In a scene from The Big Bang Theory, Raj – who can’t speak to women unless drunk – develops a relationship with Siri, “the intelligent personal assistant that helps you get things done … Siri understands your natural speech, and it asks you questions if it needs more information to complete a task” (Apple.com). The producers of the show have Raj doing more things with Siri than just asking questions, such as taking “her” out on a date. Eventually, Raj falls in love with Siri. Arriving at Siri’s office with a bouquet of flowers, Raj is once again dumbstruck when he sees Siri in the flesh. (The Beta Test Initiation) Raj was able to speak to the technological version of Siri but not the real person.
Raj’s behavior is not dissimilar to the findings of Sherry Turkle, MIT professor. Her TED talk Connected but Alone (http://www.ted.com/talks/sherry_turkle_alone_together.html) reveals how the love of our devices harms real relationships.
Ms. Turkle highlights how technology is “taking us places we don’t want to go.” (Turkle, Sherry.) Ms. Turkle has discovered technology changes behavior towards others. Texting, emailing, or checking Facebook happens whether people are alone or with others. Dichotomously, she also learns many of us fear intimacy, vulnerability, reality and solitude.
Cal Henze, a Calgary, Alberta psychologist, responds:
The core of this is simple: People are and have always been lonely — and have gotten there because they are afraid of intimacy. They have always devised means of numbing out and of trying to assuage the fear of intimacy — and yet those means are, for a change, also a means of connection. The real problem is that it’s leaving researchers behind who cannot understand and participate in the intricacies of it — them, and the elderly and a few who, likely, years ago would have been named as hermits because they do not know how to connect.
A small poll of family and friends revealed the majority of respondents shut technology off at night and felt texting while in the presence of others was rude or showed a lack of interest in their companions.
My husband summed up by saying: “Communicating solely through social media and texting speaks to how some people don’t want authentic relationships and community, just the illusion of community.”
No Muss, No Fuss
In his article for The Atlantic Is Facebook Making Us Lonely, Stephen Marche states:
… new technologies lure us toward increasingly superficial connections at exactly the same moment that they make avoiding the mess of human interaction easy. The beauty of Facebook … is that it enables us to be social while sparing us the embarrassing reality of society … Instead, we have the lovely smoothness of a seemingly social machine. Everything’s so simple: status updates, pictures, your wall.
This avoidance of the messiness of face-to-face interaction comes with a price. In his book You Are Not A Gadget, Jaron Lanier states: “I fear that we are beginning to design ourselves to suit digital models of us, and I worry about a leaching of empathy and humanity in that process.”
“They Don’t Even See Us”
Brene Brown, a vulnerability researcher, would agree with Lanier. She wants us off our cell phones, for the sake of humanity. In her article for The Houston Chronicle entitled Time to Get Off the Cell Phone, she speaks about how the prevalence of being on the cell phone while in an appointment at a day spa, paying for groceries, or buying a fast food item demonstrates a lack of respect towards those who assist us. Moreover, service people feel invisible: “Thank you,” the attendant at the Chik-Fil-A says emotionally to Brown when she apologizes for taking a call while at the drive through window, “Thank you so much. You have no idea how humiliating it is sometimes. They don’t even see us.”
Technology connects us, but it can disconnect us too – from reality and from the vulnerable, messy, face-to-face interaction with each other. Concerted efforts can be made, however, to mitigate this by controlling when and how we use our devices, fasting from technology, and enjoying time with each other.
(Note: this was written in 2012 for one of my University of Calgary courses)