• Patrick McAndrew

Am I Interesting Enough?

I just finished reading Nicholas Carr’s book, The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains.  Talk about a book!  In his last chapter, he talks about a computer scientist who worked at MIT in the 1960s by the name of Joseph Weizenbaum.  Weizenbaum was most well-known for creating a computer software which he named ELIZA.  ELIZA was a software that was programmed for very basic conversational skills, almost like an old-fashioned Siri or Alexa.

Well, back in the day, this type of technology was “off the chain” as they say.  Scientists and psychologists were enamored by this computer who can converse.  After a series of tests, they believed that we would be able to have computerized therapists, in which people would pay a couple of dollars and go into a telephone booth-like location to converse with this ELIZA to ease their troubles.

Weizenbaum was somewhat baffled by these scientists and their desires to jump to automation.  Weizenbaum reminded them that ELIZA was not a real person, that it was only a computer software.  But the scientists wanted to believe that ELIZA was something more.  Weizenbaum quoted, “What I had not realized is that extremely short exposures to a relatively simple computer program could induce powerful delusional thinking in quite normal people.”

Carr concluded this thought by saying, “What makes us human, Weizenbaum had come to believe, is what is least computable about us – the connections between our mind and body, the experiences that shape our memory and our thinking, our capacity for emotion and empathy.”  It appears that we lose our humanness as we become more intimately involved with our computers.

This comes as no surprise.  How many times have you been with someone and they pulled out their smartphones when it wasn’t an emergency?  Smartphones and other devices often get first priority when it comes to attention; fellow human beings come second.

It’s human nature to become distracted.  If we are sitting in a play, our eyes naturally move to where movement is taking place.  If we hear a loud crash, we naturally turn to the source of the sound.  And if our phone lights up, it drifts our gaze downward to see what it’s all about.  Whether we realize this or not, while we are responding to a message or something else on our phones, a subconscious message is being sent to the person we are with that they are not as important.  Do we believe this?  Of course not!  But neurologically it’s true.

I often wonder if I am interesting enough to captivate a person’s interest.  As an actor, that’s of the utmost importance!  And we have all been to plays that are not too exciting.  It’s because the actor isn’t seizing our attention the way they should be.  We’d rather be at the sporting event or surfing the web, preferably doing both at the same time, than at this boring, lame sauce play.  But this is why I love theater so much.  It requires you to be fully immersed.

It can often seem like we are doing our own performance in our every day conversations.  “Hey!  Pay attention to me!  I have some interesting thoughts!”  Or, “Hey!  I want to be your friend and learn about you!”  And, like performing in a play, we can see those moments when we begin to lose our audience.  Eyes start to wonder, perhaps a head turns, and then the nail in the coffin is the wiping out of a smartphone.  Most people, I believe, are nice people.  Because they are nice people, they will continue nodding and saying “Yeah, yeah,” but at this point they are somewhere else.  We are left hanging and when they do return to your face from the smartphone, the air has been let out of the conversation.  The energy, the vivacity is lost.

Some have a better knack at seeing when a person becomes disengaged.  A funny moment I’ve encountered personally from time to time is when I am talking to someone about something, they get distracted, and the conversation never comes back.  There are exceptions to this, of course.  A good friend walks through the door or an emergency pops up.  But it’s funny when it happens from the littlest distractions.  And I am probably just as guilty as anyone when it comes to this.  It can be difficult, especially if there are a lot of people around.  It’s interesting to clock when we notice someone actively listening and when someone is in search of a more captivating conversation or an escape through their phone.

In these cases, perhaps these 1960s scientists were right about conversing with computers.  Most of us are always on our phones and always connected, often preferring our safe online bubble than the surrounding world and people around us.  But I tend to align with Weizenbaum on this one, not only because he has a superb last name, but because he understood the mystical effect that technology can have on the human brain.

What are your thoughts?  Do you feel this way sometimes when in a conversation?  Comment below!


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