Meet the Barbara

Sherry Turkle warned long ago that people seize on “counseling computers” and confess the most remarkable things to them. I enjoyed her account when Alone Together was published in 2011, but I hadn’t thought about it recently. Then Joe and Laura Hawkins, from the tech drama Humans, show up to see their counselor and discover that she has had to go home, sick. The office offers Joe and Laura the services of “a Barbara.”

The Barbara didn’t surprise me as much as it might have. Here is why. This is an excerpt from Alone Together (page 23).

“I was among MIT students using Joseph Weizenbaum’s ELIZA, a program that engaged in dialogue in the style of a psychotherapist. So, a user typed in a thought, and ELIZA reflected it back in language that offered support or asked for clarification. To “My mother is making me angry,” the program might respond, “Tell me more about your mother,” or perhaps, “Why do you feel so negatively about your mother?”

A Perfect Barbara Counselor

“ELIZA had no model of what a mother might be or any way to represent the feeling of anger. What it could do was take strings of words and turn them into questions or restate them as interpretations. Weizenbaum’s students knew that the program did not know or understand; nevertheless they wanted to chat with it. More than this, they wanted to be alone with it. They wanted to tell it their secrets. Faced with a program that makes the smallest gesture suggesting it can empathize, people want to say something true.”

“I have watched hundreds of people type a first sentence into the primitive ELIZA program. Most commonly they begin with “How are you today?” or “Hello.” But four or five interchanges later, many are on to “My girlfriend left me,” “I am worried that I might fail organic chemistry,” or “My sister died.”

As we will see in just a moment, Joe Hawkins has some of the same incredulity Professor Turkle has.

Weizenbaum’s students knew that the program did not know or understand; nevertheless they wanted to chat with it. More than this, they wanted to be alone with it. They wanted to tell it their secrets.

And they move quickly into topics that might plausibly be thought to mean something to them.

“I have watched hundreds of people type a first sentence into the primitive ELIZA program. Most commonly they begin with “How are you today?” or “Hello.” But four or five interchanges later, many are on to “My girlfriend left me,” “I am worried that I might fail organic chemistry,” or “My sister died.”

So I had been thinking about this kind of thing for ten years before I met Joe and Laura Hawkins and their “Barbara.” This is episode 2.1 at the 14:00 mark if you would like to check it out for yourself.

The Session

The Barbara: “Laura, in the last session, you had identified a key challenge for you, namely, rebuilding trust in Joe. Have you had the opportunity to reflect on this further, …Laura.”

That doesn’t really work. The Barbara tries again.

“Perhaps we should approach a different question. Laura, do you feel satisfied that Joe has made a full and honest acknowledgment of his misdeeds?”

And Laura responds, eventually:[No] “I…still don’t feel that I really understand why you did it”.

Joe says “Laura, they’re stupid things [the Synths]. I was a bit drunk. I was lonely. We hadn’t… You know. We hadn’t for ages. You were never there, emotionally or physically, so….I suppose I wanted to do something …”

The Barbara “Please finish your thought, Joe”.

Joe ….”I wanted to do something that would make you notice me.”

The Barbara “Laura, do you understand that? Does it feel truthful?”

Laura Hmm.

An Assessment

There are three things in that exchange that made me pay more attention to it than I thought I would. The first is, “Laura, do you feel satisfied…” That’s not a big leap from “You are both exhibiting signs of anxiety” and the low-grade answer Laura gave, that they hadn’t really had time to work on the question.

The second is, “Please finish your thought, Joe.” Joe had begun to say what was really behind what he did with Anita, the Synth, but he stalled out. The Barbara noticed that and asked him to finish the thought.

The third is: “Laura, do you understand that? Does it feel truthful?” I would have been less surprised, I think, had the Barbara said, “Laura, how do you feel about Joe’s answer?” But the Barbara wanted specifically to pursue whether it sounded “truthful” to Laura. Knowing Joe as she does, is it plausible that he could have done what he did for the reasons he gives?

The other exchange that attracted me was one I attribute to the writers generally, not to the writing of the Barbara particularly. Joe gets aggressive about the Barbara’s probing into the matter of their feelings. What sense does it make, Joe wonders, for a thing with no feelings at all to ask such questions. Here is the Barbara’s answer; I think it is a good one.

The Barbara says, “I am accessing the anonymized transcripts and associated statistical analysis of over 38,000 counseling sessions.” So, in short, my data base is huge. Joe tried to blow it off: “Easy stats,” he says.

But Laura, who is a good deal brighter than Joe, rescues the point: Laura “Why not? We’re not the only people in the world to go through this and I don’t actually feel you understand…what it meant to me.” Somewhere in the very respectable data base the Barbara has access to are a lot of couples like us. We are, figuratively speaking, part of that data base and the general truths apply to us as much as to the others.

Good point, Laura

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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