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Saturday, July 30, 2011

Social Media, a New Turing Test?

“The dominant social networks are fantasy games built around rigged avatars, outright fictions and a silent — and often unconscious — agreement among players that the game and its somewhat creaky conceits influence the real world. This pact is what distinguishes Facebook and Twitter from other fantasy games like Dungeons and Dragons and L.A. Noire. And because of this pact, and because so many hundreds of millions of people participate in this pact, Facebook and Twitter do have meaning and significance in the real world. Just as paper money is valuable because people who use it believe it’s valuable, Facebook and Twitter — right this minute — have value entirely because a whole continent’s worth of people believe they have value. So many players have invested so much trust in these games that they can’t afford not to believe they’re paying off.”  Virginia Heffernan, New York Times July 24, 2011 (Opinionator, online commentary)

The importance of reality in choosing our incentives is presently made much more complicated due to the fact that the internet has virtualized incentives that can never be ‘cashed out’ to true social goods such as status, personal favor, or money. (Sort of like 'Monopoly' money replacing the gold standard) Consider this far fetched or very real scenario, depending of course upon your point of view. Everyone you know has been consumed by the cloud, and you are the last person standing. Outside of your normal amusements and curiosities, no human is around to provide you the incentive to do anything. And that’s a problem, because if no wants anything from you, whether is evidenced by individual or institutional mandates of collections of individuals, you ain’t going nowhere if no one wants you to be there. To get motivated, you need to arouse your animal spirits, and that takes more than individual choice but institutional design. Luckily though, in your isolation you have your own virtual reality emanating from voices in the cloud. For even though everyone has gone to the cloud, they kindly left you their IP addresses, and they want you to stay in touch. And so they poke you , IM you, and tweet you often to know that they care, and most often this is no more than the faint imprint of your stat sheet to let you know they visited. They are pithy in their praise, but that’s enough for you to blog, share, or otherwise spend you time with them. It’s inspiration from a thousand glimmers of attention from ‘friends’ you never knew you had. It all could be from an auto-responder of course, or the glancing attention of a bystander on the street who couldn’t be bothered. But you of course see more, and because you read more into these minute moments dutifully registered by your search engine you are transfixed by the constant tally of attention of a growing roster of friends, connections, contacts and followers who leave their mark in a word, or not even that. You have become in this virtual world a well connected, universally befriended, and consistently followed hermit.

To take measure of the scope of this illusion, consider this comparison to  real life, when everybody looks at you and ‘remarks’. Walk down any busy street, and you receive a moment’s attention from passersby, gain the brief acquaintance of sales clerks, and infrequently chat with a friendly face who spares a minute and no more. If you monitor, tally, and even predict all this are your friendships greater or richer?  Of course they are not because you know they are not. But if these nods of acquaintance are the virtual nods of a tape register, or a tweet, prod, or ‘like’, what is stopping you from inferring more? Indeed, because the motivations of our contacts are veiled, it is all too easy to surrender to the delusion that what is under the curtain is not just a contact but your best buddy. But how can we test this comfortable surmise?

Enter the Turing Test. The Turing test, envisioned by the cybernetic pioneer Alan Turing in the 1940’s, was a test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior. An individual engages in a conversation with one human and one machine, both hidden behind a curtain, and each providing verbal responses to questions. If the judge cannot reliably tell the difference between the machine’s responses and the humans, the machine is judged to be intelligent. However, intelligence does not just entail intelligent response, but intelligent action. Let’s say during the test you fall off your chair. The human behind the curtain can at once come to your aid, while the computer can only commiserate. After all, ‘he’ is just a talking typewriter. And this is where social media becomes surprisingly unsociable. Building virtual social capital depends upon the circles of friends you have, but to see if your virtual capital can turn into real capital turns on a simple iteration of Turing’s original mind experiment. This new Turing Test requires not that they respond intelligently to you, but whether they will come to your assistance if you proverbially fall off the chair. Put that mind experiment to the test and you will find that almost all the automated nods from your social media ‘friends’ just might as well come from automated bots or intelligent typewriters, because you get intelligence but no empathy, no understanding, and ultimately, no action from intelligent agents who will commiserate with you, and no more.

Avatar for yours truly,
who will commiserate with you, for ten bucks

So where does this leave us? It makes us doubly doubtful about a distractive world that is not only useless, but indifferent. But it also leaves us with surveying the benefits of a distraction free world wherein we are just mindful of it all. (As I am sure, you the reader will comiserate!)

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