How to Not Destroy Ourselves

Ali Mattu, New York Nerd Nite, How to not destroy ourselves

This Friday I'll be at New York City's Nerd Nite discussing "How to not destroy ourselves: lessons from science fiction". Here's a sneak description of my talk: 

2017 sure does seem like the darkest timeline: our politics are broken, technology is disrupting society, and the planet is warming. But we’ve been here before, at least in the imaginary worlds of science fiction. Join psychologist Dr. Ali Mattu as he investigates how we got into this mess and what science fiction can teach us about getting out of it.

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The Psychology of Star Trek's Technology

I’m talking Star Trek all this week to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the franchise.

First up is a two part conversation I recorded with my friend Josué Cardona on the Psych Tech podcast. We discussed the psychology of Star Trek’s technology including the holodeck, universal translator, warp drive, transporter, replicators, artificial intelligence, tricorders, and much more.

Download part 1

Be sure to subscribe to Psych Tech for more on psychology and technology.

Black Mirror Reflects the Psychology of 21st Century Technology

You either have no clue what Black Mirror is or you’re a rabid fan of it.


Black Mirror came out in the U.K. in 2011 and was recently released in the U.S. on Netflix. It’s an anthology series, like The Twilight Zone, with every episode focusing on a unique story and cast. There’re only 7 episodes so you can binge watch it in a day (here’s a guide to do that).

The series explores how technology is changing society. Charlie Brooker, the show’s creator, explained Black Mirror as the reflection “you’ll find on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand: the cold, shiny screen of a TV, a monitor, a smartphone.”

There’s nothing like Black Mirror on TV. It’s the smartest science fiction I’ve seen since Battlestar Galactica’s reboot. It’s also the first show to really get 21st century technology. Check out what Wired had to say:

These episodes don’t scream “TECHNOLOGY IS BAD!!!” They’re not too far removed from contemporary life, and they’re not too familiar, either. Instead, they quietly, diligently burrow into the heart of what’s so terrifying about tech to begin with: our tendency to make stuff that caters to our worst selves. And that, friends, is what dystopian sci-fi is all about.

This is why I’m so obsessed with Black Mirror — it reveals dark truths about human nature and warns us about what might happen if we aren’t careful.

I’m going to expand on that and explore the psychology of Black Mirror. I won’t spoil the episodes — they work best if you go in without knowing what to expect. If you’ve seen the show, you’ll know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, hopefully this will convince you to give it a try. Just skip episode #1, "The National Anthem", because no one likes it. The rest are awesome though, I promise.

Without eye contact humans become inhumane

Black Mirror - The Waldo Moment

"The Waldo Moment" shows us how easy it is to insult someone when you’re sitting behind a screen. We see the same type of stuff happen with Facebook bullying, Twitter GamerGate death threats, blog post comment flame wars, and Xbox Live hate speech.

What is it about the internet that makes it easy for humans to become inhumane? No eye contact!

Empathy, the ability to understand what other people are thinking and feeling, happens when we see other people. Here’s how it works:

  1. You do something hurtful.
  2. You see that the other person is hurt.
  3. Mirror neurons (empathy brain cells) detect their pain and make you feel bad.
  4. You stop the thing that hurt the other person and (if you’re nice) apologize for your actions.

None of this happens on social media. You don’t see the emotional impact of your actions. Without eye contact, your mirror neurons have nothing to do. No empathy.

You can predict when this is going to happen using my formula for online rage:

(Anger + Anonymity) - Eye Contact = Internet Trolls.

Psychologists have a name for this phenomenon — the nasty effect (a.k.a. the best psychological term EVER).

What’s the solution? I don’t have a good one — it’s very difficult to maintain the privacy of the internet while also promoting empathy. Creating self-governing communities where diversity of thought is rewarded and trolling is penalized is the best option we’ve got (for now).

Agreeing to a small thing makes it easy to agree to a big thing

Black Mirror - Fifteen Million Merits

“Fifteen Million Merits” takes on a lot of topics including reality TV, online avatars, freemuim games, and a little bit of Kickstarter. Dr. Jamie Madigan has covered most these including the psychology of video game avatars, Candy Crush, and Kickstarters.

