Authentic virtual others? The promise of post-modern technologies
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While modern technological development has promised the liberation of humanity from the constraints of the natural world: disease, toil, hunger and so on, post-modern 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 post-modern 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 promise of technology holds in store for those who pursue it.