A most intimate relationship

Here’s a piece I particularly enjoyed writing, commissioned by American site 99U: an exploration of the extraordinary intimacy of our relationships with digital tools, and what it means to negotiate with them successfully.

There’s no such thing as a neutral tool. Everything we use wants something from us.

Cars ask us to behave differently than buses or trains or planes; each encodes different ways of thinking about space and movement. A television asks us to sit and watch. Software asks us to interact and respond. Even the subtlest design feature can nudge us towards new actions—like the social scientists who painted a pair of eyes above an honesty box and saw a tripling in donations from people who suddenly felt themselves as being “watched.”

What, then, about the intricacies of one of the closest relationships in modern life—between us and the digital devices we carry with us—and the ways in which we might meaningfully hope to judge this?

I say “relationship,” and it’s a word I mean in all of its ambivalent, yearning, chest-tightening intensity. A few technologies occupy a startlingly intimate place in most modern lives. Our smartphones are among the most sacred and personal of our possessions, rarely out of sight or mind. For many of us, they are the first thing we touch when we wake in the morning and the last thing we touch when we go to bed at night.

They guard our secrets, connect us to the people and pursuits we care about most; they promise that we never need be alone, ignored, bored, unknowing, lost, without a waiting audience to woo.

Hollywood has long liked to anthropomorphize its machines, and they tend to fall into twin camps: seducers (Her, Ex Machina) or enslavers (Robot Overlords, The Matrix). Apocalyptic imaginings aside, there’s something in both these characterisations that should give even the most proselytizing technophile pause—an ambivalence neatly captured in James Cameron’s 1991 sci-fi action-fest Terminator 2.

In the second half of the film, there’s a scene in which heroine Sarah Connor watches Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 Terminator playing with her son. Reprogrammed to protect and obey him, the robot has flipped from one polarity to the other: from perfect assassin to perfect playmate. “It was suddenly so clear,” she says in flat-pitched voiceover. “The Terminator would never stop. It would never leave him, and it would never hurt him, never shout at him, or get drunk and hit him, or say it was too busy to spend time with him. It would always be there.”

Tireless, infinitely patient, offering an eager compliance that leaves every other relationship looking second-rate: I find it hard to ponder Sarah Conner’s take on the Terminator without thinking of the iPhone nestled warmly in my pocket. It’s my own, hand-held Arnie: never too busy, never too tired, always the same; offering steady but infinite options and engagements. It’s a match made in silicon heaven.

Except, of course, I myself am often busy and tired: too busy to keep my wits about me or my priorities my own. There are many different people and places in my life that I owe many different kinds of time and attention. Yet what the screen offers makes it so much easier to manage these relationships: to call people’s presence into and out of being at whim; to perform and half-reveal what I think, want, and feel. My relationship with technology is a kind of killing through kindness. It’s like living with someone so obsessed with making my life easier that I don’t even consider asking for anything they cannot give. As the comfortable grooves of habit deepen, I move outside them less and less.

Click here to read the rest of the article at 99U