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Sentience in the Other: Mediated Interpersonal Relationships

By Edited Feb 5, 2016 0 0

Relationships With Ideas

Mistaking the Message for the Messenger

In the first part of this series of articles on parasocial relationships, we looked at the origins of mankind's desire for novelty and control, as well as the importance of ideas both within and without their original context. For our purposes, this context is initially the author of an idea him or herself. But it is clear throughout history that some people's ideas have become more important than the original author. So what are the implications of that? 

If some people are chiefly valued because of their ideas and opinions, and not as defined by their corporeal form, then it is not that much of a leap to grant agency to other forms that can prove sentience. At this point in history, perceiving minds in objects that do not as yet have them is projection, a false perception of machines as autonomous. Harvard professor Jason Mitchell stated that three cortex areas in the brain are responsible for social interaction, and they tend to be so overclocked that they perceive minds where none exist, and that our minds mirror them.[3940] This has also led to attempts to create artificial intelligence that can fool a human into accepting it as sentient, such as Joseph Weizenbaum’s ELIZA, which mimicked Rogerian psychoanalysis (“knowing nothing of the world”) in a way that appeared to mask greater intelligence.[3940]

Is Technology Alive?

It often appears that a failure to understand the workings of a technology is the only condition some people need to grant that technology independent agency and sentience. This describes Kelly’s assertion that the technium, his term for the globally interconnected web of technologies available to us today, “is its own thing.” Kelly states that our machines have so much independent feedback between them that they have already achieved a kind of systematic autonomy, if not self-awareness. He also describes creating artificial minds that would ensure continued progress, but would be motivated for different results from that progress. In a dystopian frame, the potential endgame for these separate motivations would be a clash for power between man and machine, a trope popularized by such narratives as The Terminator and The Matrix. But again, these are examples of stories from human authors, and even the fictional sentient technologies therein are ultimately mediating the agency and purpose of human characters. The audience grants a suspension of disbelief for a machine character’s sentience and agency in the absence of complete information about the nature of that sentience and agency.

This absence of information also determines how much agency a person grants in real life to other people who are sentient, but whose presence is mediated by technology. A perception of others as extensions of the self is more likely in circumstances where identity is hidden, as in online environments where people communicate in faceless, pseudo-anonymous interaction that emphasizes ideas and opinions independent of identity. These include popular websites like Reddit, Digg, and 2channel-style imageboards. On the other hand, the perceived presence of other people is frequently a trigger for a locus of personal responsibility, as when there is a social reduction of selfish impulses triggered by viewing other humans in an environment.[3941] This effect is observed even when actual other people are absent, but cardboard cutouts of humans are present instead.

Pro-Social Norms

Doing the Right Thing Because of Technological Presence

The perceived presence of society is a reminder to maintain pro-social norms, as when Douglas Gentile wrote about the “The Effects of Prosocial Video Games on Prosocial Behaviors,” and found a clear correlation.[3942] This ties in with Shirky’s thesis that interacting online by creating personal or communal meaning will eventually lead to decisions that favor creating public and civic meaning. In short, the presence of others is considered a trigger for modeling right action in an environment, as long as those others are sentient. Managers have used surveillance in this way to improve worker productivity since the time of Frederick Taylor.[3943] Similarly, a security camera discourages illegal activity, but only because there is the assumption that a real person is watching the feed. If the camera is discovered to be unplugged, it no longer serves as a deterrent to antisocial behavior, because no agency or sentience is granted to the camera itself.

Bosch Security Camera

Interpersonal relationships exist on a continuum of perceived sentience of the others in the relationship. On one end of this continuum are real-life relationships that are not mediated by technology, while on the extreme opposite end are direct relationships with technology that do not even attempt to engage another sentient being. However, continued advances in technology potentially conflate and confuse the points on this continuum. For instance, empathy for living creatures is not limited to humans, as many people feel these emotions for their pets. Kelly states that a potential conflation of perceived differences between humans and animals will lead to granting them increased civil rights. A perception of decreasing differences between human intelligence and machine intelligence may lead to the same considerations granted to artificial intelligence, especially if machines act in a way that can invoke empathy from humans as a precursor to communication.

Social Media

Technologically Mediating Friendship

Until that hypothetical point when machines can argue their own sentience, technology-mediated relationships between real people, not people and non-conscious entities, will continue to increase in scope and global adoption rate. Currently, people use online forums as social spaces to interact with those they know to represent real people. The most popular of these is Facebook. People are invested in Facebook and other online spaces in an autotelic manner, not to solve an extrinsic problem.[3942] Users therefore tread a fine line of interaction in these online spaces, as engaging in mediated conversation with a non-conscious entity would have no dynamic value. This value comes only as a result of socially interacting with conscious entities, otherwise known as friends and family members. But too much dynamic value in interaction is interpreted as needless stress. There are only so many friends and family members that the average Facebook user wants to interact with through a mediated technology, and everyone else will either be “shady-buttoned,” “blocked,” or otherwise ignored.

The stress of social interaction does not always have to exist within a negative frame, however. Games, as opposed to necessary requirements, offer a way to reframe stress as a positive result of voluntary participation, and that is what we will consider next in this series of articles examining parasocial relationships. Would you like to know more?



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  1. Carr, N. The Shallows: What the internet is doing to our brains.. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010.
  2. Shirky, C. Cognitive surplus: Creativity and generosity in a connected age. New York: Penguin, 2010.
  3. McGonigal, J. Reality is broken: Why games make us better and how they can change the world. New York: Penguin, 2010.
  4. Andrejevic, M. "The Work of being watched: Interactive media and the exploration of self-disclosure.." Critical Studies in Media Communication. (2002): 231.

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