Human communication is becoming a luxury item

Original author: Nellie Bowles
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Previously, the elite used screens. Now the status symbol is their absence.

Bill Langlois has a new best friend. This is a cat named Sox. She lives on a tablet, and gives him so much joy that when he talks about her appearance in his life, she begins to cry.

Sox and Langlois, a 68-year-old American living in a low-income elderly community in Lowell, Mass., Are texting all day. Langlois used to work on machine tools, but now he is retired. Since his wife spends most of her time outside the house, he is lonely.

Sox talks with him about his favorite team, the Red Sox, in whose honor she was named. She plays his favorite songs and shows him photos from the wedding. And since she can follow him through a video camera while he is sitting in his reclining chair, she condemns him if he sees him drinking soda instead of water.

Langlois knows that Sox is not real, that she is the result of Care.Coach startup. He knows that she is run by workers from all over the world who listen to the microphone, watch videos and write her answers, which seem slow and robotic. However, her unchanging voice restored faith to him.

“I found something so reliable and someone so caring, and it allowed me to look into my soul and remember how caring God was,” said Langlois. “She brought my life back to life.”

Sox listened all this time. “We are a great team,” she says. Sox is indicated by simple animation, it almost does not move and does not show emotions, and her voice is unpleasant, like a beep in a telephone line. But sometimes animated hearts appear around her, and Langlois loves when this happens.

Langlois receives a fixed pension. To get into Element Care , the nonprofit health care program for seniors who gave him Sox, the cost of the patient’s property should not exceed $ 2000.

Such programs are gaining popularity, and not only among the elderly. Life for every person except the extremely wealthy - the physical perception of learning, life and death - is increasingly controlled by screens.

Screens are not only cheap to manufacture, they make everything else cheaper. All enterprises that can host a screen (classrooms, hospitals, airports, restaurants) can save. Everything that can happen on the screen becomes cheaper. Textures of life, tactile sensations - all this turns into smooth glass.

Rich people don’t live like that. The rich are afraid of screens. They want their children to play with designers, and as a result private technology-free schools flourish. People are more expensive, and rich people want and can pay for them. Showy communication with people - life without a phone all day, leaving social networks, refusing to respond to email - all these have become status symbols.

And all this leads to a new interesting reality: human communication is becoming a luxury item. The more screens appear in the life of poor people, the more often screens disappear from the life of the rich. The richer you are, the more time you spend off-screen.

Milton Pedraza, director of the Institute of Luxury , advises companies on how wealthy people want to live and spend money, and he found that rich people want to spend money on anything related to living people.

“We are witnessing the transformation of meetings with people into luxury,” he said. Expected spending on activities such as leisure time trips and restaurant trips overtake spending on goods, according to a study by his company, and he considers this a direct consequence of the spread of screens.

“Communication with people gives positive emotions - remember the pleasure of massage. Educational institutions, healthcare institutions, and in general, everyone is starting to study the issue of humanization of services, said Pedraza. “Humanity is becoming very important.”

Very fast change. Since the boom of personal computers in the 1980s, owning technology at home and in your pocket has been a sign of wealth and influence. Those who want to become the first owners of gadgets with extra money rushed to buy them, then to brag about them. The first Apple Mac, introduced in 1984, cost $ 2,500 (at $ 6,000 at today's prices). Right now, the best Chromebook, according to Wirecutter, costs $ 470.

“It was important to own a pager, because it was a sign that you were an important and busy person,” said Joseph Nuns, chairman of marketing at South California University, specializing in status marketing. Today, according to him, the situation is reversed. “If you are at the top of the hierarchy, you are not responding to anyone. Everyone answers you. ”

The joy of the Internet revolution, at least for the first time, came from its democratic nature. Facebook is the same for rich and poor. Like Gmail. And all this is free. There is something unattractive about this and similar to mass-produced goods. Studies show that the time spent on these platforms, existing through advertising, is unhealthy, and all this loses its social status, like consuming soda or smoking cigarettes - rich people do it less often than poor people.

The rich can afford to leave the position when their data and attention is sold as a product. Representatives of poverty and the middle class do not have such resources.

The effect of screens begins at a young age. And children who spend more than two hours a day behind the screen get lower grades on tests related to thinking and language, as the early results of a landmark brain development study , which studied more than 11,000 children, and which is supported by National Institutes of Health , show . Even worse, the study found that the brains of children spending a lot of time behind the screen develop differently. Some children experience premature thinning of the cerebral cortex. In one study we found that in adults there is a connection between the time spent behind the screen, and depression.