What I want to highlight is the “foot-in-the-door technique”. It’s an old sales tactic that’s grounded in science. Get people to agree to a small request and they’re more likely to agree to a big request.

Maybe a friend doesn’t have HBO and asks if they can come over to watch Game of Thrones with you. You have fun and it feels good to share the awesomeness of Westeros with them. A few days later, they ask you for your HBO Go password. This is where the foot-in-the-door technique kicks in. You’re more likely to say yes to them because you want to stay true to what you've done in the past. I explore much more about this phenomenon (cognitive dissonance) in in my article on why people deny science and this episode of The Psych Show.

The foot-in-the-door technique is very profitable. President Obama’s 2012 campaign made a lot of money by getting you to open their emails, donate a small amount, and then ask for more money later on. Kickstarters projects succeed because once you’ve donated money you’re more committed to getting others to donate too. After you've invested a lot of time into a free game, spending some money to level up isn’t that big of a deal.

Revisiting memories changes them

Black Mirror - The Entire History of You

What if you had the ability to replay any experience you’ve ever had in your life? That’s the premise behind "The Entire History of You", my favorite Black Mirror episode.

Memories aren’t a perfect recording of what’s happened in the past. Each time we think of something, new information gets combined with old memories. Think of memories like a live concert - the same song always sounds different depending on the venue, how the band is performing that day, and how we feel at the concert. There are infinite ways in which we experience the same memory.

How does this fit in with “The Entire History of You”? Even if you had a perfect recording of what happened in the past, you’d never have a perfect memory. Each time you’d play it back, your experience of that memory would change based upon how you’re feeling, who’s with you, and what’s happened since the recording was made. The more you’d revisit the memory, the more it would change. Certain details would stick out, others would be forgotten, and false memories could easily be created if people lie about what’s happening in the recording.

Relying on recordings also gets in the way of forming memories. That’s why Instagramming every moment of your vacation is a bad idea – you’re not going to be fully aware of what’s happening around you. Practicing mindfulness and taking photos of certain details you really want to remember is a much better approach.

One more thing – obsessing over every detail of everything you’ve recorded, that could lead you to experience a symptom of depression called rumination.

You are what you post online

Black Mirror - Be Right Back

Can you recreate someone based upon their online identity just like “Be Right Back” (and while we’re at Caprica)? Yes, for the most part.

Researching how people use the internet is difficult. Science is slow – research takes a lot of time to develop, get funded, cleared by ethics boards, and analyzed. Meanwhile, technology develops quickly. One day everyone’s talking about Meerkat the next people have moved on to Periscope. But based on what we know now, the way you use the internet is a good reflection of who you are.

The strongest relationship seems to be personality and social media. The updates you post and the things you like are a good reflection of your basic personality – how much you want to be with people, how trusting you are, the stability of your emotions, your ability to organize, and your curiosity. Social media can also predict your gender, religion, sexual orientation, and how much you use drugs based on things like whether or not you like curly fries and thunderstorms.    

While all this stuff is important, there’s much more to you than your personality and demographics. What you've done in the past isn’t always a good predictor of what you’ll do in the future. Your actions are a complicated mess of what you've learned, how you’re feeling, what’s happening around you, and your immediate thoughts. Your internet profile doesn’t have access to all that data, at least not yet.

Here’s how this does impact you right now. Companies are already using Google searches to screen applicants. It probably won’t be too long until your Facebook likes impact your credit score and your tweets influence your health insurance premium. Then there’s the pesky question of who owns your social media after you die...

Being recorded changes your behavior

Black Mirror - White Bear

What happens when people take photographs and videos of you on their smartphones (like "White Bear")? Something called objective self-awareness.

This happens whenever you see your reflection in a mirror, realize you’re being watched in a bank, or see a photo of yourself on social media. You compare how you think of yourself to how you actually are. Most of the time this leads you to change something. Maybe you fix your hair, act more professional, or get stuck thinking about a specific part of your body.

