Category Archives: Uncategorized

two color line

When a Mechanical Mr. Bean Does the News


At the BBC, the approximate equivalent of going to the wrong door to greet a visitor is not that unusual.  Such as the nature of setting up newscasts using “Smart” A.I.

Those fearing what will happen when artificial intelligence takes over more complex human functions can look to a lot of evidence to see that humans will still matter.  Advanced A.I. technology offers astounding opportunities to pass off fakes as real. For example, film scenes are now often composed by putting actors against a green screen in an empty studio and electronically inserting a digital background from virtually anywhere. These kinds of economies used to be obvious in films using rear screen projections. Somehow even the great Hitchcock didn’t see how hackneyed they looked. But it can now be hard to tell if an actor is indeed gazing over a spectacular view of the Golden Gate, or just clutching a hand rail mock-up in Culver City.

Most of us already deal with corporate A.I. on almost a daily basis. But their synthetic nature of chatbots are pretty easily revealed in their inabilities to listen, and their laughable indifference to the complex human cues of our “otherness.”  (“Press 1 to hear these choices again” is often about as good as it gets.)

Computer Code Calling the Shots

In both funny and interesting ways, nothing so easily represents the increased chaos that awaits us all than the “smart” cameras that have been used by BBC television news. These key devices occasionally go rogue, leaving confusion in their wake. To be sure, there are still news readers trying their best in the relatively new spaces within London’s Broadcasting House. But the management of what is arguably the world’s best broadcast news organization has remained committed to producing daily newscasts with software that manages most sound and video on their news sets: first, in the large circular space of what was Studio E, and more recently, in a newer version of it on a lower level. The original set encircled a news reader in a ring of automated  cameras  on rails, with sometimes funny outcomes.  Without planning it, BBC World News occasionally runs its own version of “The Show that Goes Wrong.” Certainly not all the time, but still often enough to be enshrined in any number of YouTube clips.

The most obvious problem was that the cameras-on-tracks would leave news presenters to chase down a place in front which ever one was “live” at the time.  Sometimes a presenter was only partly in the frame.  At other times a rogue camera crossed into a shot, leaving viewers puzzled and presenters apologizing for the unwanted intrusion.  Not infrequently, a news presenter was the last to know that where a camera was aimed and if their mic was on.  As one cheerfully noted while trying to run to another part of the set, “You can pretend that you haven’t noticed.” Others complained of “gremlins” running the show.  When things do not go as planned, the results can be the approximate equivalent of going to the wrong door to greet a visitor. Interestingly, the current group of automated cameras from the Norwegian company Electric Friends even have a face-reading capability.

Luckily, the BBC’s computer bugs are usually self-revealing, and a useful a reminder that our intelligence is reasonably quick in detecting situations that lack veracity.

We are well into in an era when idiot computers have made a hash of some routine functions.  The real danger is when their presence is not easily detectable. A new vocabulary will need to be developed to communicate our displeasure at the appearance of misrepresentations and robots passed off as the real thing. Given its nature, electronic fakes can be obvious or harmless, but they can also be another form of wire fraud passed on by human originators as they real thing.

two color line

Revised square logo

flag ukraine

Reserving Time for Direct Contact

[We are so deep into the digital age that we may not notice that a norm of mediated interpersonal exchange has replaced the direct contact humans in all earlier generations experienced. The norm now is to connect by phone or text–a degrading of the idea of contact that we may hardly notice. The issue is not whether there is usefulness in smart phone technology.  There surely is. It is whether we have taken away one of the key elements required for gaining a degree of social intelligence.]

second thoughts

For those of us who study human communication, direct face to face conversation is usually the fundamental model for understanding all other forms. When two or more people are in the same space addressing each other, their exchanges are likely to contain all of the critical yardsticks for measuring successful interaction. These essential processes include awareness of the other, the potential for immediate and unfiltered reciprocity in an exchange, and access to all the visual and verbal feedback that comes with direct person-to-person contact. All other channels of communication—including the devices that extend the range of human connectivity—alter or diminish one or more of one of these processes. And though it may not seem like it, altering or reducing a conversational asset is a big deal.

Until the advent of widespread electric telegraphy in the 1850s direct communication with another in the same space has always anchored human communities. The very idea of a sociology of human relationships is mostly predicated on the expectation that we have direct and real-time access to each other.

Even so, the default model for understanding how we maintain our social nature is increasingly at odds with the ways we now live. What has changed most dramatically are the preferences of younger Americans who are less eager to seek out conversation as a problem-solving tool.

We are kidding ourselves if we believe the false equivalency that lets “social media” substitute for living in the social world.

The most interesting research on this subject is from Sherry Turkle at M.I.T., who has been documenting the well-known drift of the young away from direct interaction to alternate channels that enlarge connectivity but diminish communication richness (Reclaiming Conversation, 2015). The platforms are well-known, including Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and other forms. Under the misnomer of “connectivity,” changes in technology and adjustments to them are slowly schooling younger generations to prefer communication that is mediated and intentionally isolating. We are kidding ourselves if we believe the false equivalency that lets “social media” substitute for living in the social world.

Turkle has noted a wholesale flight away from direct conversation and toward electronic messaging.  In the words of many of her interviewees, meeting directly with someone is “risky,” “too emotional,” “an interruption,” and “anxiety producing.” As a high school senior she interviewed observed, “What’s wrong with conversation?  I’ll tell you what’s wrong with conversation!  It takes place in real time and you can’t control what you are going to say.”

Responses like these suggest a desire to escape the burdens of acquiring the essential rudiments of what psychologists sometimes call “social intelligence,” meaning the ability to navigate through many essential and unavoidable relationships that unfold in real time.

It has always been true that some conversations are difficult.  But this kind of face-work is also the essential work of a complex adult life. As Turkle notes,

Many of the things we all struggle with in love and work can be helped by conversation. Without conversation, studies show that we are less empathic, less connected, less creative and fulfilled.  We are diminished, in retreat.  But to generations that grew up using their phones to text and messages, these studies may be describing losses they don’t feel. They didn’t grow up with a lot of face-to-face talk.

Of course there is always a risk among the old to assume that progress has been overtaken by regression. To paraphrase the Oscar Hammerstein lyric from Oklahoma!, it’s easy to believe that “things have gone about as far as they can go.” Even so, it’s worth remembering that forms of mediated communication are usually not additive, but reductive. Texts, e-mails, and even video games start with various fundamentals of communication, but almost always take something away.  It may be immediacy.  It may be full interactivity.  But the most consequential of all is a reduced intimacy that happens when humans are not in the same space breathing the same air.

two color line

Revised square logo 2