Draper and Marge

An odd result of the explosion in communication technology, from the printing press to the typewriter to Facebook, has been the simultaneous depersonalization of the written word.

There’s a reason why receiving a postcard from a friend feels more intimate than an email: there is a physical piece of that person conveyed through their handwriting. The imperfections and smudges, the even spacing or chaotic scrawl, the sum of which is as singular as the smell of their coat.

Mass-produced writing has been standardized via typeface, and communication is deadened by the loss.

Should there be a future where we communicate with artificial intelligences that have physical bodies – be they synthetic or virtual – I dread a similar phenomenon: a standardization (and thus a loss) of body language.

Just as with today’s typefaces, body languages will be designed and encapsulated into discrete sets. We will call them body fonts. Eye contact, stroking of the chin, fumbling with hands. A cheeky smile, a gentle smile, a sly smile, a flirtatious smile.

They’ll be given names like Draper and Marge. You’ll cycle through a list and select one for each of your assistants.

The first versions will occupy the uncanny valley, and we’ll all feel revulsion. But as the years go on, we’ll acclimate to the unnerving consistency of their gestures. Their simulated emotions will be easier to read than our human companions’ messy, ambiguous tics.

Soon, our natural body language will appear erratic and unprofessional. We will send robot surrogates to our jobs, to sit at our desks on our behalf. Your manager will tell you, via her surrogate, that the directors have moved your two engineers to a different project. Don’t worry, she says, your project is still a priority this year. Her surrogate smiles gently. Your surrogate smiles gently.

You watch on your headset, twitching from your couch. Your eyebrows want to do.. something. Your fists feel hot for some reason. What is it that you are trying to do?

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