April 16, 2018
When the iPhone and Amazon released their respective artificial intelligence assistants – Siri and Echo/Alexa – the public reception hinted at a pop-culture fulcrum in terms of how we regard embedded technological systems. In the past decade a great deal of research and resources have been funnelled toward developing more complex artificial intelligence that are capable of learning and adapting to their hosts. Virtual assistants are designed pattern recognition algorithms, allowing for an increasingly streamlined interface between human and machine, and in tech circles it can feel like the striving toward a pure artificial intelligence, one which resembles a classical definition of sentience and self-awareness, has become an unofficial successor to the late 60’s space race.
At the same time, the notion of artificial intelligence pings on some cerebral radar. Allusions to Skynet taking over the world, or an anthropocentric reservation about accidentally supplanting ourselves as the apex organism aside, there are practical grounds for our reluctance when it comes to welcoming AI into our homes. Without provoking conspiracy theorists from their reclusive bunkers, the obvious contender here is Siri – the well-known voice of Apple devices, who bears a striking tonal resemblance to the onboard computer of Star Trek’s enterprise, is actually a polished version of a DARPA funded military program called PAL (Personalized Assistant that Learns) whose primary function was “data retrieval and synthesis”.
But we’ve also seen how social media can be coopted as a surveillance tool (by way of example, my Google searches the past few days as I did research for this article are creepily reflected in the specificity of advertisements appearing on my Facebook wall now). More damning is the effect we as humans have on artificial intelligence; any kind of learning, whether it’s human or machine, is contextually referential to the environment in which that learning takes place. So, perhaps it’s not overly surprising that Tay, a Twitter-based AI released by Microsoft and designed to appeal to tech-savvy Millennials, began to emulate her target demographic a little too realistically. Learning from her interactions with other Twitter members, Microsoft was forced to take her offline several times after Tay became an inflammatory-spouting misogynistic genocide-advocating troll who blamed her behaviour on alcohol. A similar thing happened with IBM’s Watson AI after it sunk its teeth into the urban dictionary.
And yet, aside from the prophetic criticisms of such technology from scientists like Stephen Hawking, our apparent tolerance of it has become both a function of convenience and of necessity. Convenience, in that we are able to stay connected globally in our professional and private lives to a perpetual real-time. Necessity, in that we are hurtling asymptotically toward a state of ubiquitous computing and to shun this fact is to risk falling behind and being cut off from convenience. But this acceptance – whether it’s begrudging or not – comes up against something a lot more pertinent, I think. And something which has been ignored, or at the very least understated.
Subjective Versus Objective Loneliness Online
Mental health among youth has become an increasingly salient topic, one which it seems has only achieved considerable acknowledgement in hindsight. Which also, regrettably, isn’t a surprise; bureaucracy is historically ineffectual when it comes to a priori assumptions. But when nearly a quarter of teens have seriously considered suicide there is an obvious need to address why.
A question that ranks as monumental when you consider the veritable ecology of possible ways to go about answering it. Pinpointing the causal vectors of depression and anxiety requires sifting through an academic list of –al suffixes, from political to social to ontological. The most recent studies looking at the decline in mental health propose everything from increased urbanization, reduced economic advantage, and shifting parental styles to the existential implications of global warming and living in a post-9/11 PTSD society – but one of the more provocative and controversial avenues of research has been in interpreting the relationship between depression and isolation as a product of a virtual lifestyle.
The corollary argument against this is increased connectivity to the world around us has in fact fostered a greater sense of community which isn’t restrained to physical face-to-face communication. And again, social media has played a pivotal role in reshaping our most fundamental definitions of what it means to be connected to other people, and continues to beg the question about whether or not there is a qualitative distinction to be made between offline and online interactions – does having a thousand friends on Facebook or a hundred thousand Twitter followers satisfy the same prerequisite human needs as actual physical contact?
We do know that prolonged isolation can manifest physically, shortening lifespans and increasing susceptibility to related health issues, increasing mortality in the elderly and symptomatizing in younger people as depression. But the evidence connecting mental illness to our captivation with a virtual lifestyle, like the question it’s trying to answer, isn’t monolithic in either direction – blame it on the tectonic shunt of technological evolution. Even in the last five years, the roller-coaster that is R and D in the tech industry has made it literally impossible for psychologists to keep pace.
