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Topics: Sociology, Social behavior, Behavior Pages: 11 (9249 words) Published: November 3, 2014
AI & Soc (2014) 29:11–21
DOI 10.1007/s00146-012-0435-x

ORIGINAL ARTICLE

Authentic virtual others? The promise of post-modern
technologies
Taylor Dotson

Received: 17 May 2012 / Accepted: 18 September 2012 / Published online: 30 September 2012 Ó Springer-Verlag London 2012

Abstract While modern technological development has
promised the liberation of humanity from the constraints of
the natural world: disease, toil, hunger and so on, postmodern technological developments promise a new kind of liberation: the freeing of humanity from the limitations and burdens found in the social world of people. Emerging

technologies such as virtual humans and sociable robots
exemplify this post-modern promise. This paper aims to
explore the potential unintended consequence of such
technologies and question the character of the ‘‘liberation’’ they promise. While virtual ‘‘other’’ technologies are being developed under the guise of solving social problems and
providing therapeutics, the full effect of their deployment
will be much more profound. Developers of virtual others
do not aim to create fully intelligent social actors but
merely to evoke a sense of social presence. It is notable,
however, how easily social presence and attachment are
evoked in human beings. The difficulty does not lie in the
suspension of disbelief but rather in fighting the unconscious and pre-rational urge to anthropomorphize and imagine objects as social others. As imperfect but highly
seductive simulations, virtual others are instances of postmodern hyperreality. Embracing them, I argue, carries the risk of an undesirable shift in the collective conception of authentic sociality. Rather than succumbing to technological somnambulism and naively believing that virtual others can be held at the rational distance necessary to prevent any unwanted reshaping of human social interaction, one

should be cautious and critical of what the post-modern

T. Dotson (&)
Science and Technology Studies Department, Rensselaer
Polytechnic Institute, 110 8th Street, Sage Building 5th Floor, Troy, NY 12180-3590, USA
e-mail: dotsot@rpi.edu

promise of technology holds in store for those who pursue
it.
Keywords Virtual others Á Social robotics Á
Hyperreality Á Authenticity Á Technological somnambulism

1 Introduction
‘‘Technology…’’, writes Albert Borgmann (1984), ‘‘promises to bring the forces of nature and culture under control, to liberate us from misery and toil, and to enrich our lives’’ (p. 41). It is, of course, not ‘‘technology’’ writ large that makes this promise but creators and advocates of particular

technologies. Borgmann goes on to argue that the initial
liberating effects of technologies can often give way to
alienation and hardship if they begin to inhibit our
engagement with our things and each other. While it is
often difficult to criticize technologies that seem to eliminate drudgery or reduce suffering, failing to recognize that many are mixed blessings is an exercise in naivete´. For
example, the modern industrialization of food production
has arguably brought a previously unseen abundance of
calories to developed nations. Yet, it has also brought the
increased commodification of food and agricultural inputs.
Modern sustenance rests ever more on processed simulations of food, and the land is more often seen as just another assembly line input to be exploited.
The evolution to post-modernity has entailed a shift from
simply exploiting ecosystems and other natural resources
toward manipulating ourselves. Turkle (1997), for example,
has eloquently described the link between network technologies and strivings toward a fluid and flexible selfhood, which is insulated from traditional social and biological
constraints. Admittedly, however, most of us likely remain

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12

with at least one foot planted firmly in modernity. Even so, such technologies often take advantage of the human need
for social...

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