I keep on being reminded of “Sirius Cybernetic Corporation” — the company in the Hitchhiker’s Guide series that keeps producing robots who are irritating because they are too human. To a certain extent, it makes sense to treat corporations and media properties more like machinery — not insomuch as you kick them when they’re not working (to be honest I wouldn’t trust anybody who hurts a machine on purpose) but insomuch as your transactions with them are expected to be limited in scope. You don’t need to smile and say “good morning” to a vending machine but you are expected to do so to a cashier, which is not desirable for you *or* the cashier (because you’re both put in a situation where potentially both parties are supposed to feign happiness and friendliness); media entities on the internet are worse when they break out of the transactional mold, because they benefit less from thousands of people sending them cheerful messages (or, you know, hate mail). Ultimately, we want our robots to work like robots, and we want our computer-mediated commercial interactions to hide the human being behind the screen and just show us the robotic interface.

I see why this trend exists, of course. Intimacy means replacing a dunbar slot. If some very lonely person has 150 of their slots filled by corporations and the rest by actual family, those corporations have a very good defense against competition for that particular customer: because to the customer, Coca Cola is a best friend and Pepsi is a creepy stranger. Of course, this polarizes the effect when everybody tries to do this, and it polarizes the effect even moreso for people who have rich social lives and have most of their slots filled by human beings: suddenly every celebrity and corporate entity is a creepy stranger trying to con you out of money by being overly familiar.

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Resident hypertext crank. Author of Big and Small Computing: Trajectories for the Future of Software. http://www.lord-enki.net

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