Technology is increasing objective self-awareness and with wearables, drones, and live-broadcasting gaining popularity, things are going to get worse. For more on this topic, check out my video on how technology is turning everyone into a celebrity and the paparazzi

Self-awareness makes artificial intelligence alive

Black Mirror - White Christmas

The most recent episode of Black Mirror, “White Christmas” touches on the ethics of artificial intelligence. It’s a popular topic right now as Her, Chappie, Ex Machina, and the upcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron tackle similar issues.

The big question is this: how will we know if an artificial intelligence is alive? Futurist Martine Rothblatt, a pioneer in the field of cyber consciousness, believes objective self-awareness is the test we’ll use to figure this out (check out her SXSW keynote for more on that). Does the AI understand what it is? Does it value its life? If so, how does it want to live? Like all basic human rights, Rothblatt believes artificial life should have the choice to be in the type of state it wants to be. The problem is as cyber consciousness gets close to human consciousness, it’s going to be very hard to know if the AI is mimicking humans or if it is really alive.

This moment of technological singularity could become the greatest test humanity has ever faced – how will be treat a species that is just as intelligent as us? I’m hoping for more of a Star Trek: The Next Generation outcome and less of a Terminator future.

There’s a lot more I could say about Black Mirror, the psychology of technology, and where we’re headed as a species. But I’ve had my say – what do you think? Are we doomed to live in a dystopian science fiction future or will all this technology usher in an era of peace and prosperity? Let’s discuss in the comments below. 

For more on Black Mirror, check out my review on Super Fantastic Nerd Hour. To detox from all this scifi, watch the hilarious Black Mirror: In Real Life.

Spike Jonze’s Her Is a Piercing Commentary on Our Immediate, Online, Artificial Lives (Non-Spoiler Film Review)

Her    is now playing in New York City, Los Angeles, Toronto, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington D.C. Starts everywhere January 10th.

Her  is now playing in New York City, Los Angeles, Toronto, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington D.C. Starts everywhere January 10th.

A few weeks ago I started developing my list of 2013's best science fiction film scores. I sent out a tweet asking for recommendations and got these responses:

I didn't know anything about Her. A quick Google search revealed it's the new film from Spike Jonze. I love his previous work, especially Adaptation and Where the Wild Things Are. I still get emotional thinking about those movies. I also trust Aaron's and Andrea's opinions. If they both recommended Her, I needed to see it.

I’m glad I did. Her is without exception the best science fiction film of 2013 for 3 simple reasons it’s set in a familiar world, has piercing social commentary, and is built on real findings from psychology.

A Familiar World

Spike Jonze Her

Her is set in a near future Los Angeles where technology is everywhere. But unlike many futuristic films, you don't have to suspend your disbelief too much. Her just extends from where we are right now – Joaquin Phoenix's Theodore Twombly uses Siri-like voice recognition to interact with his smartphone; apps anticipate his needs much like Google Now; and he spends his evenings playing Xbox Kinetic-style video games.

The science fiction begins when Theodore purchases OS1 the world's first artificial intelligence. Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, evolves from being Theodore's AI personal assistant into a companion and then something else.

Piercing Social Commentary

Spike Jonze Her

I was deeply affected by this film. It felt like Jonze made Her specifically to comment on the way I was living my life. The film speaks not only to our comfort with technology but also the reality of living in a world where you can immediately connect with anyone (or anything).

The New Yorker's Richard Brody dismisses the film's social commentary as "a cautionary tale that offers warning where none is needed, a diffuse and sentimental admonition to put the smartphone down, push away from the computer, turn off the TV, unplug the game controller, and connect with people." That's not what Her is about. Jonze forces us to question what happens when we can simultaneously connect with the people near us and others who are far away.

Humans have never been able to do this in the way we can now. It’s something all of us encounter each time we’re sitting with loved ones and continue to receive text messages and social media alerts. We can't just put our smartphones away it's too late for that and technology is becoming even more integrated into our lives (e.g. Google Glass).

