Technology is infiltrating almost every aspect of our lives. It has become such an integral part of our lives, most of us have come to expect it to be this way, or we have not known any other way. Over time, many things that were once done by hand or in person have come to be managed through the use of technology of one form or another.
While many of these advances have indeed made our lives better – print, electricity, airplanes, and untold numbers of gadgets, to name a few, I’m increasingly concerned about the unforeseen negative impact of communication technologies (com techs) on relationships and what makes us uniquely human (1).
Working in the field of therapy over the last thirty plus years, I’ve watched the gradual creep of comm techs into peoples’ lives and as a consequence, on their way of engaging in relationships. What I’ve seen over time is leading me to feel a great deal of concern over what I can only describe as a de-skilling in the realm of relating and intimacy.
Suzie*, a young woman aged 33, works in a health-related profession. Suzie came to see me to make sense of the demise of her life relationship. She kept on referring to her partner as being ‘on’ his technology devices a lot of the time when they were together. Whether they were going to a café, sitting in a restaurant, lying in bed, or even, sharing a hug, Suzie described how her former partner was constantly checking his news feeds, his email, Facebook, his smart watch or phone, or checking and posting things in various apps he uses.
While Suzie sees herself as ‘up to date’ with technology and likes using different comm techs herself, she felt unsure about whether she had been unreasonable, a ‘nag’ in asking him to put his technology aside at times when they were together.
When I inquired about whether Suzie has in-person, real time, contact with people she is close to, either face to face or on the phone, she laughed and said: mostly, no. She feels very time poor and doesn’t feel she has time for that. Besides, text or apps are ‘more efficient’, she told me. Suzie also reluctantly admitted she feels a bit uncomfortable talking for any length of time with anyone much outside of a strictly professional context.
Suzie’s responses are becoming all too familiar to me now. Today, I hear those kinds of remarks a lot, with many of my clients telling me they’d prefer to text or email than call someone, and telling me that calling feels intrusive. Research into people’s preferences increasingly bears this out (2) .
I asked Suzie to experiment. For one week in the area of her personal life, unless she was simply confirming a time to meet a friend somewhere, say she was running late, or check about basic logistics for the house, I asked her to either call and speak over the phone to people she needed to contact if she couldn’t meet live, or arrange to meet in person.
After one week of following my request, Suzie reported: “it was fun!” She spoke to a girlfriend in New York on face time, and they shared lots of laughs as they both saw each other in real time, in context. While Suzie was in her pyjamas in bed, her friend was on the call ‘with messy hair’, straight from the shower, tending to her new baby. Suzie said it felt ‘more real’ than text or Facebook, and more satisfying. It was a novelty, and she shared her experiment across her social network, to the delighted surprise of most of her friends. At the end of a week of calls and in person encounters, Suzie told me “it sounds a bit lame .. a bit corny..”, but: I felt more loved”.
I was stunned and saddened that Suzie was judging herself as being ‘lame’ and ‘corny’ for feeling this way. What I had hoped would happen had – and I was thrilled. In her hour of need after a painful break up, this woman needs to have real, nourishing contact with people who love and care about her. Suzie doesn’t need Facebook memes, or short ‘efficient’ texts or clever tweets. She’s hungry to experience directly that some people love and value her for who she is, are prepared to make time to be with her, and are prepared to put in the time to be with her in her suffering. Suzie needs the emotional support that only in-person contact can provide.
And yet, Suzie initially judged herself as ‘lame’ and ‘corny’ for finding the ‘old school’ type of contact with her loved ones more satisfying. What is happening here?
When I inquired about what she did with her ex partner’s constant partial attention, his predictable requests that she put herself ‘on hold’ while he checked Google, sent a text or Tweet, read the news online, or finished his emails when they had arranged to have time together, she looked at me blankly. I asked if it had occurred to Suzie to present her partner with a boundary about what she would and would not accept; she said no. Quietly, she added, “it was better than nothing”.
In addition, when her husband told her she was being too clingy, too needy because she wanted him to put his use of comm techs on hold at times to spend time with her, Suzie felt very bad about this, convinced that maybe he was right. She must be too needy. Instead of being clear that she was entitled to set down her preferences about the use of technology in her relationship if this man wanted to be with her, this young woman felt she had to play second fiddle to technology if this is what her partner expected. This is the ‘new normal’ I hear more and more.
What fascinates me is the strong parallels between young women like Suzie and women who talk to me about partners who regularly use party drugs or who are in active addiction.
I hear the same self-doubt about voicing their discomfort and putting boundaries in place. I hear the same dissatisfaction about feeling like they might as well be alone, except they aren’t. I hear the same lack of entitlement about clearly laying out what they want in relationship and about spelling out what are deal breaker behaviours they will not tolerate, and therefore the same inability to walk away when unacceptable behaviours continue. I hear them express the same doubts about their ‘right’ to interfere with someone else’s ‘right’ to live as they wish, the same anxious doubts about their disquiet in the face of all their peers’ behaviours and attitudes about what’s ‘reasonable’. I hear the same anxious self-doubt about what’s normal when society all around us presents the constant presence of technology as normal. Even more – as a ‘good’ thing.
