Friday, March 13, 2009

Geeks Will Be Geeks: Building Prosthetic Empathy

Many years ago I got interested in Speed Seduction, a Usenet phenomenon at the time. Speed Seduction combined hypnosis, NLP, and social engineering to (allegedly) get you truckloads of gorgeous babes. It's a long, embarassing story, and as I say, this was many years ago.

Much more recently, I was in a Werewolf game in 2007 where one of the players decided another player was a Werewolf and came up with an elaborate theory based on terminology I recognized from Speed Seduction. It amused me, in a nostalgic way, because the theory was wrong - the alleged werewolf turned out to be a villager - and because I remembered that kind of crude, clueless theorizing very well from my time among the Speed Seducers. This person, the Speed Seduction Werewolf theorist, was talking about a real phenomenon of human communication, and applying reasoning to it that showed an absolute and total failure to understand either the phenomenon or the human communication it happens in. If you think cargo cult code is bad, wait until you see cargo cult conversation.

I'm reading a book now which reminds me of that time in my life.

I recommend it; it's interesting. But check out this crazy paragraph:

We have begun building social prostheses that help people mold their signaling, so that they can be more socially adept. The basic elements of these social prostheses are a sociometer, to read the signals, and then an interface, to give the user feedback about how they are doing. We have experimented with interfaces such as cell phones, computers, and small earbud audio headsets. Some of the more interesting examples of these social systems are the "jerk-o-meter," which reminds husbands to pay attention to their wives, and the negotiometer, which gives real-time feedback during a negotiation.

I would like to emphasize that he is not fucking kidding. It might sound like a Dilbert strip, but it's real. A science geek studies human body language for years and his conclusion is, there's an opportunity here to build some gadgets. The gadgets will interpret human body language for you and beep at you when there's something you need to know about. That's a good way to use my research.

I recently saw a bunch of Speed Seduction flotsam wash up on the shores of Hacker News, in a thread about hacking body language.

Through college, I had a weak posture, submissive body language, and tended to fidget/move around. I often looked goofy.

About six months ago, I decided to improve all that. I consciously developed an upright, chest-out posture. I cut down or eliminated unnecessary motions. I keep my hands extended and parallel to the arms, instead of close-fisted and angled inwards. I keep my chin up and my gaze high. I keep my legs outward and, when comfortable, spread apart.

By now, it's all become second nature. And it works. Women react much more strongly to me (in a good way). I feel more confident. My body image has greatly improved.

That's great, and I'm happy for anyone who finds a way to make their life better. But the thread gets creepier than that, and quickly.

One of the more clever and disturbing ways to gain 'power' over an individual is to play the student in the master-student role. E.g. by having them teach you something - which is doing you a favor, you can gain their favor.

Can you guess where that's going? I'll give you a hint, it's not going somewhere good. That dude's going to have some fucked-up relationship problems in his future sooner or later. But that's nothing compared to what might be on the horizon. Imagine the damage you'd see if a fucked-up manipulator like that got his hands on a social prostheses that actually worked.

Nobody but the autistic should have social prostheses, and Asperger's doesn't count. Geeks should learn to listen to other people before building robots to do it for them. Otherwise you're going to get cyborg sociopaths - some weird combination of Terminator, American Psycho, and Cyrano de Bergerac. Picture a crazy fucker who lacks basic human empathy, but the robots whispering in his ears have it. Then consider that the robots have no understanding or responsibility for what their masters do with the information. Does that really sound like a good idea?

The answer, of course, is no. It sounds like a terrible idea. Although it does sound like a good movie.


  1. You just reminded me why Richard Thompson's Read about love is such a very fine song...

  2. Actually it sounds like a good tv show on HBO: Dexter

  3. Speed seduction was an interesting attempt at modeling pick-up artistry using the Bandler and Grinder approach. The bottom line is that if you aren't handsome you aren't handsome, but if you act like douche you'll do better with the types of people that fall for douches. And that leaves both of you in a bad place. I only went far enough to realize that I didn't like me better or the girls that suddenly like me better.

    But college is all about learning.

  4. "Picture a crazy fucker who lacks basic human empathy, but the robots whispering in his ears have it."

    There are lots of these people in the world already. Most of them are in Sales.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.