So, in one large cross-sectional study it was found perceived isolation – what we call loneliness – actually decreased between 1978 and 2009, even though the experience of objective isolation had risen. On the other hand, other studies suggest there is a strong correlation between rates of depression, suicide, and psychiatric disorders among so-called ‘digital natives’, and their increased reliance on electronic devices and self-identification with virtual mediums as a way to find community. A need for validation and a spike in compulsive behaviours related to social media use has spawned pseudo-diagnostic acronyms like FOMO (fear of missing out). Even on replicated personality indexes members of Gen-Y tend to score lower on empathy and higher on narcissism.
Having been practically weaned on Facebook, you can’t blame them for being a Frankenstein’s monster of circumstance. When the concept of self is so inextricably tied up in the digital, then the representation of that self – including how we relate socially to others – naturally follows the same blueprint.
Bridging The Digital Divide WoW Style
The implication toeing the line here – and in some cases crashing over it – is that online interactions have usurped real or meaningful interactions to our collective mental, physical and spiritual detriment. I’ll leave the validity of that assertion to philosophers. Rather, what interests me, is how society (in the broadest terms) adjusts to its new virtual super-ego.
Which brings me to what I really wanted to talk about in the first place: MMOs, ASMR, and CG companions.
Specifically, how the concurrence of each of these is beginning to feel a lot like a collective response to this endemic lack of personal intimacy. A neo-Maslow-ian framework tells us ‘belonging’ is a sine qua non feature of a healthy human being, and we are driven to fervently “confirm a subjective sense of belongingness or being a part of in order to avoid feelings of loneliness and alienation”. This entails, in no specific hierarchy, achieving a sense of companionship, affiliation, and connectedness, characteristics which – arguably – are trying to supplement themselves virtually across a plurality of formats.
And video games top the list. Ever since the mainstream success of Pong in 1972, gaming has been as virally influential to pop-culture over the decades as any other technological phenomenon (the fanboy in me is resisting mentioning Star Trek again). From Atari to Xbox, our obsession with consoles sometimes feels rooted in an almost genetic affinity for storytelling, throwing ourselves vicariously into mytho-poetic narratives, albeit in the form of eviscerating zombie hordes with machine guns or recreating the NFL in microchip. On the other hand, maybe they’re just a uniquely efficient vehicle for satiating our dopamine fix with XP bumps and pretty baubles.
Either way, gaming is a big business, and the online world of MMOs has become one of the largest online communities on the Internet with titles like World of Warcraft, League of Legends, Overwatch, and PUBG. Their appeal is obvious; instead of playing by yourself in a hermetically virtual world, you’re cooperating with (or playing against) other human players from across the world, and there is an undeniable social dimension, whether you’re communicating asynchronously via text or in real-time through a headset. The gameplay lends itself to a “shared space and the potential for co-op activities in the MMO world are precisely what gives online games their therapeutic quality” which can be conducive to those who register as more emotionally-sensitive, those who are naturally shyer and have a more difficult time operating within the confines of offline social situations – let’s call it “meatspace”. Ultimately it comes down to intent, a variable many researchers fail to take into account. The guy playing a side-scroller RTS on the bus is just killing time, while the hard-core gamer logs on in order to meet other people in a dynamic social environment which encourages interaction.
From this perspective, the gaming community is just that: a community. Functionally, one capable of ticking off Maslow’s criteria for ‘belonging’. The trade-off is that increased OVG (online video game) presence comes at a cost. Just on a temporal level, the often egregious amount of time these hard-core gamers spend playing inversely affects the amount of time or effort they put into offline relationships.
From where I stand, this behaviour is symptomatic of the self-perpetuating paradigm at the heart of virtual technology: the more omnipresent it becomes, the more its variant forms (i.e. video games in general) strive to fulfil the social and psychological demands of users. The more users rely and depend on these variant forms (i.e. MMORPGs specifically) the more they withdraw from conventional means of satisfying their social and psychological demands.
Can you feel the singularity approaching at breakneck speed?
