To be raised by a computer
The last story I want to share in this section poses the question of whether there is a distinction to be made between mediated presence that is triggered by natural presence in real time and mediated presence that is triggered by stored data in a machine. It addresses the question whether the aura of the natural presence somehow gets mediated by the technology when comparing it with mediated presence in which natural presence plays no role at all in the triggering of feedback.
Neal Stephenson argues that natural presence does make a difference in his cyberpunk novel 'The Diamond Age' (Stephenson 1995). In this book two girls are raised only by a computer book. The girls ask questions of the book, it answers and the book asks questions of them and they answer. The questions and answers of the computer book to the one girl are based completely on a database structure. The other girl, our heroine Nell, has a book that is influenced by a person who has concern for her. Both girls do not know what is 'behind' their book, nevertheless they attribute many things to it. Nell does not know there is this person who actually influences the questions and answers that her book gives her. Where the one girl is raised by the formal structure of the database, our heroine Nell is raised by personal attention even though she does not realize this. In the end Nell becomes the leader who wins and saves the world because she is capable of taking an independent position towards the world that surrounds her. Through this story Stephenson argues that personal attention to the uniqueness of a person can never be replaced by a database structure, even when it gives appropriate answers and questions and is designed with great concern. Stephenson thus argues that the natural presence of a person, who has attention and concern for another person in real time, even when this presence is mediated, makes the difference. It is the 'real time' feedback to the specific situation of a certain person, which conveys through the mediation qualities of natural presence anyway. And according to Stephenson's novel, this makes a huge difference in quality of education.
Of course this is a novel and of course no experiment like this has been done with children. Nevertheless, mediated communication has become a significant part of the education of rich children in the northern hemisphere: radio, TV and Internet offer non--personalized environments in which children spend hours a day. Internet also offers a variety of interactive environments clouded with strangers and database structures and more personalized environments like MSN. GSM tracking devices via the mobile phone show parents where their children are and daycares offer web cam monitoring to parents so they can check their babies from work. More and more on- and offline digital learning environments are being designed, marketed and used.
The design of the environment in which children grow up in the urban, rich, North-western hemisphere reveals more and more mediated presences around them. I concur with Benjamin that natural presence is very powerful, being present in the here and now. Natural presence is a vital element in human communication processes. Even when mediated presence plays a crucial role in these processes, the human dignity of all people who partake of such an exchange should be respected. Attribution is a powerful mechanism, which makes mediated presence flourish. But it can also cause confusion. As is the case in the story of my friend, sometimes people no longer realize what kind of communication they have become involved in and give up more and more of their personal space, their human dignity, which should be respected. When mediated presence is not connected to natural presence at all any longer, human beings have become subject to the logic of machines and processes of attribution may occur that they can no longer oversee. It is especially when this occurs in environments where there is no social control, as is generated by witnessed presences both on and offline, that unheard of things take place. Whether we consider the stories of Frederic Kaplan and AIBO, Jane and Max or of the heroine Nell - mediated presence has a lot of effect. Even when the channel of communication is narrow, people will attribute 'aliveness' to things and other people for their own supposed well-being and will actually synchronize with the attributed artefacts. Witnessed presence has an influence on these processes of attribution, it may break them, or make them stronger, as will be argued in the next section.