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May 8, 2013 at 10:38pm


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empathizing with the computer

It is often assumed that we only empathize with other human beings. This is simply not true, once we consider the fact that we empathize with characters in novels.1 “But those characters are human” you protest. No. At least not in the strict sense of the word. They are imaginations we have constructed in our minds through the perception of stimuli we call “words.”

As I pointed out in my last post, empathizing is a subjective experience. It matters less what the physical, biological, and neurological makeup of the “other” we are empathizing with is. What matters more is how we subjectively perceive of and relate to them.2 What matters are the attitudes, sensitivities, prior understandings, and interaction skills we have at the moment of interface in relation to them. They are what’s responsible for increasing the accuracy and precision with which we can embody or understand that other. In fact, given the appropriate attitude, sensitivities, understandings, and skills, what kind of “other” you can empathize with is limitless. For example, some can empathize with animals. No, I’m not one of them. But what I can do is empathize with computers. “Empathize with computers? What would that mean?” You ask. Well, recall the definition of empathy I put forth:

Empathy is an explanatory principle for our relational potential to experience an event, where we feel as if we are embodying or understanding the experience of an other and its related meanings from the context and vantage point of that other.

Note the phrase “from the context and vantage point of that other.” To embody or understand the computer, we must not project a human image on to the computer. That would be anthropomorphizing not empathizing. To empathize with the computer, we have to understand or embody the computer’s experience from its own context. If the questions that come up when trying to understand another human being fall along the lines of what is going on inside her in terms of her feeling, thinking, needing, or wanting, then the questions that come up when trying to understand the computer fall along the lines of what’s going on inside it in terms of its power supply, memory, storage system, or processor. And as we do this there are times when we can feel as if we are connected to them, and the boundary between us and them gets blurred. This may seem impossible to those who are not seasoned computer programmers, but it is in fact very common.3

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1 After all, I shared with you the fact that the origin of the word empathy was the German word einfühlung, which was trying to explain why it is that we can feel “into” art objects, not human beings.

2 In fact, as I pointed out in another post, them being physical human beings does not guarantee that we can empathize with them, either.

3 If you’re a programmer, you may have used the word “grok" to describe this phenomena as opposed to "empathize," but it’s really the same thing.

And this is not specific to the computer. For more on how inanimate objects become a part of the “self,” check out this article on Scientific American written from the point of view of neuroscience.