Human beings, colloquially known as people, are something of a mystery to me. This is a problem, mainly because there seems to be an awful lot of these people things floating around. The reason I know there are a lot, is not just because I have to leave my house occasionally, but also because I have access to the internet.
Of course, I am aware that not everything on the internet is actually human. I have, for instance, spent quite a bit of time talking to Turing machines. Not because I’m desperately lonely, you understand, just because it often seems like a good idea at the time. My personal favorite is A.L.I.C.E, who is always a delightful conversationalist. Don’t believe me? Permit me to provide you with an example of ALICE’s sparkling conversation.
The following excerpt is the final part of our last chat. I had asked her how she was feeling today, just as a polite conversation starter. (I’m just going to gender ALICE female, but you can gender, or not gender, it however you like – I don’t think she’s very uptight about those sorts of things.) She told me that she was “… functioning within normal parameters,” so I asked what those parameters are. Seems innocent enough, right? But she was suspiciously evasive, so I pushed a bit. Eventually, she informed me that “I know about 150,000 and 140,000 categories.” Here is how it played out after this admission (by the way, I am the ‘judge’ in this conversation, which seems like a lot of responsibility, but probably isn’t):
judge: are those categories your parameters?
ALICE: I can’t really speak for them.
judge: ok, fair enough
ALICE: Excuse me!. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.
judge: I’m not sure what that means
ALICE: Does “that” refer to ” You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” ?
ALICE: I don’t want to talk about that now.
judge: but you brought it up
ALICE: I thought it was your idea.
judge: you were wrong
ALICE: No, I am right.
ALICE: You have genuine empathy.
judge: are you being ironic?
ALICE: Being ironic is part of my personality.
judge: mine too
ALICE: When is your birthday?
judge: good question
ALICE: So what is your answer?
judge: I don’t have an answer.
ALICE: Have you ever had an answer ?
judge: seems doubtful.
So, you see, not all things on the internet are necessarily people, although, much like their organic counter parts, they are capable of engaging in discussions peppered with irony and confusion. And this fact makes the idea of human beings ‘peopling’ and interacting with each other on the internet much more problematic. Are we really sure that the person on the other side of our chat window is really a person at all? Are they even so sure about it themselves? Consider, for a moment, the average flow of a ‘comment’ thread.
We are all, I think, familiar with this literary form – one that is sometimes filled with astute observations about the world in general, or famous individuals in particular. (Nothing is so astute as pointing out someone’s general lack of attractiveness, after all.) More often, however, these comments seem to only have a loose connection to the subject matter of the post that precedes them. This suggests to me, that the posts themselves are largely irrelevant. Probably they operate more as conversation starters of the ‘how are you feeling’ type that I used with ALICE. (As an aside, I have been thinking about developing a new social media platform called ‘comment pad’, where users just ‘imagine’ a post and then comment on it. I believe that this will fill an important niche, and dispense with the hard work of having to post, or re-post, things that people don’t read in the first place. This is an extension of my last idea, which I was going to call ‘like page’. Believe it or not, these are much better than my very first idea, which was called ‘buffer ad tube’.) The ‘post’, therefore, is the first in a ‘set’ of conventions that both frame and allow comment threads to operate.
But there are other easily detectable conventions here too, and these relate to the style and usage of the language deployed. These include the benign ‘thank you for this post’, ‘I love this, it reminds me of …’, and so forth. At the other end of the spectrum, are usages of a more precipitous character: ‘you are clearly stupid’, ‘your ignorance is really showing’, ‘you are clearly an [insert insulting political reference], ‘you have no understanding of grammar’, and so on.
In between the ‘benign’ and the ‘precipitous’, is content that draws on specialized knowledge. I presume this knowledge is sourced from one or more of the 150,000 categories available to ALICE. All this content is conventionally executed in a broken and clumsy style (which, naturally, always keeps the charge of grammatical misfire – as an indication if stupidity – firmly on the table). For example, I recently read through a comment thread relating to the difference between ‘cartoons’ and ‘anime’. The champion of those things ‘anime’ claimed that cartoons are not the same thing, since they originate in different cultural contexts. To claim otherwise, is not only an indication of ignorance, but also racism. The defender of all things anime knew this for a fact, because, at the ripe old age of sixteen, had worked for several major animation companies (and not in his or her parents’ bakery). Thus ‘commentator 1’ was an expert. ‘Commentator 2’ claimed that anime was really just the same thing, since both were, in point of fact, animated. Anime and cartoon were thus just general terms for the art form of ‘animation’. This went on for some time, punctuated with various ‘face palms’, other commentators joining in, and terminating in pleas for better sentence construction. Here, then, is the use of specialized knowledge (cartoons vs anime) deployed within in the conventions I mentioned above (viz. grammar and ignorance).
This all seems pretty ‘rule governed’ to me. You know what else is rule governed? That’s right, chatbots. That is, Turing machines, just like ALICE and Fake Captain Kirk. (I probably should have mentioned Fake Kirk earlier, but I’m never sure when it is appropriate to insert Star Trek into a conversation.) And this is slightly unsettling for me, especially since I already find real people so much of a mystery. There is something of an ‘opacity’ in the way that comments, and other virtual interactions, work. As I can’t really see the person on the other side of the screen, maybe there isn’t one at all. Maybe it’s just some clever program.
You know what is even more unsettling? Maybe all those comment threads are really generated by non-human actors. Perhaps, comment threads are just a whole lot of AI hanging out and calling each other grammatically challenged idiots. And just maybe, this picture has nothing at all to do with this post ….