Building a Technoself: Children’s Ideas about and Behavior toward Robotic Pets

Building a Technoself: Children’s Ideas about and Behavior toward Robotic Pets

Gail F. Melson (Purdue University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-2211-1.ch031
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This chapter focuses on how the technoself develops in children through relationships with a “personal” robot technology, robotic pets, especially the robotic dog AIBO. Drawing on studies of children and AIBO as well as similar robotic technologies, I examine children’s ideas about and behaviors toward such robotic pets in order to describe three domains of the technoself: (1) ideas about the robot (the technological object); (2) ideas about the child’s relationship with the robot; and (3) ideas about the self-in-relationship with the robot. A dynamic developmental perspective is applied to each of the three domains of cognition and behavior—technological object, relationship, and self-in-relationship-- that make up the technoself. This perspective asks how variability in child characteristics, such as developmental level, gender, temperament, personality or intelligence; in contextual factors, such as family background or prior experience with other technologies; and in robotic pets themselves predict these three aspects of the technoself.
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As children engage with technology, their cognitions and behaviors are likely to change in a number of interesting ways. On a superficial level, children are learning about the properties of new objects and the potential ways of responding to them. Given even very young children’s comfort with computers, smart phones, and videogames, such technologies rapidly assimilate into the child’s world of toys and gadgets. Robotics especially is diffusing with particular speed among children. As Brooks (2002) argues, the “robotics revolution” is reaching children even before adults, since robotic technology is often used first in toys. Indeed, Turkle (2011) describes “our time as the robotics moment” (p. 9).

Technologies such as robots are not merely novel objects. Children are entering into new relationships with such technologies. The construct of relationship with (rather than manipulation of, use of, or even interaction with) a technology implies a number of characteristics: (1) reciprocity and contingency, whereby children initiate and respond to properties of the technological object in a coherent and purposeful way; (2) developmental change in the relationship over time, from first to last encounter; (3) emotional, social and even moral dimensions, in which children develop feelings and ideas about the technological object and their relationship with it; (4) embeddedness of the relationship in a network of other relationships, including but not limited to family, peers, school, neighborhood, media, and cultural artifacts (Bronfenbrenner, 1979); and (5) relationship change stemming from endogenous child factors, such as developmental age, gender, temperament, self-regulation, cognitive function, etc., as well as environmental factors.

All these aspects of a child’s relationship with a technology have implications for the child’s sense of self. From a dynamic systems perspective (Fogel, 1993; Melson, 2008), children develop through relationships. Their sense of self grows out of and is dependent upon the many relationships that children have. From birth, within the first attachment relationship, the infant develops a sense of herself—a “working model” (Ainsworth, 1979)—that does not exist apart from the relationship, but consists of self-in-relationship. As development expands the number and complexity of relationships, the self-in-relationship also expands. The proliferation of computer based technologies means that as children enter relationships with these technologies, a technoself emerges.

As a relatively new construct, the technoself lacks a unified definition or theoretical framework. A first stab at definition might be: The technoself is that sense of self, or “working model,” that pertains to a person’s relationships with particular technologies. Like other aspects of the self, the technoself is an internal, individual construction, both cognitive and emotional, which is shared with others and reflected in behavior, but is ultimately private. Heuristically, one might consider the technoself to be composed of three domains: the individual’s sense of the technological object itself, for example, a laptop, videogame, smartphone, or computer; the sense of one’s relationship with the object, and the sense of self-in-relation to this object. From a developmental perspective, each of these domains or components—technological object, relationship, and person—are dynamically changing. Change derives from maturation and developmental change within the person, from changes in the child’s environments, and from changes in technologies and modes of engaging with them (Melson, 2010).

This theoretical framework of self as developing in and through relationships is applicable to individuals throughout the lifespan. However, in this chapter, we focus on children. The role of relationships with technology, and in particular, robotics, in self development is especially important during childhood, for several reasons: (1) as noted above, children, from infancy, are growing up with such technologies; and (2) early relationships, while not determinative, lay the foundation for later self development.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Self-In-Relationship: Ideas about the self as it exists in relationship to a specific other or object.

Technoself: Sense of self that pertains to relationships with technological objects.

Provisions of Social Relationships: Functions that social relationships provide an individual that impact one’s sense of self.

Animism: Tendency to regard objects as living and endowed with will.

Embodied Object: Technological object with the physical appearance and behaviors of an organic being (human, animal or plant).

Robotic Pet: Robot in the shape of a companion animal and designed to have some of the functions of living animals kept as pets.

Dynamic Developmental Perspective: A theory that development occurs through a changing interplay between individual and environment.

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