A lesson in humanity ... from a robot

Machines have two primary functions: they perform the task they were built for or, failing that, they serve as emotionless objects through which we can vent our pent-up rage and frustration.

Who among us hasn’t wanted to go all Office Space on the company printer? We slam our car doors, punch parking meters, and throw our remotes against the wall. (You guys do that, right?) And we take out our aggression without a hint of remorse because these are victimless drubbings. We’re thrashing machines, not people.

But what if that machine looked a lot like Dave from Shipping (or at least had Dave’s stumpy-legged gait) and you saw him being tormented by Rick the floor manager as he was trying to pick up a box? You’d feel some anxiety. Really, you would. See for yourself, starting at 1:22.

You see what Rick is doing with that hockey stick? It’s inhuman. Watch as Rick pushes the poor bastard onto his “face” at 2:05 and tell me you don’t feel anything. You can almost hear what Dave is thinking as he slowly rises to his foot-pads.

Then, after he pauses to collect himself, you can see Dave consider and decide against extracting robotic revenge, instead walking slowly out the door--which he does not slam because, being a robot, he isn’t mad. We are. At Rick, for tormenting a machine.

It’s a natural response. Even Martin Shkreli would feel for that robot because it seems human. It’s just how we’re wired. According to research by University of Chicago psychologist Nicholas Epley, anthropomorphism “reflects a deep drive to form social connections, even with objects made of metal and wire.” And this drive, he found, increases as our sense of social isolation grows.

And if research from Duke University and the University of Arizona is any indication, anthropomorphism is going to skyrocket as social media (ironically) makes us all feel more socially isolated.

So keep that in mind as you try to connect with your audiences. Rather than speak of the sweeping societal benefit of your organization, product, or service, describe instead how your organization, product, or service helps Dave in shipping.

As novelist Richard Price said, “The bigger the issue, the smaller you write. Remember that. You don't write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid's burnt socks lying on the road. You pick the smallest manageable part of the big thing, and you work off the resonance.”