From smartphones to vacuum cleaners, how we’ve become attached to our connected objects

It is a robot vacuum cleaner that has not worked for a long time, stored in the basement instead of being thrown out. It is a broken connected clock that has been sitting quietly on the bedside table for several weeks. There are dozens of smartphones sleeping in closets, unused and sometimes useless. Of course we repeat ourselves, “it can always be used” Where “I don’t know which bin to put them in”. But perhaps we also refuse to throw them away for a simpler reason: attachment.

“Be careful, let’s remember that digital objects are expensive, so it is logical to be more attached to them than to, say, a fork, which we can easily replace”, temperament Nicolas Spatola, specialist in human-robot interactions.

Minesweepers are upset by the explosion of their robots

Nevertheless, man has a tendency towards anthropomorphism. Even when the cost of the object is not borne by the user, the latter will create one-way connections with plastic and silicon. “We project intentions onto objects, begins philosopher and computer scientist Jean-Gabriel Ganascia (1). When a computer fails, the user can take it personally, and it is not uncommon for robot vacuum cleaner owners to see them as an animal presence or put plastic eyes on them. »

This phenomenon of attachment has been observed even in the military ranks. American soldiers in Afghanistan demanded repairs to “their” demining robot that had saved their lives. “Many of them found themselves depressed after damage to their machine, which for them had become equivalent to a comrade in arms”, noted a study by the Foundation for Political Innovation.

From tool status to companion status

daily, “it is the smartphone that embodies a real digital pet, says Michael Stora, psychologist and co-founder of the Observatory of Digital Worlds in the Humanities. It overcomes loneliness and carries a whole affective memory of the user with messages, photos, videos, etc. ». “The connection to the smartphone is due to use, confirms Nicolas Spatola. We see an increase in the effect over time: We are not very attached to our smartphone when we buy it, and much more so afterwards. It is rooted in our daily life. »

With their ability to predict, anticipate, react, “connected objects have gone from being a tool to being a companion, analyzes Dominique Sciamma, specialist in digital design. It is a relational joint and not just a utilitarian one, as you can have with a screwdriver”. It is also striking to note that we are talking about conversational “agents”, and not conversational “algorithms”, although it is a computer program, nothing more.

“These objects imitate intentions towards the user, they really interact with him”, explains Laurence Devillers, expert in artificial intelligence (2). “Designers implement tricks to make you want to stay in interaction, she continues. LAttention-grabbing mechanisms are not new, but they are amplified by digital technology. » In summary: these objects are designed to be endearing, even tacky.

Everyday intrusive objects

“We went from object design to relational design, anticipating how the user interacts so that the exchange is as fluid as possible. », supports Dominique Sciamma. Since the advent of touchscreen keyboards and the end of buttons, “objects change very little in their shape”notes Jean-Gabriel Ganascia.

A smartwatch always looks like a watch, and with flat screens, all televisions are pretty much the same. “But these objects are digitally augmented, update after update, continues the person who is on the committee for digital ethics. And they are designed to make us consumers, in a form of slavery. »

They signal their presence, beg for attention, like Tamagotchis, those little colored eggs that were all the rage in the 1990s by simulating animals. “Connected objects vibrate, send notifications, they are noisy and intrusive, which more and more users find unbearable, notes Michael Stora. Finally, they make us very dependent, both in technology and in relationships with others. » An addiction that in some cases can turn into an addiction.

A different attachment depending on the culture

Are we less sensitive to this influence when we master the cogs of the machine? ” I do not know, replies Laurence Devillers honestly. Someone who understands the technology very well may reject it, as well as someone who is completely unfamiliar with it and wary of it. » The relationship with the digital depends above all on the user and their culture, more than on the object itself.

Asian countries thus tolerate cohabitation much better. “The Japanese will approach a robot by looking at how it looks like them, because of Shintoism, an animist religion, describes Nicolas Spatola. In the West, on the contrary, we will consider what separates us from the robot. » Which in any case does not prevent a form of anthropomorphism.

“But really, what’s wrong with being upset when your vacuum cleaner breaks?” Rather, this attachment reveals our humanity.” says Dominique Sciamma. For him, “The danger lies not in the intentions that users attribute to objects, but rather in the intentions behind the design of these objects”. Between an adorable robot dog signaling that he is hungry and the same robot dog offering to buy virtual kibble in JNF (non-fungible tokens, NFT in English) there is only one technological step. But an ethical abyss.


When screens are addictive

Addiction to video games is currently the only digital practice recognized as a disease in itself in the classification of the World Health Organization.

Other forms of digital addiction considered according to different categories of behavioral disorders, such as anxiety and compulsive behavior.

When digital use turns into addictionthis often masks other problems, such as social isolation.

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