1972: ELIZA, IANA and the search for (in)finite attention online

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You could say that my marriage began with a Palm Pilot. You might remember the second-generation Palm device, best known for its handwriting-based interface. (Ooh! Aah!) I got mine in 1997, at a time when a pocket-sized digital calendar, address book and notetaker still seemed like something worth showing off. And show it off I did, most often by demonstrating ELIZA, a program that turned the Palm into a quasi-therapist. Give ELIZA a dilemma (“I can’t decide whether to finish grad school”) and ELIZA replied with a non-committal prompt (“Have you tried?”) aimed at continuing the conversation.

So ELIZA was what I used to demonstrate my Palm over a coffee with my ex-boyfriend, S., and my now-husband, Rob. That may sound like a strange kind of get-together, but at the time I was dating someone else altogether, and Rob and S. were both in the friend zone. Nonetheless I was instantly embarrassed when ELIZA popped open to the saved transcript of my most recent session, beginning with “My boyfriend is driving me crazy.”

S. might have been over me by then, but he still had a great laugh over this evidence that the “next guy” (as he called my then-boyfriend) was a less than successful match. But that moment proved even more serendipitous for me and Rob: Rob tells me it’s when he first had hope that he could successfully woo me, and 13 years later, I’m sure glad he did.

I was far from being ELIZA’s first patient. First created in 1966, ELIZA met her match in 1972, when she “treated” a fellow program, a paranoid schizophrenic personality named PARRY. Their most famous conversation took place at the first International Computer Communications Conference, an event specifically designed to introduce the ARPANET to the general public. The wow factor at ICCC wasn’t (just) the spectacle of two computers talking to one another, but of two computers talking to one another remotely over a network chat connection. You can read a transcript of ELIZA and PARRY in conversation (this transcript is actually from a month before ICCC):

ELIZA: Tell me your problems. Please terminate input with a period or a question mark.
PARRY: People get on my nerves sometimes.
ELIZA: I am not sure I understand you fully.
PARRY: You should pay more attention.
ELIZA: Suppose you should pay more attention.
PARRY: You’re entitled to your own opinion.
ELIZA: What makes you think I am entitled to my own opinion?
PARRY: It bothers me just to be around people in general.
ELIZA: Please go on.

According to Harley Hahn, among other observers, PARRY ran circles around ELIZA, much to the amusement of ICCC attendees. But ELIZA’s long-term impact may lie less in her canny demonstration of network chat than in her uncanny demonstration of simulated interaction. In Alone Together, Sherry Turkle asks

Why would we want to be in conversation with machines that cannot understand or care for us?… ELIZA’s popularity revealed more than people’s willingness to talk to machines; it revealed their reluctance to talk to other people. The idea of an attentive machine provides the fantasy that we may escape from each other. When we say we look forward to computer judges, counselors, teachers, and pastors, we comment on our disappointments with people who have not cared or who have treated us with bias or even abuse. These disappointments begin to make a machine’s performance of caring seem like caring enough. We are willing to put aside a program’s lack of understanding and, indeed, to work to make it seem to understand more than it does—all to create the fantasy that there is an alternative to people. This is the deeper “ELIZA effect.” Trust in ELIZA does not speak to what we think ELIZA will understand but to our lack of trust in the people who might understand.

Turkle’s analysis casts ELIZA as the beginning of our “robotic moment”. But the ICCC, of which ELIZA was just one part, was also the beginning of our networked moment: the moment when the ARPANET began to spread its wings beyond the narrow confines of research centres and universities. That moment was most fundamentally enabled by the 1972 creation of IANA, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA):

IANA was responsible for assigning unique ‘addresses’ to each computer connected to the Internet. By 1973, the Internet Protocol or IP addressing system became the standard by which all networked computers could be located.

— Domain Avenue, History of the Internet Domain Name.

Those IP numbers (like are how your computer knows which web site it’s going to visit or where it’s sending that e-mail. (Of course, you see a much prettier version – a domain name – but we won’t get there for a few more days/years.) IP numbers are so fundamental to the Internet that IANA has enjoyed controversy over its powers for many years, though most Internet users don’t even know it exists. As long as IANA had a limitless supply of IP addresses, there was no reason it would hit the average user’s radar.

