Dreaming of electric sheep: humans’ changing relationship with machines

3 May 2016

The title of Philip K Dick’s 1968 science fiction novel asked, ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’? The novel, later adapted into movie form as Blade Runner, queried whether the increasing sophistication of machines may (eventually) afford them a level of consciousness comparable to our own.

However, what Philip K Dick’s digital vision failed to foresee was that the evolution of machines would not take place around humans; it would take place within and between them.

Humans present two fascinating dualities. First, each of our experiences of the world is intractably personal, perceived through a biological and psychological lens that is unique to us as individuals. Yet, we are also social creatures, heavily influenced by our environment and those with whom we interact.

As a result, the more we integrate technology into our lives, the more uniquely we tend to use and combine specific technologies to create the customised digital ecosystem that best matches our personal and social needs.

This includes different mobile technologies, websites, profiles, social networks and, more recently, different wearable devices. These wearable devices not only promise to increase our casual interconnectedness with online systems, they also have the potential to integrate our psychophysiology and create new instinct-level bio-responsive functionalities.

Second, we are adaptable, a quality that is arguably the main source of our success over other species (a success so sizeable it threatens to destroy the planet). Yet, even as a species, we are also the product of hundreds of thousands of years of evolution – evolution that has primed us to perceive and interact with other people and our surroundings in a certain way.

From an evolutionary perspective, we simply have not had time to adapt to the modern, digital world.

Hence, while we are often quick to make use of new technological capabilities, the manner in which we do so is often skewed by cognitive and informational biases that are poorly suited to new forms of communication.

For example, an individual reading an email is not simply reading digital text, they are reconstructing the human being(s) they imagine on the other side of that interaction. This reconstruction is missing most of the information we are genetically primed to rely upon, such as facial expressions, gestures, eye-contact, etc.

As a result, we may inflate the importance of other information cues to compensate. For example, the words used as a greeting may take on a level of meaning far exceeding the sender’s intention.

For digital business, these two dualities present a third.

On one hand, digital businesses must remember that people are still people, meaning the complex social structures and behaviours in the physical world are inevitably reflected when people interact digitally.

The web isn’t socially flat, it’s a messy and continuously self-organising clustered mesh of relationships. Accepting this is the first step to navigating it effectively.

On the other hand, the normal rules for interacting don’t apply, because they can’t – too much information is missing or different. This makes it especially important to be able to identify, trigger and manage different norms and expectations if interactions are to benefit the range of parties involved.

The good news is that all of this makes the web an ever-expanding frontier, within which opportunities abound. The challenge is understanding which of the old rules apply and which don’t.

Dr Rob Gleasure is a lecturer at University College Cork, where he teaches a range of undergraduate and postgraduate courses relating to e-business and online crowd behaviour. Gleasure is also a lecturer for the IMI Diploma in Digital Business and MSc in Digital Business.

Main image via Shutterstock