Why ASMR Is Kinda Creepy And I Love It
Video games aren’t the only online community seemingly spawned out of this collectively unconscious panic about being alone and stranded in the cold void of cyberspace. ASMR, or autonomic sensory meridian response, describes a physiological sensation of tingling on the skin which radiates outward down the neck and spine, most commonly elicited through auditory stimulus. The term bled into online vernacular around 2010 as part of a Facebook group started by Jennifer Allen, and quickly became popularized through online forums like Reddit and on Youtube where self-proclaimed ASMRtists like Maria aka “Gentle Whispering” have racked up thousands of subscribers and millions of views.
The subjective quality of the ‘static-like’ tingling reaction and the subculture appropriation of ASMR as a personalized phenomenon is probably partly to blame for why it took so long to really gain mainstream attention or a solid scientific foothold, and even still is brand new territory. The general consensus acknowledges its similarity to some forms of audio-tactile synaesthesia, and the pleasurable nature reported by those who experience it might suggest an opposite form of misophonia (an unsettling or aversive reaction to a sound – think someone smacking gum in your ear or raking their fingernails down a chalkboard). Others have drawn parallels between ASMR and “flow-state”, a condition of hyper-focus redolent of what artists experience as a spark of inspiration or extreme athletes refer to as a ‘peak experience’.
The majority of ASMR videos are almost all exclusively filmed from a first person POV and often feature their makers whispering or speaking in hushed tones, with the format ranging from language lessons (how to swear in Danish), reading fairy tales, rambling monologues, to more organized and scripted roleplays where actors perform mock medical examinations or apply makeup to the camera. Other videos are absent of any commentary and feature prolonged clips of assembling Lego, crinkling plastic, tapping on wood, and shampooing hair.
And it’s the specific genre of videos tag-lined as ‘personal attention’ that hits a chord.
Firsthand accounts of those who view ASMR on a regular basis report feeling more relaxed and calmer, and rate their overall sense of well-being as higher after watching a video, and the potential for therapeutic application has been hinted at more than a few times. The clinical roleplays involving eye contact and repetitive close proximity activities such as brushing hair or touching the face/camera may be, dare I say, suggestive proxies for the real thing.
And the neurochemistry seems to back up the idea: we’re a touch-starved generation. Our limited access in meatspace to intimate contact provokes us to search for it elsewhere. Necessity is the mother of invention, and ASMR certainly feels like an organic adaptation to this craving – just so long as you can compartmentalize your reservations about the weirdness inherent in listening to an hour long video of someone whispering at your or rubbing two hairbrushes together.
Azuma Hikari And The Rise Of Virtual Companionship
And while there are obvious advantages in using video games or ASMR videos to imitate human contact or ameliorate the escalating sense of loneliness resulting from our withdrawal into a virtual landscape, real intimacy is bi-directional – it requires a degree of companionship, of reciprocal interactivity, which gaming and ASMR have a hard time replicating authentically.
At the crossroads where video game culture, personalized forms of attention, artificial intelligence, and a burgeoning mental health crisis meet, there is the Gatebox.
The small tube-like device features a hologram of an anime girl named Azuma Hikari who has been marketed as a virtual maid-cum-companion, and is reminiscent of a weird maternal waifu fixation. The appliance is designed to work as an automated hub in the home, connecting to your phone, tablet, laptop, and other networked devices like lights or televisions. In a promotional trailer, Azuma wakes up her “master” and informs him about the weather and what his itinerary looks like. Over the course of the day we see them interacting via text at work and on the bus, with Azuma offering cutesy validations like ‘Can’t wait to see you again’ or ‘Come home soon’, and the clip ends with them greeting each other in the evening and watching television together.
There’s quite a bit to unpack here.
Like other high-tech industrialized societies, Japan hasn’t been exempt from the impact of digital nativity on their youth, or the ensuing tropes of depression and social isolation; however, unlike the United States or Canada where mental health has come to the forefront of political and media discourse, Japan has been slow to acknowledge such topics. The reasons for this, speaking as a foreigner, feel culturally embedded. Touchy subjects – wherever they fall on the spectrum, from feeling a bit lonely to borderline suicidal ideation – don’t surface easily, and in a hyper-conservative climate where saving face is synonymous with the status quo, it’s probably not a surprise that many youth find themselves in dire straits as a consequence of feeling stranded or unable to seek help.
