Happy birthday to you? When sentiment becomes automated


LoveLetters_1.0.png

Yesterday, I published a piece in the Huffington Post about the increased use of automated technology within social media.

Photo of "LoveLetters_1.0”' by David Link 

Happy birthday to you?

by Andy Miah, for Huffington Post

Today is my birthday. It began in the typical fashion - checking my mobile for Facebook birthday wishes. Afterwards, everyone got up and we opened presents, had breakfast, and so on. Later came text messages, then telephone calls and, eventually, the post. This seems to be the communication hierarchy today. But, it was really Facebook who occupied prime position today.

I say ‘who’, as if Facebook is a living person, which of course, it is not. Yet, we do imbue our computers and devices with identity and intention. Computer programmer Alan Turing imagined a world where computers did exhibit the same kind of intelligence as humans and automating intimate birthday greetings may be one step closer to that.

Just this month, the Computer Conversation Society awarded a prize to an artistic installation by David Link, who recreated a programme from one of Turing’s contemporaries, Christopher Strachey, who created an automated ‘love letters’ programme, which would spew out messages designed to stimulate feelings and emotion.

After having read a few of my lovely greetings from lovely people, I started to feel whether something similar was going on. Could there be an app that is allowing my ‘friends’ to create automated birthday greetings? After all, some of the people who were sending messages were not really close friends, not even people within whom I interact once in a blue moon.

So, a quick search and yes, there is an app that does this. You can even personalize the automated message by introducing a name or creating a selection of possible greetings that it will select randomly, so it doesn’t seem suspicious. Before you ask, no, I am not sharing the link to this application! In fact, I think such an app is both an indication of what is great about web 2.0 and what may bring about its demise.

Transforming such an intimate communication as a birthday wish into an automated message, betrays the value of social media and the human relationships it is supposed to foster. But, people do need help. Most of us far exceed Robin Dunbar’s counsel that the human brain has space for only around 150 meaningful relationships and ‘add friends’ like they are going out of fashion.

Like many, I am someone who forgets birthdays and tries hard to put birthday dates into my digital calendars to ease the burden. However, with calendar migration, new devices, etc, things have got lost and I’ve missed birthdays. Furthermore, my trusty kitchen wall calendar doesn’t have much ink on it these days. Facebook has become our most reliable place for anniversaries, because the person – or thing - whose birthday it is reminds us, since they who imputed the date into the global calendar.

The problem is that this service has become so good that Facebook is getting dangerously close to being a ‘who’ rather than a ‘it’. Facebook is starting to take more credit for my birthday greetings than my friends and the entire process of expressing sentiment between people is becoming automated.

Being forgetful is one thing – even if it is forgetting someone special on their birthday. Removing the entire human agent from the communication process because of this forgetfulness is quite another.

The problem is that, whichever way we turn, we are in trouble. If we don’t write a message that could make Alan Turing’s computer fail, then our friendship is in jeopardy. Yet, tailoring every message to the recipient would be a full time job. At the same time, if we don’t have time to write the message, then I’m not even sure it’s reasonable to expect the recipient to click ‘like’ in respond

For my birthday, I’m determined to reply to every greeting. Even a conversation that starts with an automatic message may lead somewhere fruitful. Although, I do wonder whether there is an automated ‘birthday greeting reply’ app out there.