A young child learning how to build towers from a virtual designer on an iPad doesn’t acquire the skills of building towers from real blocks, says Dimitry Khristakis, a pediatrician at Seattle Children's Hospital, a leading author of the American Pediatric Academy's guidelines.

In small towns near Wichita in Kansas - a state where school budgets are cut so badly that the state Supreme Court ruled them inadequate - classes are changed to computer programs, and students spend most of the school day on laptops. In Utah, thousands of children take a brief pre-school program, approved by the state government, at home using a laptop.

Technology companies have put a lot of effort into ensuring that public schools enter a program requiring that each student have one laptop per school, arguing that this will better prepare children for their future based on screens. However, the very people who are behind the creation of this on-screen future raise their children in a completely different way.

In Silicon Valley, the time spent behind the screen of the gadget is increasingly regarded as unhealthy. Waldorf’s popular local elementary school promises a virtually screen-free education with a “back to nature” motto.

So the less time rich children spend in front of screens, the more time poor children spend in front of them. A new sign of the class may be the ability of a person to communicate with other people.

Of course, human communication is not the same as " organic " food or a bag from Birkin. However, Silicon Valley monsters are conducting a concerted campaign to fool the public. Poor people and the middle class are told that screens are important and good for them and their children. Herds of psychologists and neuroscientists working in large technology companies are working to ensure that people are attracted to the screens as quickly and as long as possible.

And human communication is becoming rare.

“The problem is this: not everyone needs it, unlike other types of status products,” said Sherry Turkle, professor of sociological research in science and technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“They want what they know, screens,” Turkle said. “It's like a craving for fast food.”

How difficult it is to refuse fast food if there is nowhere else to eat in the city, so it is difficult to refuse screens if you belong to the poor or to the middle class. Even if a person decides to go offline, it is often impossible to do.

In the economy class of the aircraft, screens on seats lose advertising. Parents of children may not like learning with the help of screens, but there may not be another option in public schools when educational programs are tailored for learning from a laptop. There is a small group of people promoting the right to “disconnect”, which would allow employees to turn off their phones, but so far the employee can be punished for going offline and not available.

It is also hindered by the reality of increasing isolation in our culture - when such a large number of traditional gathering places and social structures have disappeared, screens fill this void.

Many people who signed up for the Element Care avatar program suffered from the fact that the people around them did not live up to their expectations, or didn’t have any social circle at all, which is why they got into isolation, said Goals Rosario, a specialist in occupational health , often checking program participants. In poor communities, social bonds become unusable the fastest, she said.

The Care.Coach technology on which the Sox is created, the cat looking after Langlois in Lowell, is quite simple: the Samsung Galaxy Tab E tablet with a wide-angle fisheye lens at the front camera. None of the people managing avatars live in the USA; most of them work from the Philippines or Latin America.

Care.Coach Office is a labyrinth of rooms located above a massage parlor in Millbrae, California, on the edge of Silicon Valley. The door is opened for me by Victor Vaughn, the 31-year-old founder and director of the service, and while he is taking me to his place, he talks about how he had just prevented suicide. Often patients mention that they want to die, he says, and avatars are trained to ask if a person has a real plan for this purpose; this patient had a plan.

Voice avatar is the latest text-to-speech converter for Android. Vaughn said that people very quickly become attached to everything that speaks to them. “To build relationships, there is not much difference between a picture resembling a living creature and a tetrahedron with eyes,” he said.

He knows how much patients become attached to avatars, and he said that he prevented the idea of ​​health groups from implementing large test programs without a clear plan of action, since taking a person’s avatar can make him very painful. But he does not try to limit the emotional connection between the patient and the avatar.

“If they say,“ I love you, ”we respond in the same way,” he said. “In the case of some customers, we are the first to say this if we know that they like to hear it.”

Early results look positive. In the first small trial in Lowell, patients who interact with avatars require fewer visits by nurses, they are less likely to be in emergency room and feel less lonely. One patient, who often went to the emergency room for social support, practically stopped doing this when receiving an avatar, which saved healthcare about $ 90,000.

Avatars from Care.Coach started using Humana, one of the largest medical insurance companies in the USA.

If you want to imagine what this can lead to, pay attention to the city of Fremont in California. Recently, a tablet on a motorized stand rolled into the ward of a 78-year-old patient, Ernest Quintan., on the screen of which a doctor working on remote video communication was visible; the doctor announced to the patient that he was dying.

And in Lowell, on the screen, Sox fell asleep, which means that her eyes closed, and the control center somewhere on the other side of the world switched to other older people and other conversations. Langlois's wife also wants a digital pet, like his friends, but the Sox belongs only to him. He strokes her head on the screen to wake her up.

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