Speaking Publicly to Myself | Social Media as Therapeutic Chat-bot | Digital Prayer

I’ve been writing a piece about Alan Turing – who was born 100 years ago in June and was the godfather of artificial intelligence. His ‘Turing Test’ still endures as a fascinating ongoing game between humans and computers, whereby a computer can pass the Turing Test if it can convince a human interlocutor that they are conversing (via keyboard) with another human.

As computer scientists tried to develop more and more sophisticated machines to act like humans – and, latterly, learn like humans, one man at MIT in the 1960’s hit upon a different angle, which itself opened up the field of natural language processing. Joseph Weizenbaum realised that many responses to statements contain within themselves an appropriate question to lead the conversation on. ‘I’m having a bad day’ quickly turns round to ‘Why are you having a bad day?’

With just a hundred or so lines of code he developed Eliza, which was based on the model of a ‘non-directive Rogerian therapist.’ In this model of therapy, the therapist mirrors what you’re saying, and turns it back at you as a question, so the statement, ‘I’m feeling depressed,’ is turned back at you: ‘I’m sorry you’re feeling depressed. Tell me more. Why are you feeling depressed?’ This proved very easy to code, and Weizenbaum was quite tickled by the end results.

(You can still have a chat with Eliza here)

His amusement quickly turned to concern, however, when he found that people within his team were asking others to leave the room so they could be left alone with Eliza. Weizenbaum was shocked to realise that, even though people knew that they were talking to a ‘dumb’ program, they still opened up the deepest part of their lives to it. He once came into his office to find his secretary pouring out her secrets to the machine… she asked him to give her and the machine some privacy.

What struck me researching this was that the draw of Social Media may well be less to do with the social side, but more to do with this desire to be open – even to a dumb machine – that Eliza opened up. (See NYT piece here on web-based therapy)

It has become popular to talk of the ‘invisible other’ that we might actually be communicating with when we post to Twitter or Facebook – another other who is not the ‘actual’ recipient/reader of the post. Yet I’m now convinced that social media actually serves a more selfish function: it allows me to speak publicly to myself. By writing something on a social network, what I am doing is presenting publicly something that I have thought of privately. Rather than serving simply to educate or inform others by posting this, by making it public I am actually telling myself to take this thought seriously. The point of telling others is to make myself accountable for my own thoughts. By posting, I draw things more clearly into my personal conscious by making them available to the collective.

In this sense, I wonder if social media thus functions in the same way that Eliza did: as a form of non-directive therapy. Connectedly, (and this post might be of further interest) we might then say that social media posts actually function as a sort of secular ‘prayer’ for a digital age. Not that they are directed to any particular divinity, but that they are a way of drawing our desires from within ourselves in an indirect way.

This relates back to the Turing Test in an interesting way: it may well soon be possible to ‘talk’ to a therapist, who may well turn out to be a chat-bot. The question is, would it matter if we knew?

For a brilliant (and hilarious) examination of the issues around this, have a listen to the Radiolab episode, Clever Bots:




4 responses to “Speaking Publicly to Myself | Social Media as Therapeutic Chat-bot | Digital Prayer”

  1. In accusing social media of being self-serving by allowing us to talk publicly to ourselves, to give greater import to our thoughts and words, I am left to wonder how Web-logging is really different, if at all? While is it true I was directed to this column by the reference of another, and did not reach it arbitrarily, it still represents that anyone with a Web-log, by the sheer act of writing/posting believes the world needs to read/hear what they have to say. If we really want to explore non-directive, therapeutic dialogue in a private way, not worrying about the invisible “other,” could we not just sit down with pen and paper, or even word processing software? The act of going public is where I think it shifts from one purpose to another. Can we learn, and thereby model, some form of non-directive therapy to address our inner ponderings?
    Its the first time I’ve read your columns/posts, but it just struck such an odd chord with me, by being directed specifically at Twitter and Facebook without seeing itself reflected. Anyway, just an observation from a non-Web-logger…

  2. There’s no accusation, only observation. I agree with pretty much everything you say here. This site is, very often, me speaking publicly to myself. The public element is interesting. To deny that anything I say could help anyone else, or could just mean narcissism, would be selfish in the extreme, and a weird form of arrogance. So a considered airing of thoughts in public can actually be quite healthy, as it opens one up to accountable critique by ‘the other.’ To write totally privately in a journal, for example, means denying that anything you say could help another, while denying anyone else the chance to challenge your thoughts.
    Hope that helps.

  3. why would one want a machine knowing all you’re problems? Its true that it is a way of saving money but if one was in that much need for some kind of help then that barely matters. The truth hurts and, sorry if i am wrong but admitting it to oneself is a good step, but then to another is even more important, so why admit it to a machine that cannot connect or understand. Just wondering..

  4. It’s a good point H… but part of the trouble for many people is even beginning to open up – and it seems, because the evidence bears it out, that people can begin to do that to a machine, perhaps more easily because it is dumb. But I agree, what must happen from there is that it is shared with another person. Thanks for commenting 😉