Technologically Yours: Is Technology Redefining Our Relationships?

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We are becoming cyborgs in our relationships.

Before you dismiss me as crazy or go searching for an implanted computer chip, check your pocket or your purse. You may not resemble the Terminator, but if you have ever experienced “enhanced abilities due to technology” (cyborg definition via Wikipedia in honor of this Viewpoint issue), you may just qualify.

As a cyborg, your phone, iPad, laptop, and the other digital technology you use alter the way you approach and maintain your relationships. It may sound like a stretch, but there are many of us who function so comfortably by constantly drifting between the digital and the physical that the way we interact with others is fundamentally altered.

NURTURING RELATIONSHIP?

Despite the fact that face-to-face communication is the cornerstone of interaction, for some of us, our technological, instant interactions have become our default setting. Of course it’s not all bad. Sending an address via text message is much easier than tediously spelling it out with the phonetic alphabet over the phone. Of greater consequence are the new possibilities technology has given us for tending to our relationships.

Stefana Broadbent, a cognitive scientist and visiting researcher in the Department of Anthropology at University College London, calls these new possibilities “a sort of democratization of intimacy.” She disagrees with those who say social networking and other digital interaction is “cocooning” or “disengaging” us.

“If we… look at who is doing it, and from where they’re doing it, actually there is an incredible social transformation,” said Broadbent in a 2009 TED Talk entitled “How the Internet Enables Intimacy.” She lists examples of people who otherwise would be isolated from regular communication with their family or friends because of time or space constraints. Because of technology, these people now have expanded access to their loved ones.

“People have taken this amazing possibility of actually being in contact all through the day or in all types of situations,” says Broadbent. “And they are doing it massively. The Pew Institute… says that – and I think that this number is conservative – 50 percent of anybody with email access at work is actually doing private email from his office.”

Broadbent lauds the fairly new ability of children to directly contact their parents in the case of an emergency or soldiers to converse more frequently with their families via Skype, despite being separated by thousands of miles.

THE DIGITAL VEIL

There are many obvious advantages to having the digital world literally at our fingertips – revolutions are kindled on Twitter, relationships otherwise lost are maintained on Facebook, and marriages start on Match.com. The subtler effects of these activities, however, may impact us and our relationships in ways that are less obvious.

The changes in our relationships begin with changes in our selves.

A 2006 survey by Pew Research of cell phone use found that 32 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds admitted they “could not live without their cell.”

Sherry Turkle, author of the book Alone Together and director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Initiative on Technology and Self, has spent years studying the effects of technology on human interaction.

“Our new devices provide space for the emergence of a new state of self, itself split between the screen and the physical real, wired into existence through technology,” she explains.

The splitting of the self that Turkle references is easier to spot in some cases than others. Take, for example, Second Life, an online, avatar-based game that offers its users just what its name suggests. By stepping outside reality, you can create a digital persona and environment that Second Life claims allows you to “Free Yourself. Free Your Mind. Change Your Mind. Change Your Look. Love Your Look. Love Your Life.”

You can be anyone (or thing for that matter) in Second Life. You can work, play, develop hobbies, or build relationships. There are stories of users finding spouses in real life by meeting them in the game. For those who struggle socially, a platform like Second Life can provide the bravery they could otherwise never muster.

“It is not unusual for people to feel more comfortable in an unreal place than a real one because they feel that in simulation they are their better and perhaps truer self,” said Turkle.

By “practicing” being someone else in the game, users have reported feeling more like versions of their avatars in real life – more attractive, confident, or gifted.

Perhaps you don’t play or have never even heard of Second Life. That doesn’t necessarily mean Turkle’s idea of divided selves doesn’t apply to you. Stop to consider Facebook, where our profiles are more condensed versions of our true selves – avatars of sorts. In our social networking, we carefully project a snapshot of ourselves. We post the photos from our most adventurous days, omit our guilty pleasures from “my favorite movies,” and take plenty of time to craft witty or thoughtful posts. Our identity is abridged on one digital page. Perhaps it even projects a bit of who we want to be.

DIVIDED SELVES IN RELATIONSHIP

There is inherent pressure in feeling the need to maintain just the right online identity. With mobile apps like Instagram – which allows you to take photos on your phone, edit and steep them in dreamy hues, and then post them to social networking sites – we can display snippets of our lives on a virtual stage, broadcasting every outing, conversation, and meal as the extraordinary. All the while, we press pause on our experiences and the people we’re with to set the scene in our virtual world. We may think that these pauses are harmless, but what is the real cost to the people to whom we are closest? The ones who are continually being put on hold?

We might assume Millennials or Gen Z are the primary culprits of pausing life. Since they have been surrounded by technology from the beginning, they don’t mind or even notice if they are the ones on pause, we assume. But this phenomenon is not just an attribute of the young. No matter your age, you may be culpable.

Notes Turkle: “Today, children contend with parents who are physically close, tantalizingly so, but mentally elsewhere.”

Now that being online or on social networking sites occurs on our mobile phones and iPads as well as on our stationary computers, we are constantly asked to be somewhere other than where we are. The boundary between work and home blurs. The friends we are not with are always just a text message away. Wherever we go, we bring our work and all our relationships with us – Turkle calls this being “tethered.” We cannot ever truly leave one place for another. The necessity to be accessible to everyone at all times leads to a natural shallowing of our relationships.