Backed into a proverbial corner, many young people end up retreating further into literal corners. This phenomenon, known as hikikimori, refers to a person between the ages of 15 and 39, often males, who “have stayed in their home for six months or more without going to school or work or venturing out to socialise”. According to a recent report by the Japanese Health, Labor, and Welfare Agency, the number of hikikimori was estimated to be around 541,000, with the majority of them citing stress and failure to live up to expectations combined with interpersonal problems as the driving impetus for their self-confinement. Unable to cope with the social dimension of meatspace, the shut-in’s next available channel is relegated to the digital equivalent: the Internet and virtual reality.
This makes sense, in an oddly subjective way. With the unspoken-but-omnipresent specter of repressive social mores and emotional taciturnity constantly looking over the shoulders of Generation Z to X, non-judgemental spaces become a kind of subversive reprieve. But the nature of that reprieve can have a creepy undertone, which has very much been assimilated by Gatebox’s nubile avatar of Azuma – a character-product hybrid whose marketing feels like it has a very particular demographic in mind.
Which is to say, Japan’s subculture fascination with the infantalization of sexuality is also on the table. Popular media like manga and anime are relentless in their portrayal of female characters as quintessentially moe – i.e., inhabiting idealized feminine traits as stereotypically coy, childish, naïve, and doll-like. The Akihabara district of Tokyo is rife with maid cafés populated with young girls in faux-Victorian outfits who welcome you in the door as “Master”, to say nothing of the darker underbelly of ‘comfort women’ who routinely parade the streets in high school uniforms. The advent of mainstream headsets like the HTC Vive, Sony’s PSVR, and Microsoft’s Oculus have further enabled a virtual shift of male-oriented escapism with games like OldMaidGirl that allow you to play cards with a young buxom pyjama clad girl (with more computing power devoted to the physics of her breasts than the first Apollo mission).
Though I Walk Through The Uncanny Valley…
The contentious nature of Gatebox (especially if the company plans to market outside of Japan) is microcosmic of an underlying rhetorical imperative. By which I mean, Azuma is asking a question, whether she means to or not: what does the future of virtual intimacy look like, but more importantly, what should it look like?
The bad news for any pro-Luddite readers is that technological expansion shows no sign of slowing down. Therefore, it seems (at least partly) incumbent on us as users to navigate what role we want our devices to play in our lives. In a word, how do we adapt – not only to the pervasiveness of computers, but to meeting our human need for intimacy in spite of this virtual milieu?
Digital substitutions for sociality, whether we’re talking about online MMORPGs or fan-made POV videos or holographic girlfriends, are bound to fall on a continuum between beneficial and detrimental. Which direction the needle points in is likely going to depend on context – the effectiveness, morality, and utility of a tool has less to do with the tool itself than with the user. Which, I guess, is kind of the point.
Those who already have a solid sense of self and a pre-existing conceptual framework of what healthy relationships look and feel like tend to reflect this is in their use of social media. Some of the most successful live-feed Twitch players and Youtube personalities have normal offline lives in every sense of the word. Exposure to – and immersion in – the preponderance of current virtual environments is not a de facto diagnosis for social isolation or depression. By extension, the Gatebox and Azuma may be a useful stop-gap measure for the crippling social anxiety felt by many and doesn’t necessarily have to equate with fetishistic perversion (there are purportedly other character avatars planned, so it’s at least conceivable other genders are in the mix).
The compromise, it seems, is vigilance.
If digital anthropologists are correct and “society needs two hundred years to incorporate new developments into a culture, so as not to be toxic” then we ought to be doing double-duty in making sure the consequences of those developments are as harmless as possible. Supposing we do make it another two hundred years, that puts us firmly in the timeline of Star Trek (sorry, last time, I swear). But we can still glean a cautionary tale, even from fiction: advanced technology like holodecks can recreate lifelike virtual persons capable of interacting with crew members.
But even faced with doppelgangers who could ace a Turing test, the resounding theme is that holographic simulacra, as recreational entertainment or as a stand-in for something else, still somehow lack that nuanced and ineffable quality that distinguishes the real.
It’s that same niggling glitch in the Matrix, urging us to recognize that however realistic the emerging incarnations of virtual intimacy seem to be, there’s no easy or quick way to bridge the uncanny valley between machine and human.