Thursday, May 7, 2009

Narcissistic America? Do computers have feelings too?

Narcissism seems to be the word "du jour" on health sites on the internet right now. Articles and blogs on the topic of narcissism abound. Doubtless this is partly because the pieces easily find a very interested audience - narcissists themselves. Not surprisingly narcissists love reading about themselves, and there are a lot of narcissists in our culture, so this topic is always bound to be popular in cyberspace. But is it only us physical humans who are narcissistic? Is this a trait held by virtual people, such as avatars, or even by inanimate objects such as computers and cell phones?

Our faces show our emotions. They are the window of our feelings. Physicians are trained to both consciously and unconsciously pick up diagnostic cues from patients’ faces. We know what someone physically looks like when they are depressed but we can’t physiologically describe it. We know their brow is furrowed, their mouth drawn, their skin looks dry and pasty and that they are tearful and their face moves slowly. Soon we will be able to mathematically measure and model our facial features by converting a video to digital data. So if we can digitally measure depression, and other moods, using facial recognition software, why not measure narcissism in the same way? Then we could more easily pick a narcissist in the real-life world, as well as in the virtual environment.

How would we do this? If we were to model syntax and language content in sentences, we would likely find narcissists using terms like "me" and "I" much more frequently than others. Equally they would be dismissive of others, patronizing and self-centered, and this could be modeled in their speech. We could examine the facial features and physical attributes given to avatars in virtual worlds like Second Life and would expect to find, for instance, that avatars owned by narcissists were consistently more handsome, taller, more powerful and more dramatic than avatars owned by others. These avatars might be more destructive and bullying, engaging in harmful and power-hungry behaviors. Interestingly the existence of the "Cyber Narcissist" has been postulated and described on a number of websites and blogs - an extension of the real world narcissist who can easily promote themselves and fend off criticism by adopting any number of nicknames and aliases in anonymous sections of the internet. So maybe we can start to identify narcissists in the online world - even though they are all likely to be extensions of their real-life narcissistic alter egos.

But what about narcissistic inanimate objects?

Far fetched as it sounds it is already possible for information to be electrically passed along a line of people holding hands with terminals attached to the legs of the person at each end of the line! This sounds weird but we all know we transmit electricity and must wear rubber shoes when repairing electrical equipment. It is therefore logical, even if it seems unreal right now, that we could literally be a part of the information system! This is called “affective computing” - computing with feelings. Researchers are looking at how to transmit smells, or signals identifying smells, over the Internet – this is perhaps somewhat easier as it is possible to have digital signals transmitted that encode for specific smells, and release them, from one end of a line to another. The term “natural interfacing” is used by scientists who are studying the mechanics of how to allow humans to interact via computers in a way similar to talking to each other – without a need for a keyboard, pad or stylus. The ultimate goal for these researchers is to design systems that can interact directly with our minds – allowing sounds and ideas to be transmitted straight into our brains, allowing us to merge seamlessly with machines. In this view of the future people will have wearable mini-computers that understand the rhythm, inflection, tone and emphasis of speech, and that can respond in a human sounding manner – very different from the mechanical sounding computer speech we have now.

So maybe it will one day be possible to have a narcissistic computer. Or a narcissistic cell phone. Perhaps the iPhone of today, already the trendy attachment of many narcissists who proudly demonstrate their latest software application with only the slightest encouragement, is a forerunner of the narcissistic electrical device of the future. Will it eventually show its feelings by changing color, automatically turn on music to drown out people it doesn't want to hear, and constantly remind its owner how clever, skillful and attractive they are by reinforcing their most intimate thoughts and feelings

Such technology is not in the realms of fantasy. Suicidal depression is as much an emergency as heart failure and hopefully in the future it will be monitored just like diabetes, heart disease and asthma. Undoubtedly lives will be saved. But will this also apply to narcissism, and will there really be narcissistic machines that mirror their owners thoughts and feelings. For that we will have to wait a while, and in the meantime we must read about real-live narcissism, and try to remain modest about any possible upcoming scientific breakthroughs in this field.

This article is based on excerpts from the recently published book “Your Health in the Information Age – how you and your doctor can use the Internet to work together” by Peter Yellowlees MD. Available at and most online bookstores. A shortened version of the book, available as an e-Book for download to iPhones, Blackberry's, PDA's and other mobile devices called "4 simple steps to better health - an insiders look" is available at Smashwords at

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