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The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2019

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JUNE 2019 Issue

The Absence of Absence

Sure, there were “bodies” everywhere. But not actual bodies. Just the carapaces or shells of “bodies.” Human bodies are solid objects. They are filled with fluids and muscle and bone. Furthermore, dead bodies are stiff and unbendable, whereas these, when turned off, are malleable; they can be hung over chairs or put on hangers. They can even be thrown around. Because the thing about the Supplements, as they were, and I guess, are, sometimes still called, is that they are very light weight. Designed and fabricated on the model of plastic bottles, their tensile strength is realized from air pressure, not matter. As a result, they are actually much more like stiff balloons than “bodies.” One of the major challenges in their development had been how to create a portable system with enough pressure to fill them. The advent of bendable light-weight plastics was another crucial innovation. The rest was a mixture of some new, and, mostly fairly old, technologies.

Some other manufacturers went so far as to call them digital selves or replicas, but we never did. The truth is they are just recording and playback devices, made up of a combination of sound and video equipment, which had for the most part been available for decades. The only really unique thing about the Supplements was that they could be fabricated to look exactly like you and, once connected to your personal repository,act and talk like you. Even though what we had developed was just a logical extension of a fairly basic long distance communication device, the fact that the Supplements were tangible objects in the shape of humans that looked exactly like the person they were replicating raised a whole host of issues. Two way communication is hardly a revolutionary idea, but when you put it in the right packaging, it takes on a life of its own. In retrospect, it’s kind of funny to think about those old telephone ads from Bell telephone, how did they go?, “Reach out and touch someone”?

Some people said the Supplements were borne out of necessity, you know, from the fact of needing to be more than one place at one time. But they were not built to be the fulfillment of a wish to be everywhere at once. Originally, they were designed solely for therapeutic purposes. You know, after the death of a loved one, a child, for instance. Really extreme cases. At that time, the costs of producing more than one or two of the devices at a time was prohibitively high. But once the components reached the right price point for mass production, the question became why wouldn’t everyone have one, or two, or three. I mean we don’t always want to be where we are at any given time. Plus, this issue of separations and their emotional effects, which we had thought, at least from a clinical perspective, only applied to a fairly select segment of the population, turned out to apply to just about everybody, or at least to every person with enough disposable income to afford one. Did everyone who had a grown child leaving for college or who had been dumped by their themfriend need one of these things to fill the gap in their lives and help them get over the change in their day to day living? No. Absolutely not. But if they could have one, if it made their transition to a new routine easier, why wouldn’t they get that help? It was always our intention to make people’s lives better by producing them.

In terms of the “psychological” perspective, I can’t really comment on that, aside from reiterating our original intent to help people in states of extreme emotional distress. What did that expert witness say? That the Supplements were a way “to realize in practice the psychological reality that we are divided and complex people with a wide range of drives and emotions at any one moment in time”? Did we set out to materialize that when we made these things? No way.

And, sure, in terms of psychotherapy and what the Supplements did to that “profession,” you can compare what happened there to what happened in every industry that was changed by the widespread adoption of digital tools. Look at the travel business. Why would anyone want a travel agent when you could just plan and book the whole trip for yourself? Why would you want a psychologist if you could just manage your “multiple selves” from a repository of who you may or were or might wish to be? The analogy applies even more so now, in light of what happened. I mean, even with travel agents, once the market matured a bit, they became necessary again, not for everyone, but for a segment of the population. The same thing happened with the psychologists. They just “re-tooled” their business to take into account all of these new issues. It is my understanding that Supplement management has become a whole sub-specialty for psychotherapists.

Depending on what your views are about psychologists generally, you could say it was inevitable that they would invent a reason to stick around. Helping people to develop and manage the Supplements became a major part of why people started to seek out therapists in the first place. I mean at the beginning, when you had to program them yourself, there was no real need for professional help managing these devices. Only expert users were interested in them. Even if it sounds pretty odd now that you’d have to configure these things for yourselves, back then, you pretty much had to know how to program them to use them at all. You even had to come up with profiles and names for what part of you they would be playing. It was a very different time.

So if there had not been the issue of what to do with all of the “bodies,” to use a word that puts it in the most dramatic terms—I prefer the term container, which is the accurate and technical one—everything would have been fine. But you can’t burn them and while you can bury them, that is not currently a cost effective solution. As a result, they have become a blight. But what people don’t remember is that at some point they wanted these things, and just because there are now other options and better models available, it doesn’t mean that the old ones are just going to disappear. Our company, every company involved with their manufacture, certainly wishes they would just disappear since that is clearly what people want to happen. However, from a liability perspective, a product’s life-cycle is the responsibility of the management only up until the point of sale. It shouldn’t be any different with devices that happen to be hard to get rid of because they happen to look a lot like humans.

The idea of building a self destruct mechanism into the devices never occurred to us. In retrospect, we certainly wished it had. You see, with accidents you can’t be held accountable for the environmental consequences and while, technically speaking, a chronic failure in the design and construction of a device is not an accident, it can be argued that the circumstances in which each failure occurs are so unique that each incident can be considered an accident. We just assumed we’d figure out a way to upgrade them so they would have longer product life-spans. At that point in time, we could not have known that the economics would change so drastically—and so quickly— to make the idea of upgrading them an entirely impractical solution. You never know what’s going to happen with something until people start using it and the Supplements were no exception to that rule. People could have repurposed them, I suppose, though yes, it was in the financial interest of our company to discourage such actions. But ultimately, people do what they want to do, and what they wanted was a new model, not a slightly modified or upgraded version of an old one.

It is amazing to me that some of these issues were not dealt with long ago in relation to things as simple as plastic cups. I mean, if the whole cost of the life cycle of a product had been taken into account the day the first Starbucks opened, however much like ancient history that may seem to be at this point, we wouldn’t be having these problems.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2019

All Issues