I’ve been reading Sherry Turkle’s amazing book Alone Together recently and it has inspired me to think about one of the ‘creatures’ she was studying in the book. She looked at the impact that so-called social robots (or socialable robots) are having on our personal interactions by studying Furbies, Tamagotchi’s, Paro (the Japanese ‘seal’ robot), several ‘functional’ robots (like nurse robots) and a number of robots in development. A lot of what she discovers points to a conception that there is a class of people (robots) who are ‘alive enough’ for us to care about them. In other words, we might be aware that a Furby isn’t fully alive, but the way it seems to respond to our interactions inspires people to ‘care’ for it and to see it as alive enough to create personal and intimate attachments.
I’ve been doing research for a book I’m writing about intimacy and technology that includes thinking about some of the ideas Turkle proposes in her book. One of the ways I’m doing this ‘thinking’ is through a process of ‘doing’ that involves making a piece of work with the Furbies as my material subject. Every year in the BA (Hons) Contemporary Theatre and Performance course that I am programme leader of, we do staff-directed practical projects with second year students. The structure of the unit is that we work with half of the year group (usually about 16-18 students) over the course of six weeks with four sessions of four hours each every week.
In preparation for my work with the students, which commences after the Easter break, I’ve purchased twelve Furbies. Here are two of them, resting on my bookshelf in states of suspended animation (aka, without batteries):
It’s going to take a lot of battery power to keep these bad boys running, but I’m looking forward to setting the students a series of tasks that explore their relationship to this animate-inanimate creature. I’m not completely sure what direction we will be heading in our investigations, but I know I am interested in seeing if the students develop unique, personal relationships with these creatures and if they inspire the students to display specific behaviours (publicly and privately) that might normally be associated with human-to-pet or human-to-human relationships. We will also play with notions of the idealised childhood, memory and recollection as we get started. I’ll post more in the weeks to come.
If anyone reading has suggestions for what to do, or things I should read, please let me know.