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03 January 2006

For what the turtles do, you don't need live ones

From Sherry Turkle's 'dangerous idea' for Edge's question centre 2006:

At the entrance to the exhibit is a turtle from the Galapagos Islands, a seminal object in the development of evolutionary theory. The turtle rests in its cage, utterly still. "They could have used a robot," comments my daughter. It was a shame to bring the turtle all this way and put it in a cage for a performance that draws so little on the turtle's "aliveness." I am startled by her comments, both solicitous of the imprisoned turtle because it is alive and unconcerned by its authenticity. The museum has been advertising these turtles as wonders, curiosities, marvels — among the plastic models of life at the museum, here is the life that Darwin saw. I begin to talk with others at the exhibit, parents and children. It is Thanksgiving weekend. The line is long, the crowd frozen in place. My question, "Do you care that the turtle is alive?" is welcome diversion. A ten year old girl would prefer a robot turtle because aliveness comes with aesthetic inconvenience: "Its water looks dirty. Gross." More usually, the votes for the robots echo my daughter's sentiment that in this setting, aliveness doesn't seem worth the trouble. A twelve-year-old girl opines: "For what the turtles do, you didn't have to have the live ones." Her father looks at her, uncomprehending: "But the point is that they are real, that's the whole point."

Turkle goes on to surmise that the value of the original/authentic/alive thing is in decline.

Her subsequent thoughts about virtual creatures and robots are particularly interesting for owners of Nintendogs.

I call these creatures... "relational artifacts." Their ability to inspire relationship is not based on their intelligence or consciousness, but on their ability to push certain "Darwinian" buttons in people (making eye contact, for example) that make people respond as though they were in relationship. For me, relational artifacts are the new uncanny in our computer culture — as Freud once put it, the long familiar taking a form that is strangely unfamiliar. As such, they confront us with new questions.

(See also a mostly unrelated essay by Christoper Allen about our 'junk relationships' with TV characters, Belongingness and Para-Social Relationships.)

Posted at 02:19 PM in Children and teens, Cultured animals, Fakes and forgeries, Mimicry | Permalink


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Welcome back, you!

Posted by: matt at 3 Jan 2006 21:00:54

Hi Foe!

I used this example on my sociology of science & tech class blog because if she's right I'm scared ;) The very idea that a turtle might be too boring disturbs me, but not as much as suggesting that a robotic replacement might solve this "problem". For me, one of the central questions implicated in Turkle's "relational artifacts" is what relations actually emerge?

For example, if a simulated turtle is "better" than a live turtle, what happens to the live version? If computer-coded behaviour is taken to be "natural" then what does it mean to be human?

Do you see any dangers in what she suggests? Is the uncanny good or bad, or both? I'd love to hear your thoughts :)

Posted by: Anne at 4 Jan 2006 15:24:31

Hi Anne,

I delighted in this story as a provocation, rather than as a serious argument that aliveness is less important to young people.

The turtles are on display in a museum. They're there to evoke Darwin's original encounter with the Galapagos turtle, so important to his thinking about evolution. The turtles are already a simulation, whether they're alive or not.

I think the children would value the aliveness of the turtles more in another context.

I'd even go as far as to say that the children's comments reveal a certain sophistication, a commentary on the role of the turtles in the exhibition, tinged with empathy: "Its water looks dirty. Gross."

As for relational artefacts, I think that people enjoy the relations in a game like Nintendogs without being completely taken in by them. It's collaborative story-telling, an assisted game of "let's pretend".

Posted by: Foe at 8 Jan 2006 15:27:14