Text messaging reinforces this; we keep things cursory and condensed in our interactions – to save time, to avoid exceeding character limits, to keep things simple.

“On our mobile devices, we often talk to each other on the move and with little disposable time – so little, in fact, that we communicate in a new language of abbreviation in which letters stand for words and emoticons for feelings,” says Turkle. “We don’t ask the open ended ‘How are you?’ Instead, we ask the more limited ‘Where are you? and ‘What’s up?’ These are good questions for getting someone’s location and making a simple plan. They are not so good for opening a dialogue about complexity of feeling.”

The technology that enables us to be so brief makes us feel empowered because we are in control of our interactions, though we may be moving so quickly that we hardly notice what we are sacrificing. We can screen calls or messages and then take our time to respond. We can spend two minutes “checking in” with our aging parents through email rather than two hours on Sunday afternoon listening to stories we have heard them tell countless times before. We can check off wishing our friends and coworkers happy birthday with a quick post on a Facebook wall instead of calling and risking a real half-hour conversation. We can avoid deep or more complex conversations because of the buffer built into digital communication.

The oversimplification that makes technology so alluring comes at a price. We lose the depth in our relationships that comes with regular, intentional conversations. We may also be losing opportunities to form new relationships with those in the landscape of our lives – with strangers on the bus or in the waiting room – had we been able to look up from our screens long enough to notice they were there.

By remaining brisk in our portrayals and interactions, the art of face-to-face interaction is endangered – an art that allows for psychological development and the growth of deep relationships.

FACE TIME vs. SCREEN TIME

“One of the major pieces missing in communication skills today are the learning of ‘nonverbal’ and/or the socio-emotional cues others give,” said Dr. Kendra Oakes Mueller, PLNU associate professor of psychology, “cues like facial expressions, voice intonation, and body language.”

Other psychologists agree. In John Medina’s New York Times bestseller, Brain Rules for Baby, he says, “The internet and associated media encourage private consumption. This leads to the odd condition… that even when we’re together, we’re often far apart. Unless all of [our] digital interactions involve a video camera, [we] won’t get much practice interpreting nonverbal cues.”

Because of what is lacking in online communication, there have been attempts to make up the difference. For example, emoticons attempt to address the void of emotional cues, but their effectiveness depends wholly on the recipient, who may or may not respond to their intended meanings.

Dr. G.L. Forward, PLNU professor of organizational communication, says attempts to “mask or mitigate” what’s missing in digital conversations may not be extremely successful, mainly because “meaning does not reside in the words or minds of speakers; meaning exists in the space between us.” With the barrier of the screen, much of that meaning may be lost.

Part of the reason so many people have chosen to overlook such relational lapses and taken to communicating online may be because it’s much less risky than realtime interaction. With mediated written communication online, you can revise your thoughts before making them public, avoiding some of the risks that come with face-to-face discussion – disapproval, embarrassment, or rejection.

In research scientist Marika Lüders’ essay, “Becoming More Like Friends: A Qualitative Study of Personal Media and Social Life,” she interviews dozens of teenagers and young adults about their social experiences online. Sophia, 15, from Oslo, confesses, “I think it’s easier to have serious conversations on MSN [online instant messaging] than anywhere else, because you don’t have to look people in the eyes.”

In addition to avoiding the risks of live conversation, online communication lacks the dynamic of seeing and experiencing emotion face to face.

“Making our meaning clear electronically presents extra challenges,” said Alex Lickerman in his Psychology Today article, “The Effect Of Technology On Relationships.” “For example, we write things like ‘LOL’ [laugh out loud]… to describe our laughter, but they’re no real substitute for hearing people laugh, which has real power to lift our spirits when we’re feeling low.”

In addition to missing the nuances, a lack of face time is dangerous for development. It “may have implications for emotional intelligence and our ability to work with others,” says Oakes Muller.

“Often the body expresses much more (either confirming or displaying discomfort) than the actual words that are being said,” she says. “Often, it is the way people communicate in a sentence that gives me a better sense of their actual thoughts or feelings than the words themselves.”

Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann agree. “[The] most important experience of others takes place in the face-to-face situation, which is the prototypical case of social interaction. All other cases are derivatives of it,” they say in their book, The Social Construction of Reality.

By missing the practice involved in having a traditional conversation, people – especially children building social skills – lose (or never develop) the ability to detect emotional cues. Perhaps they will hear a friend say she is “fine,” but they will not notice her wringing hands or lowered head that suggest otherwise.

SERVANT, NOT MASTER

In sum, the upsides of technology are undeniable and inspiring. Technology allows us to practice bravery and confidence, to preserve connections we otherwise may have lost, and even to carve out space in our lives for new ones. But it is important to reflect on this technological revolution that has such a deep impact on our lives.

Winston Churchill once said, “We shape our buildings and then they shape us.” In her book, Turkle reflects, “We make our technologies, and they, in turn, shape us.”

Our technologies may never break free from human intervention, sprout legs, and overtake the governments of Earth, but we should be attentive to how we allow technology to enter into the folds of our lives. If we find that our cell phones feel more like phantom limbs than helpful devices, then our self-will is at stake and we need to reevaluate who (or what) is truly in control of our lives.

Perhaps Forward puts it best: “Technology is a wonderful servant but a terrible master when it comes to human interaction.”