One of the largest problems we face is objectification- literally, treating or turning people into things or objects, instead of seeing them as proxies for ourselves.

There was an article in the New York Times about a marketing firm hiring homeless people and giving them mobile wi-fi hotspots at the SXSW conference, to encourage the wi-fi hungry tech crowd to use these hotspots and pay a donation to do so, that would go to the homeless person.  The point was to try to bring together those struggling and those tech folks with big voices and audiences, to engage rather than ignore.  Instead, many people saw this as exploitive.  Apparently, most of the homeless folks involved seemed to think of it as a decent job to have for a day- I’m sure far better than other day labor jobs available.

The problem and conflict here is whether or not the homeless folks were being humanized or objectified by this process.  Were they being seen as a cyborg of sorts, a walking vending machine, or were they bringing a human touch and benefit to a commodity?  It seems to be largely in the eye of the beholder on this one.

The problem in general is that we are having more and more conversations with people that are mediated by technology.  You are reading this blog post, for example, and I get to have a one way broadcast with you.  If you post in the comments, that broadcast can then become a two-way conversation, converting you from an objective “audience” into a singular voice- Mary, Steve, Chris, whomever comments. Until this becomes a conversation, all I can do is send my thoughts and feelings out into the world, speaking to the unit/object defined as audience, typing into my computer, another object.

The Conversation is also mediated by the computer, and across time, rather than instantaneous.  It allows me to be perhaps more candid than I might be face to face, where we tend to measure what we say by the instant emotional response we get from the people in front of us.  I can express myself more freely, but it also may be more extreme than it might be if we were sitting at dinner together, because the social boundaries are less clear, and I have more time to choose my words and review them than I would have in the flow of a conversation.

Because of this delay in response and direct feedback, you’ll often see people post unflattering, nasty and inappropriate things on various social networks, because there’s less inhibition by immediate feedback of social norms (ie that look from friends or family that says “don’t go there”) and less sense of the impact your words might have on other people.  It makes bullying on Facebook easier to do.  It makes being a troll and leaving hateful comments easier.  After all, it feels like you are just typing your thoughts, not really “talking” to a real person on the other end, let alone everyone else that can see the posts.  This leads to much of the communication occurring online to turn hyperbolic and extreme.  You can say inflammatory things online, never having the same immediate consequences they would have if you said those things to your neighbor.  You can unleash your inner id, often with little consequence.  And in multiplayer role-playing games, from social networks like Second Life to things like World of Warcraft, you can even indulge in avatars, never having to reveal your true self or suffer the consequences of having bad acts associated with you personally if you want to disavow  them.  Epic Dwarf 35 may be a real jerk, but you don’t have to be accountable in real life for those actions.

Likewise, I was really disturbed to find out both the British and US military are using video games like Call of Duty and Modern Warfare to train troops.  Moreover, there are concerns in academic circles about whether these games are essentially propaganda and end up glorifying war, especially as they become more and more realistic.  There was even an article questioning whether these games could violate the Geneva Convention, especially if the behavior trainees practice is not what would be allowed on the real field of battle.

This may sound like the rantings of a mom of teenaged boys, and it is, in part.  The other part of me, that loves neuroscience, also knows that our brains and the mirror neurons record these things as more real than simulation.  I’m not sure there’s such a leap to be made from kids playing Modern Warfare 3 and the same 18-22 year old kids fighting battles in Afghanistan and committing acts that most of us find reprehensible, whether it was a recent rogue sergeant killing civilians or the marines who urinated on corpses.  The more you see other people as objects and not people, the easier it is to treat them with contempt and distain.

I would argue that even much of our current political debate seeks to objectify the political opponents, by failing to acknowledge them as people.  Watching the HBO docudrama “Game Change”,and watching some of the moment replayed from the last campaign,  I was struck by how folks seemed to be looking at the President as an “Arab” “muslim”, “Socialist” or used other labels that seemed to place him more in the realm of object than man.  One of the most moving moments was when John McCain corrected one older woman and admitted that Barak Obama was a good man with a good family, just one with whom he had a difference of opinion.  That was very important, and it’s something we need to do in more of our public discourse- treat each other with respect and compassion, even if our views differ.

When we allow ourselves to forget that the internet enhances communication with other people, we lose a bit of our humanity and reason.  This is not just some amorphous “world at large”.  We’re trying to get our voices heard above the din and contribute to the world at large, providing perspectives and ideas, that, hopefully, will help make the world a little better. We need to keep humanity, compassion and responsibility for our actions.

I’m not sure how we can prevent mass objectification of people when so much communication happens through machines.  Video chats, audio, and the like help, of course.  These are immediate and personal forms of communication, and avoid the time-delayed feedback that even BF Skinner and other behavioral psychologists found to be so critical in mediating response and training.  I  worry the more we divorce people from reality and the direct nature and consequences of their actions, the more extreme that behavior may become.  Because much of the feedback is mediated and delayed through computers, consequences are more remote and have less direct effect on modifying behavior.

I’d just hate to see the most fantastic breakthrough in communications turn out to drive us farther apart than bring us together.  But the risk is very real.