Mobile Technology: The Self, Shifts in Attitudes, and Computer Psychotherapy?

It is precisely in the interaction with another that the self grows and flourishes. When cyberspace is used as a means of forming relationships, it withdraws the nutrients people need for the growth of self and therefore impedes self-development. While most endorse the importance of conversation, few ponder the hard truth that dialogue is what makes us human and without the ability to converse, people are in danger of losing their very humanity. Cut off from the world of meaningful human conversation, the individual is left in a space that remains empty and static. The very same individual, in attempt to fill that void, will fill this void with the stimulation of technology, a strategy that only serves to leave the person even more removed from human relationships.

A powerful example of this shift in thinking is the finding that attitudes toward robots have shifted over the course of the past 20 years (Turkle, 2011). In the early years of robots, children tended to have doubts that robots could substitute for the human interaction they clearly preferred. But 20 years later, children were not so sure. Once robots could speak and express caring responses, American youth became less sure that robots were poor substitutes for the human touch. Now both children and adults are much more likely to believe robots can meet the needs of elderly persons. The importance of this shift, according to Turkle, is not so much the robots’ capabilities but in the transformation in the way young people see humans.

Research suggests that technological advances have had a significant influence on the way children and adolescents regard themselves and others. In some of Turkle’s early work (2004), many MIT and Harvard computer specialists tended to see their minds as computers, information processing organs, machines housed inside their bodies. At that time, such a mechanistic view of human being was found primarily among those who built computer systems. Today, however, this ideology has spread beyond those who work in information processing.

In perhaps the most troubling example of our shift in attitude, research is now indicating that technology has increasingly become a companion. There was a computer program designed at MIT in the 1970’s, called ELIZA, which engaged in dialogue in the style of a psychotherapist. A user could type a thought and ELIZA reflected back in language that offered support or asked for clarification. To “My father is making me angry,” the program might respond, “Tell me more about your father.” Subjects went from benign statements/questions like “How are you?” to “My girlfriend left me” within four or five interchanges.  Four decades later, after the first version of ELIZA, artificial intelligence known as “bots” present themselves as companions to the millions who play computer games on the Internet. It has come to seem natural to “converse” with bots on a variety of matters, from routine to romantic. Participants take the small step from having one’s “life” saved by a bot met in a virtual world to feeling affection toward it. A poignant and disturbing example of this shift in attitude was capture in the recent film, “Her,” starring Joaquin Phoenix. (For those who haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it!)

A natural outcome of this attitudinal shift is the contemplation of “Computer Psychotherapy.” In the late 1970’s, there was considerable reticence about computer psychotherapy, but soon after, opinions shifted. The arc of this story does not reflect new abilities that machines to understand people, but people’s changing ideas about psychotherapy and the workings of our own minds, both seen in mechanistic terms. Thirty years ago, psychotherapy or psychoanalysis, was seen as a context for coming to see the story of your life in new terms. This happened through gaining insight and developing a relationship with a therapist who provided a safe place. Today, many see psychotherapy less as an investigation of the meaning of our lives and more as an exercise to achieve behavioral change or work on brain chemistry. There is now increasing research that shows a greater willingness to enter into a relationship with a machine if people think it will help them feel better. This attitudinal shift risks many things – our souls, our humanity, our sense of self.