Accurate Psychology

Spike Jonze Her

Technology is interacting with our psychology in interesting ways. It's likely that we no longer memorize information that can be easily found on the internet. What's most important in the 21st century is remembering where to find information (Google) and knowing how to analyze what you find (determining the legitimacy of sources). We see this throughout Her, mainly in how dependent Theodore is on Samantha to remember everything he needs to get done during the day.

Samantha is a metaphor for social media. There’s a lot of interest in how social media is impacting psychology. Some believe that people act differently online and exaggerate their best qualities. One study concluded that how we act on Facebook is similar to how we respond to a personality test (e.g. extroverted people on a test were extroverted on Facebook). Another study found similar results. The most striking finding came from a study of 58,000 participants. Researchers were able to use Facebook profiles to accurately predict political views, intelligence, and even sexual orientation. Sure, Facebook might not be the most realistic social situation since it’s biased towards only sharing positive stuff, but the growing consensus is online behavior is similar to offline behavior. This helps us understand why it’s easy for Theodore to be himself with Samantha we act like ourselves in a variety of situations, even if the social experience is based in technology. Sometimes the lack of eye contact on the internet might lead to “crazy online troll behavior”, but for the most part we’re the same people on and offline.

Siri knows about the uncanny valley. That's why she doesn't have a human avatar.

Siri knows about the uncanny valley. That's why she doesn't have a human avatar.

Samantha is also built in a way that makes it easy for humans to interact with it. Masahiro Mori, a pioneer in the field of robotics, discovered something called the uncanny valley a feeling of disgust when robots get close to human appearance but fail to achieve it. Remember the creepy feeling you got when you watched the CGI Tom Hanks in The Polar Express? That’s the uncanny valley. Why do we experience this? Probably to protect us from illnesses that can come from corpses (which is why zombies are so scary). Even though there is some debate about the degree to which the uncanny valley still exists, most engineers have followed Mori’s original advice avoid the uncanny valley altogether and go for non-humanoid designs.That’s why Samantha doesn’t have a human avatar face. Same is true for Siri and Google Now both avoid the uncanny valley.

I see a big market for a product like OS1. Regardless of where you are on the introvert/extrovert spectrum, the brain is wired for social interaction. Social psychologist Matthew Lieberman describes it like this: “Evolution has made a bet that the best thing for our brain to do in any spare moment is to get ready for what comes next in social terms.” That's one reason why interacting with others is so rewarding and why we keep responding to texts and checking Facebook. Not only is engaging in social interaction important, but feeling isolated has major consequences for our health. People who are struggling with loneliness feel threatened for long periods of time, which triggers the flight or fight system and shuts down the immune system. Loneliness can lead to depressive symptoms, increased blood pressure, longer recovery from diseases, and even mortality. An artificial intelligence like we see in Her could help people with loneliness learn how to better interact with others (sorta like what happens to Theodore). It could also help astronauts, similar to Moon and 2001: A Space Odyssey (except not scary).

My only criticism of the film (besides the fact that future LA has lost all of its Latino community) is Her doesn’t deal with any of the societal implications of true artificial intelligence. Intelligence explosion begins humans create software that can independently develop new generations of improved software. The technological singularity occurs and artificial intelligence exceeds human intelligence. Scientists and science fiction authors have both theorized that a singularity event could be one of the most important events in human history. But in Her, nothing happens. No one’s celebrating the achievement of OS1, protesting its release, or debating the ethics of creating sentient artificial life. Maybe Jonze believes we're so desensitized to technology that the development of artificial intelligence will be as expected as the release of a new iPhone, or perhaps he just wanted to tell a more intimate story.

I saw a lot of science fiction movies in 2013. Most were fun, some thought-provoking, but none as approachable, relevant, and psychologically complex as Her. The acting, score, cinematography, and direction are as close to flawless as you can get. There's much more I want to say about Her, especially how it relates to the psychology of love, but I need to see it again because I'm still sitting with the emotions it generated on my first viewing.  

Rating: 9/10

I like what AV Club had to say about Her and also enjoyed The Atlantic’s breakdown of the film’s aesthetics. Slate was right on with their criticisms. The Mary Sue has an interesting critique of the Samantha's gender.