wanted to meet in real life to validate their time and energy spent on this ‘relationship’.  They agreed to meet in a coffee shop.  Merel describes this encounter as a moment where, “The closer I came, the more reality forced me to transform the image I had seen in my mind into the man standing there.  The two worlds were not comparable, were un-dissolvable.  I felt that we had to start from zero; nothing but a stranger was standing in front of me.  – After having met in real life, no matter with what result, the virtual exchange seemed lifeless, and so that part of our story got lost in the internet” (6). 

Merels’s story of cyber intimacy seems to validate the notion that people can’t have a real intimate connection without some kind of physical presence.  In Mark Maltais’s 1997 interactive work, Chat Room: Sexual Conquests in the Age of Cyberspace, a computer station was set up at Cooper Union as part of the exhibition Techno Seduction.  On this computer was a web site, created by the artist and designed so that the user enters a chat room where all the other users are part of the program, (kind of like talking to robots, or robot teddy bears except much more deceptive).  These entities in the chat room were designed to spew out commonly heard come-ons and small talk in cyber space to the participant.  While the participant talks to these chat room visitors, a pattern begins to appear in their speech and the participant would start to question who it is they are actually talking to.  In doing this interactive piece, Maltais is pointing out the absurdity of ever making a real connection on line and people’s willingness to go along with the fantasy past the point of casual interaction.  According to his project statement, “This installation explores issues of sexual non-accountability, sexual anonymity, flirtation without physical contact, and sexual fulfillment through disguise involving [internet] communications-“ (22). 

  Jessica Irish was another artist in that same show, and her work further discusses this point of physicality and electronic communication.  In her piece entitled Lap, the viewer enters a darkened room with power lines drawn on the walls where a very rickety chair is suspended so that it barely touches the ground.  On top of the chair sits a lap top which provides most of the light for the piece and for that reason becomes undeniable and ominous.  As the viewer walks toward the lap top, you see there is scrolling type that reads descriptive cacophonies such as, “He would reply with such vigor that a slight echo could be detected in his voice”.   As you look up from the screen, you notice that the power lines are not simply drawn on the wall but are made up of undecipherable overlapping typed letters.  Clearly this piece is about the loss of the self through technology.  The chair could never be sat in and yet is the stand in for a body as the title suggests.  It supports this seemingly living thing, the computer, as if it is the thing responsible for gobbling up the person who once sat in that chair and is now sucking up the physicality of even the chair making it unusable.  In her own words, “ [Lap] questions what happens to our bodies once we have mastered our own image in the virtual world: is it enough to know?  This is the de-corporation of virtual space; the more it attempts to recognize the body, the more the body is ultimately denied” (19).  

Is seems as though there is a growing fear of losing the body as technological communication and cyber reality becomes more sophisticated and integrated into our lives.  Almost as if the body represents our soul or our ego, the thing that keeps us human and reminds us that we need to eat, sleep, and move; sometimes the only things that pry us from our computers.  After all, we can’t remember things simply by seeing, we need al of our senses, our body has to be involved in some way in order to have a truly successful memory.  According to Peter Anders, our body is what keeps us sure of reality, space and time and as we lose touch of our physical selves we may lose touch of all the things that come with it.  Anders discusses these concepts in his essay, Anthropic Cyberspace: Defining Electronic Space From First Principels.  According to him, “ The body is the bridge between ourselves and the world.  Our worldview relies as much on the body’s senses as it does upon the environment itself” (3).   He goes on to state that “The body’s relationship to the perceived world is a basis for cognition, language, and culture” (3). 

Anders continues to discuss how severely distorted our reality becomes when the physical is removed.  Think about how in tune we are to people’s facial expressions, body language, and closeness.  There are millions of signifiers that we instinctually rely upon to steer our behavior toward each other and make communication with one another a success.  In cyberspace, not only is our knowledge of that person’s physical information limited but so is our knowledge of the audience.  We have no real way of knowing how many or what kind of people are going to be viewing our online communications.  According to Anders, this distorts our perceptions of reality and can seriously alter our behavior.  Oftentimes, social rules of propriety and politics go out the window and people tend to behave and think differently.  He writes, “Body zones—a foundation of social interaction—are moot in cyberspace.  After all, how does one relate to a lobster avatar?  How close does one stand in casual conversation with it?  Here our physical absence in simulated social environments forces us to reconsider our social conventions” (5).  According to Anders, this breakdown in social behavior becomes a breakdown in our sense of reality and can directly be attributed to a large amount of false intimacy.  Once these false connections with others online become the dominant source of human connection, Anders asserts that loss of identity and community is sure to follow. 

It seems that many artists are following this logic in their work as more and more artists create participatory work.  In Germany, there is an artist collective turned company called The Urban Screen.  Their concept is to take public buildings in an urban environment and make them come to life, both stopping people in their tracks and giving the people something new, living and beautiful to look at in an environment that is otherwise dreary.  One particular project from 2007 entitled PinWalll, took an old German commerce building and turned it into a giant game of pinball.  In this project, a historic building transforms into a community experience and an amazing event for social interaction.  The artists created a pinball game that fit the exact dimensions of the building, almost as if it grew fluorescent skin over night.  In front of the building sits a platform, the buttons for the left and right flippers are placed far enough apart so that two people must play at a time to make the game work. While people wait in line to play pinball, they are experiencing something that is quickly leaving our cognition; a collective physical experience that won’t soon be forgotten.  ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BskO-0x6N_A)

Now, in this paper I’m not suggesting that the future of human kind become something out of a science fiction movie where people are reduced to floating brains in jars or maybe one where we all become our computers and we have to plug ourselves in at night.  Something a little closer to the future might be the Disney movie WALL-E.   WALL-E is the last “living” thing left on earth.  He is a Waste Allocation Load Lifter - Earth class who has somehow developed a human like personality and even a soul (it’s Disney).  He has single handedly remade the skyscrapers of New York out of compacted garbage.  Throughout the movie, WALL-E holds the left behind garbage as treasures signifying a hope to rebuild, to start over.  On one of WALL-E’s daily excursions, he finds a plant growing from an old boot, this triggers a whole series of events which leads him to a space ship.  Stay with me.  It is at this part of the story where we discover that the human race, or what I assume to be only the wealthy people, left earth 700 years ago because it become too polluted to sustain life and jumped on this Carnival Cruise Ship looking space craft.  On the ship,  people are treated like veal. 

The robots on the ship have become so efficient that there has been no need for people to leave their self-motorized recliners.  Because of this, everyone has evolved into these gelatinous masses without the ability to stand or make simple movements.  Their entertainment and communication comes from a screen directly in front of their faces.  No one speaks directly to each other, no one is aware of their physical presence and they are all single.  No one has children anymore and they’ve all forgotten what Earth is and why they are there in the first place. Can’t you see people turning into that in the future?  Haven’t you ever seen people in a public setting staring intently at their phones?  According to recent statistics, 21% of fatal car crashes are due to texting and 50% of all drivers between 18 and 24 are texting while driving.  While WALL-E is an exaggeration of the future, there is no denying that we do live in a world where the mind and the body are in separate places most of the time; and in this world without physicality intimate relationships can not truly form.