But just a few weeks ago, IANA reached the end of its not-quite-limitless rope. On February 3, the authority handed over its last few blocks of IPv4 numbers (the IP numbers that the Internet has run on since 1981) to the regional domain registries that in turn allocate IP numbers to internet service providers and end users. We’ve got a while before the regional registries run out of IP addresses to assign (though just in case, Microsoft came up with $7.5 million to buy a privately-held block of more than 650,000 addresses). But the geeks and domain registrars of the world are already preparing for the transition to IPv6, which will provide us all with a de facto limitless supply of addresses: as Lincoln Spector notes,

If every one of the seven billion people in the world got their own private stash of a trillion addresses, we’d still have much more than 99.99 percent of the numbers free.

If you were feeling a little cramped or claustrophobic in the knowledge that the world had only 4.3 billion IPv4 addresses, you should be feeling much better now. IPv6 restores us to world in which the volume of IP addresses (or information, or porn) so vastly exceeds our capacity to comprehend or consume it that we should once again relate to the Internet as de facto infinite.

Instead, we are as scarcity-driven as ever. Sure, talk of abundance has caught on, whether in business circles or personal growth or in my own community of nonprofit tech. But when you look at how people behave online, we seem as scarcity-driven as ever.

We chase after the largest number of LinkedIn connections and the highest level of Klout. We obsessively measure our web site traffic, our retweets and our conversion rates. We buy Groupons we’ll never use, subscribe to blogs we’ll never read and sign up for e-newsletters we’ll never open. We fill up our virtual baskets as if it’s the last day of the Internet’s going out of business sale, and then complain about inbox overload.

The continued fascination with ELIZA and her descendants helps explain the persistence of our scarcity mindset. We fill in the gaps in ELIZA’s functionality, conspiring in the illusion that we’re talking to a “real” person, because it helps to meet our almost infinite need for the one truly finite resource: attention.

When you load up your Twitter follows in the hope of getting followed back, or send out whacks of Facebook friend requests, or post hourly updates, you’re staking your claim to as much online attention as you can get. You look to your web traffic or your retweets or your Google hegemony as an indication that you’re getting the attention you need. If that attention represents RSS-driven auto-tweets as much as actual human eyeballs, the ELIZA effect predicts that you’ll conspire with the illusion that an actual human being is checking you out.

Indeed, the ELIZA effect is the solution to the world that IANA created. IANA gave us a world of infinite connectivity, which is the same thing as a world of infinite distractions and infinite exits. A world of 4.3 billion IP addresses is a world in which there are at least 4.3 billion things someone can pay attention to – but a world in which there is no more attention to go around. It’s a world in which it’s easy to feel neglected; a world in which we can easily become as narcissistic and paranoid as poor, virtual PARRY. Thank you, 1972.

But the world you and I live in today is a world in which we get to choose between IANA and ELIZA. Do we face up to the reality of scarcity — whether it’s scarcity of attention, fuel, or IPv4 addresses — and find new ways to create abundance? Or do we create the illusion of abundance by settling for a simulation of the scarce resource we crave the most: the attention of our fellow human beings?

In the best case scenario, that simulated attention can help to meet part of our seemingly-infinite need. That’s a scenario that Turkle doesn’t seem to consider: an Internet in which we use simulated attention to meet our real needs, and embrace simulation as another kind of reality. (Warning: If you jump in here with a quote from Baudrillard, I will love you less.) For Turkle, the simulated is intrinsically inferior to the real (what I’d call the offline, since I find the distinction between online and “IRL” increasingly problematic). To Turkle, our willingness to settle for simulation — in fact, our increasing preference for simulation — is a sign of our social and emotional impoverishment.

As much as I fear that Turkle is right — and there is no shortage of signs that she is right, if you look at the Internet’s various pathologies — I’m more interested in proving her wrong. (And for both reasons, you can bet this won’t be the last you hear about Alone Together in the course of this series.). After all, I’ve hopefully got another 40 years to go, and it’s taken less than 40 to go from ELIZA’s first big demo to a culture in which simulated interaction is often preferred to human contact. At that rate I can anticipate living in a world in which simulation is the norm, and interpersonal experience is occasionally enjoyed for its novelty and (you guessed it) scarcity.

