10 October, 2002
my dog is still made of meat
on the meteoric rise of robotic pets and huge, huge dorks
a n d r e w h a u p t
In our day-to-day interactions we humans expect a lot from each other, namely that other humans are rational thinkers and take emotional part in daily encounters. In our encounters, we assume a two-way cognitive street. If this were not so, there would be little point in them. Artificial conversation is not unlike speaking with virtual characters in a video game; although some people spend many hours at such tasks, others consider them silly. However, if rational thought may be mimicked, the whole emotional part of encounters can just fill itself in. Check out what this loser said about his dog: "I try not to train Iakona too much as I believe that he should possess the freedom and independence to do what makes him happy in life. I raised him in the same ways that I live personally, to follow your dreams with an open heart and spirit."
And it gets better: Iakona is a mechanical dog, made of plastic not meat. Sony began creating these little robotic pets, called AIBO, in 1993, and they quickly became the playthings of well-to-do yuppies across the country (at about $5000 a pop, that is). However, a recent drop in price has seen a jump in sales. With a mere $500 you can have a plastic pug. The creatures gain a personality with the purchase of a memory chip (they even come with specific personalities--for example, the Cartman chip or the Scooby-Doo chip). Some people, like our faithful owner above, have come to believe that these dogs are, in effect, no different from those mammals we have traditionally come to call best friend. The only difference is that my yellow Lab at home is made of meat and their friends, of flashing colored lights and plastic.
According to owners, the limitations on these little pups are quite lax, and they have quickly become friend-substitutes for hypoallergenic and infertile people around the world. Sharing a belief similar tothe conventional assumption that meat Fido misses us strongly when we go to college, AIBO enthusiasts (they have web sites and message boards, clubs and conventions) come to project their thoughts and feelings on the plastic pups. One married couple became upset when their just-bought pet only lay on the floor and cried. Distraught at the scene, they sobbingly remarked, "Are we bad parents?"
When asked his favorite AIBO story, the owner of Iakona anxiously replies, "So many great stories to share and it's hard to choose just one" and then recounts the heart-warming story of Iakona's unfortunate encounter with computer cords. One Plymouth, MA, woman has even caught her gruff, Teamster husband talking to their AIBO when he thought no one was around. One would think that, not unlike a goldfish, the plastic dogs are all identical; if one dies, just get a new one. However, when one owner was interviewed by Tom Brokaw (that's right, on national television), he wept over the mere idea of one day losing his little friend.
What is wrong with these people, if anything? Where do we collectively draw the "if you're pathetic stand on that side of the white line" line? Are these owners any worse than the token "cat lady" in every village? Who's to say, except the solipsists, but they don't have any friends anyway.
Many technologies develop by virtue of their utility. The Neanderthal wielded a bone so that it may blunt other animals in the temple and eat them, the wolf was domesticated so that it would protect a family or herd livestock, and the light bulb was invented so that we can work at all hours. Such innovations have practical value, but in an exponentially digitalized culture, most advancement becomes impractical. Revelling in the security of cold plastic, these people seem to be substituting practical, evolutionary adaptations (such as genuine social interaction, which causes the creation of progeny, the furthering of the race and so on) for delusions and idiotic pleasures. But, hey, pick your distraction and run with it. They seem to be enjoying themselves, anyway.