We are told that being ‘always connected’ is a great thing, it’s what we should all aim for. But is it? And why? How did our slavish devotion to so-called connection to others who are not there come to take precedence over the quality of our connection with those who are with us in person at any one time? Suzie and many others I talk to tell me they have come to accept that having their conversations intruded upon constantly by tech incursions (texts and the like) is the norm. In fact, to protest in the face of this constant privileging of technology over the value of in-person contact, is seen as being rude or controlling! As a result, they expect a lower level of intimate exchange in their conversations.
The pervasive anxiety that rules this lifestyle also concerns me. I remember in the mid to late 1980s, before mobile phones, when I worked on a roster to attend to women who had been sexually assaulted. I carried a pager that would beep if I was required to come in to the hospital sexual assault centre on a call. In a nearby restaurant close to the hospital where I worked, you could tell who were the staff who were (or had been) on call for one thing or another. One beep and those of us who were routinely on call would dive for our bag or coat pocket to check! That sound had us all conditioned: an emergency had happened. We had to galvanise into action. To this day, I jump at the many sounds made by technology. To the point that my mobile is permanently on ‘silent’, and I request that clients, family and friends turn their mobiles to flight mode when we meet so I’m not triggered by the sounds.
Today, as when I and my colleagues were on call for emergency services, I hear the same anxiety expressed by clients that ‘an emergency’ might happen as they position their phone in their line of sight, ready to pounce and check what emergency might be calling for them. When I point out that, if there really is an emergency, then a call to 000 is more likely to be needed than to them, I am looked at as though I am out of my mind. We are breeding a society of people who are constantly waiting to hear about a catastrophe. Worse – we expect it. Meanwhile, our nervous systems are ‘conditioned’ to be hyper vigilant, never really dropping into the present moment, never really taking in the benefits of resting in the peacefulness of a quiet moment, the delights of receiving and giving undivided attention to someone they care about, the pleasure of an uninterrupted conversation with a person that matters to them. No wonder so many speak of feeling ‘stressed’.
We have gone from an attitude that thought of technology as aiding us to be more human to a situation where we are increasingly becoming slaves to our technology.
We feel compelled to check and answer emails, texts, tweets. We feel compelled to check and post on our Facebook page, post comments, photos, memes, to our various accounts. We ‘follow’ any number of people, interest groups, and constantly receive ‘updates’ from these as ‘news feeds’. All of this frantic input vying for our attention puts us in a state of feeling we have to be ‘on’, we have to respond. As though all calls on our attention are equally valid and important. In the process, many of us have lost our capacity to discriminate about how to decide how to use our time, and most importantly, where to put our attention, our most precious resource. In the process, everyone else’s priorities are given more importance than our own, without pause for examination or question.
Before long, attending to our comm techs becomes the first and last order of the day. Literally. Human contact comes a poor second. Often, we react to the requirements of in-person contact as though it is an annoying interruption to our never-ending chain of tech exchanges.
So I ask myself, is this really the way we want to go into the future? Is this the kind of life we want for ourselves, where servicing our technology is more important than getting to know one another in depth, building trust over time, sharing important moments with one another live, and not via brief newsy impersonal ‘press release’/status updates?
If you want more for yourself and from your relationships, then consider this –
- Make a list of the ten people who are most important to you. Write down why each one is in your top
- Write out how much and what kind of contact you currently have with them, and how often. This refers to one on one; couple on couple; friendship/interest group; sport activity; family gathering, and whether these are daily, every second day, weekly, fortnightly, monthly, on occasions, yearly.
- Write out whether this is in person contact or more technology-mediated, or a mix. Write out what kind of topics are covered in what medium. Rate the intimacy shared in those contacts (0=superficial; 2.5=some personal sharing, but edited; 5=very intimate). Do you detect any patterns between the level of intimacy you allow yourself and the medium for the contact? Describe them.
- Are there any areas of your life where technology is intruding in ways that you don’t want? Where it’s taking so much of your time, you don’t seem to have time for other activities you really want to attend to but that you don’t seem to have enough time for?
- Are there any areas of your life where you feel it’s downgrading the value of your contact with others in your life? Describe what’s going on and how your use of technology is implicated in this reduction in the quality of intimacy shared between you and others.
- Are there some relationships where you know you need to put your foot down and insist on negotiated comm tech curfews and sacred spaces in order to raise the bar on your expectations of intimate relationship? If yes, write out what those limits are and write out what stands in the way of voicing your opinion. Are you afraid of losing the relationship? Of being seen as rigid/conservative/controlling/immature? In order to understand more about what you need to change, you need to witness directly how your existing actions are impacting everyone in your ecology and how they facilitate things not being how you would like them to be.
If the prospect of attending to this area of your life fills you with dread or makes you fear you will get ousted from your community, get support. Contact me and get ready to ask more of yourself and your relationships so you can get more out of them, and let technology go back to what it was meant for. A means and not an end in itself.
* not her real name.
1 Sherry TURKLE, (2009), Alone Together, Basic Books
Sherry TURKLE, (2016), Reclaiming Conversation, Penguin Books.
2 Sherry TURKLE (2016), ibid.