So how can we make that simulated interaction meet our deep need for attention — a need that we still experience as a need for human attention? We have to begin by recognizing that we need different kinds of attention, and that only some of those needs must be met by our fellow humans. If my goal is get social media consulting leads from my blog, then I only need my blog posts to be read and appreciated by the few dozen people who are potential clients. I don’t need five thousand people to personally read, tweet or blog it; I just need enough inbound links, ideally on keywords like social media and strategy and consulting, that this blog post will turn up in the top 10 Google results for anyone searching on something like “social media strategy consultant”. That goal can be accomplished without any human attention: it can be satisfied by receiving the computer-generated attention of a bunch of tweets that are triggered automagically by relevant search subscriptions.

But I’ll be honest: getting my blog read by a few dozen people only meets my instrumental need for attention. I want thousands of people to read this blog the same way I want thousands of people to follow me on Twitter. It’s a giant aching need for human attention that on some very basic level amounts to the desire for thousands of people to love me. I’m afraid that neither ELIZA nor a half-dozen human therapists took care of that problem.

And I’m going to go out on a limb, here, and suggest I’m not the only person on the Internet whose search for more Facebook friends or more LinkedIn connections or more retweets is driven by a similarly fundamental neurosis. We hop online with our unresolved issues and then we hope that getting enough connections or followers will make up for the fact that we were outcasts in high school. (I guess at some point the Internet stopped being made up entirely of high school outcasts, but that point was relatively recent.) But that kind of attention, if you can call it that, is almost entirely simulation. Because how much attention are you really getting from someone when you’re one of their three thousand Facebook friends?

Once we separate our emotional need for human attention from our strategic need for machine attention (of which links are only the most simplistic example), it becomes possible for us to give and get the kind of attention we need online. By all means, follow a thousand people on Twitter: just be aware that even if all one thousand notice and retweet you, it’s going to help your SEO more than your self.

If you want your time online to meet your human need for human attention, you’ll have to give out love as well as links. Focusing your online attention on a handful of people who matter deeply to you — people who want you, and not your web traffic — is the best way of ensuring you can get meaningful online (and offline) attention from them. That might look like creating a Twitter list that tracks a dozen really crucial friends and colleagues, so you interact with them more frequently than you interact with the link-sharing hordes. It might look like limiting your connections on one social network to a very small circle of personal friends. It might even look like writing an e-mail more than the prescribed 3 sentences long.

Machine attention can help us make room for that kind of interpersonal contact (am I the only person who has incoming e-mail that could be better handled by ELIZA?) By making smart use of technology to give and get link love, we can save our personal time for giving and getting human love. That’s essential if we’re going to ensure that our incessant chase after links (simulated attention) doesn’t displace our ability to seek and receive love (i.e. human attention). Because as much as we may commit to abundance as a political or spiritual philosophy, we can’t expand our scarce attention as easily as IANA expands its IP addresses.

3 Comments on this site

  1. Gregg Hamilton

    Hmm, just noticed that therapist parses into “the” and … nevermind.

    My wife vents steam and works through issues out loud. If I tell her to calm down, she hisses at me “this is how I calm down” and, sure enough, five or ten minutes later, she is calmer. So, ELIZA would be a perfectly adequate sounding board for some folks.

    As to giving and getting link love, the Beatles wrote a song about this before you were born. : )

  2. Alexandra Samuel

    I’m so happy SOMEBODY can still find an excuse to address me with “before you were born”.

  3. Don Power

    When I studied Philosophy in university, we talked about Alan Turing and his pioneering work in artificial intelligence.

    There is a school of thought that suggests if you fill a computer with enough data and processing power that it will be indistinguishable from a human. I don’t think that will ever be true. Humanity’s search for the “lost chord” is informed with a language that cannot be replicated by a machine.

    Maybe the one thing that defines all humans is that we all know we are all going to die eventually. And although this does not seem to be spoken of that often, I have a feeling that it’s the driving force behind everything that we do – whether we realize it or not.

    Long live the human animal – not the human machine!

    – Don

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