Human side of Sojourner

by Ellen Goodman

"...When Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, he sounded like a robot: 'That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.' But when Sojourner landed on Mars, it - excuse me - she was made into a flirt. The scientists treated this robot as a colleague, even piping in the theme song to "Mad About You" as her wake-up music.

Down here on Earth, we have a different experience with technology. Those with our feet on the ground, not the flood plains of Mars, often feel that the high-tech world has become an alien life experience. It's the unidentified flying object coming our way. And it's not user-friendly.

If anything, technology has been dehumanizing everyday life. Real life is turning into its virtual version. Too many voices have been replaced by voice mail. Some days, we interact more with a keyboard than with each other. Even the information operator has been replaced by a series of annoying electronic requests: What city? What number? What nonsense?

In what we call cyberspace more of us enter chat rooms than know how to chat in a living room. And it seems we are all being forced to make our mental hardware fit new software.

This Romance with the Rover reminds us that there's another side to this story. The human side, the unique and reassuring desire to absorb, adopt and adapt. It's behind the bumper sticker on the car, the sweet talk to the recalcitrant computer, the naming of rocks and high-tech explorers.

Right now, even the scientists among us are heaven-bent on humanizing something so foreign you'd think it was a Martian. As for the surrogate Sojourner, "Go get 'em, Sweetheart". But stay away from the little Martian rock star they've named the Couch."

Ellen Goodman, The Honolulu Advertiser, July 11, 1997


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