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Agency in the Digital Age

Recent advancements in technology challenge our fundamental notions of human power and agency. Tools and techniques including machine learning, artificial intelligence, and chatbots may be capable of exercising complex “agentic” behaviors (Dhar, 2016). Advanced technologies are capable of communicating with human beings in an increasingly sophisticated manner. Ranging from artificial chat partners through the commercial algorithms of social media to cutting-edge robots, these encounters with interactive machines often result in a complex and intimate relationship between users and technologies (Finn, 2017). For instance, people now may have their own virtual assistants such as Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa. Other commercial technological agents “help” people find new movies on Netflix or friends on Facebook. Robotic companions, like Huggable developed by Cynthia Lynn Breazeal at MIT, can read human emotions and react to them accordingly. Chatbots have long evoked reactions from people that can be used therapeutically for psychological counselling and now these tools are being rolled out as apps to help people cope with anxiety and depression (Lien, 2017; Neff and Nagy, 2016). Such developments present a quandary for scholars of communication. Does the agency of the people and, increasingly, of things that we chose to communicate with matter? This question prompts us to urge communication scholars to develop a better definition of agency and more clarity on how agency is enacted in practice within complex, technologically-mediated interactions.

  • Neff, Gina & Nagy, Peter. “Agency in the Digital Age: Using Symbiotic Agency to Explain Human–Technology Interaction” in Zizi Papacharissi, ed. The Networked SelfHuman Augmentics, Artificial Intelligence, Sentience. Routledge. 

Talking to Bots: Symbiotic Agency and the Case of Tay

In 2016, Microsoft launched Tay, an experimental artificial intelligence chat bot. Learning from interactions with Twitter users, Tay was shut down after one day because of its obscene and inflammatory tweets. This article uses the case of Tay to re-examine theories of agency. How did users view the personality and actions of an artificial intelligence chat bot when interacting with Tay on Twitter? Using phenomenological research methods and pragmatic approaches to agency, we look at what people said about Tay to study how they imagine and interact with emerging technologies and to show the limitations of our current theories of agency for describing communication in these settings. We show how different qualities of agency, different expectations for technologies, and different capacities for affordance emerge in the interactions between people and artificial intelligence. We argue that a perspective of “symbiotic agency”— informed by the imagined affordances of emerging technology—is required to really understand the collapse of Tay.

Neff, Gina, and Peter Nagy. “Talking to Bots: Symbiotic Agency and the Case of Tay.” Edited by Samuel Woolley and Philip N. Howard. International Journal of Communication 10, no. Special Issue (2016): 20.

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