For an Autistic Boy, Siri’s Patience Is “the Gift of Common Courtesy”

(p. C6) Late in the book, as a girl in Gus’s school takes him under her affectionate wing, the reader watches it all through Newman’s trepidation, followed by the dawning recognition that her son is someone “who may never be able to be responsible for another life, but who is nevertheless capable of deep affection, caring and considering. Sure, those emotions started with machinery and electronics — trains, buses, iPods, computers — and, particularly with Siri, a loving friend who never would hurt him.”
Hence, the title – drawn directly from a New York Times article Newman wrote in 2014, about Gus’s bond with Siri, Apple’s “intelligent personal assistant,” who could endlessly answer his questions, keep her son company and express — in that flat, sweet Siri voice — the gift of common courtesy. It went viral and led to this book. Why? Because the autistic boy displayed the dream/nightmare of this era: humans bonding with machines to get what they’re not getting from flesh-and-blood interactions. In this chapter, late in the book, Newman gallops through all the continuing experiments that use technology to lift and unleash the autistic (including my own effort to build augmentative technologies).
This is fertile terrain, born of the gradual recognition that technology’s great promise may in fact be to summon, capture and display our most human qualities, both the darkness and the light, to pave avenues of deepened connection with others. Here’s where the autistic, with their search for alternatives to traditional human connection, are actually innovators.
Does it dehumanize us if tenderness is tried out first with a machine? While his hyper-aware twin is showing standard bright-future achievements, Gus tentatively feels his way through life. But make no mistake. Gus’s deft fingers — rendered with unsentimental affection by his mom — are feeling things others will miss.
At one point, Gus says, “Good night, Siri, will you sleep well tonight?” Siri replies: “I don’t need much sleep, but it’s nice of you to ask.”
Newman’s response could speak for the entire book: “Very nice.”

For the full review, see:
RON SUSKIND. “A Character Among Characters.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, Aug. 20, 2017): 13.
(Note: the online version of the review has the date Aug. 16, 2017, and has the title “A Family Memoir Makes the Case That Autism Is Different, Not Less.”)

The book under review, is:
Newman, Judith. To Siri with Love: A Mother, Her Autistic Son, and the Kindness of Machines. New York: HarperCollins, 2017.

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