Dynamic Social Interaction

Paying for the Privilege of Interaction

So far in this series of articles on parasocial relationships, we have discussed the importance of authorial intent, the stressors associated with technology and social interaction, and the ways our admiration for celebrities influences our purchasing behaviors.  We know that the authority and assumed positive traits about certain celebrities encourages us to buy things they endorse, but it is a one-sided endorsement, and some consumers would rather have a dynamic social interaction instead of pure advertising. This desire for dynamic social interaction is the specific topic of this article.

People who are not satisfied by the one-sided nature of parasocial relationships, but are willing to pay for the privilege of two-sided, dynamic social interaction, can be found all over the Internet. An economic incentive informs many dating sites that charge a fee for users to interact with other users. Some of these are more subculture-specific and activity-centric, as is the case with the website Gamecrush, which charges men a fee not for dating profiles, but for the chance to play games online with what are advertised to be actual girls. It is not clear how verifiable the gender of an online opponent is in such situations, but it is clear that the gender itself is an important enough factor to put a price on for that activity.

But whether technology allows for parasocial relationships or dynamic social interaction, the meanings for these mediations made possible by technology are not determined by the technology itself. Humans imbue these activities with meaning. “The viewer actively produces meaning as he/she engages with the text.”[4007] The technologies of the Internet merely allow for more elaborate possibilities for communication. As Lewis Mumford said, “No computer can make a new symbol out of its own resources,”[4008] and that is as true today as it was in 1967. However, this has not stopped credible sources from sensationalizing the role of new technology, as when the New York Times referred to TiVo as a box that could “come to know what the viewer liked maybe more than the viewer itself.”[4009] That supposition is not so different from the idea of a celebrity testimonial recommending your best course of economic action, meaning that it is already possible to entertain a parasocial relationship with a “smart” machine that ostensibly knows what is best for you. However, a relationship with a machine that does not at least pretend to aspire to human emotions is unattractive and irrelevant to humans that desire dynamic social interaction, in the same way that a parasocial relationship cannot take the place of an actual social relationship.

Rise of the Machines

When Will We Get Our Own Jarvis?

Sources interviewed by mass media have been promising the evolution of machine into a semblance of sentient expression for years. In the 1980s, a Newsweek article described the computer’s potential to be “a teacher with infinite patience.” Time even named the personal computer the “man” of the year in 1982.[4010] It is always tempting to personify new technologies and instill them with assumed humanlike traits, but whether this will yet come to pass is unknown.

If it does aspire to human intelligence, or at least is perceived as aspiring to human intelligence, a potential artificial intelligence would be a true autonomous technology, “technology that is out of control by human agency.”[4011] This derives from autonomous technique, wherein practice of something itself becomes separate from one who practices it and develops independent agency. Andrejevic writes that a proliferation of an invisible, automated, and autonomous network would eventually come to resemble a “digital butler” (a.k.a "virtual valet") that stores and enacts user preferences when relevant. A good fictional example of this is Tony Stark's digital assistant Jarvis in the Iron Man and Avengers films.

Iron Man Jarvis Interface

Again, this does not necessarily mean that the digital butler/valet has any actual sentience, but the assumption that it does is what makes the potential parasocial relationship there worthwhile in the eyes of the consumer. Until then, any information derived from technology is “meaning [that] can be treated as a thing and thus as manageable.”[4010]

Will Machines Ever Achieve Sentience?

At this point in time, scholars disagree about whether autonomy applies to any technology in a way that creates sentience, but autonomy is prevalent in other ways. Kevin Kelly writes that the self-replication of informational technology, including computer viruses and artificial minds, shows at least the future possibility of sentience among machines. Viruses in particular use data accumulation to craft better, but not smarter versions of themselves, none of which ever go extinct. So, some forms of technology are at least able to perpetuate themselves indefinitely, but still lack intelligence.

Rather than creating machines that have their own intelligence, then, humanity may eventually create a technological vessel that will house biologically-derived human intelligence. This idea and more are examined in greater detail in our final installment in this series of articles on parasocial relationships. Would you like to know more?