During the spring and summer of 2017, there was a particularly heightened interest in the findings published by researchers Jean M. Twenge, Ryne Sherman, and Brooke E. Wells in the Archives of Sexual Behavior that claimed that Americans were having less sex now than twenty years ago with a stark 15% decline in sexual activity. Their research coincided with earlier findings about the British, Australians, and the Japanese pointing to what many argue is a global trend in sexless societies in developed countries. Countless op-eds (much like this one) and time were determined to pinpoint the cause for this trend as scapegoats – such as easy access to porn, the increase of the average working day, mobile technology, social networking, and overall anxiety about the state of our modern condition – were thrown around as the guilty culprit for our lack of carnality.
Since I’m writing about intimacy within the context of a technology blog, these studies provide an interesting (even maybe entertaining) segue to considering the impact technology is making on our ability to cultivate and nurture deep, meaningful relationships and what this means for the makers in technology. Of course, sex and intimacy are not synonymous but the statistics in these studies, alongside recent studies in friendship, suicides, and depression, could potentially point to a real danger between the immediate comfort and convenience that technology offers us as individuals and our ability to effectively address and learn from our environment and our community.
I could continue writing about the theoretical arguments against or defenses for how technology influences human relationships but I’ve been thinking more lately about how our daily, seemingly inconsequential interactions with others, the relational practices that used to be casual, passing occurrences or behaviors, are being erased from our current condition.
The act of asking. I recently had a discussion with one of our developers about my next move to return to the flip phone. His only argument against was – what was I going to do if I needed directions? To which I replied, I’ll ask. The tragedy occurred to me that, since owning a smartphone, I don’t have to stop, get out of my car, and walk up to a stranger to ask them for directions to where I was going. While I maybe have asked for help a few times, the frequency of this once typical interaction with another person has significantly decreased since I can now simply ask for and follow Google’s guidance. I no longer have to entrust my direction to a human being who I have to meet, look in the eye, communicate with, listen to, and believe in order to eventually reach my destination. This is also true, in large part, to our conversations that used to be commonplace with our bank tellers, grocery clerks, service workers, etc. We continue to opt for the apparent efficacy of simply satisfying our wants and needs through the tap of a screen over the more intentional work of learning how to speak to another human being. These are the bygone, seemingly trivial interactions that technology has helped to smooth out of existence, allowing us to do more important things now with our time. But, in exchange for efficiency, what else are we missing without these seemingly small human interactions?
The act of paying attention. I once worked with a brilliant UX designer who also taught and practiced mindfulness. She introduced the act of allowing people the space and time to always finish their sentences, to listen completely to what they have to say in conversations and I have been working on making it a point to practice the discipline of active listening daily at work and at home. Listening, openly and completely, is a difficult art to master and the ubiquity of distractions introduced by technology has certainly not made it any easier. Listening requires an intentional concentration on the here and now yet most of us carry a window to the there and then at all times, vibrating and chiming for us to tap into anywhere else except where we actually are. Listening requires silence and attentiveness, an acute awareness to who you’re with, where you are, and why you’re there – fundamental understandings from which the basis of intimacy, genuine connections with and empathy for others can be formed.
As a designer, the greatest challenge (maybe impossible) is to create a digital experience that is conscious of the person involved, that doesn’t interfere with their ability to understand, notice, and enjoy real experiences, real relationships.
The relationship between conversation and loneliness. Technology has done so much to provide a forum for the sharing of ideas and the benefit of having a space in which our voices can be heard or our stories read cannot be understated. However, as Shelly Turkle, professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, argued in 2012, “we have sacrificed conversation for mere connection” as we become “increasingly drawn to technologies that provide the illusion of companionship without the demands of relationship.” The moment we’re alone in a subway station, bus stop, or waiting for a friend, we more often than not pick up our phone to ‘connect’ and we lose a valuable moment of silence to be alone, to reflect, to give ourselves a chance to think, to be comfortable in the quiet. But, as our capacity for self-reflection diminishes so does our ability to understand others. Loneliness compliments conversation. The more we can handle being alone with ourselves in solitude, the better we can understand each other.
Ultimately, technology isn’t to blame for any failing on our part to cultivate and nurture real relationships with each other. But, as designers and makers of business and products for people, we do have the responsibility to be mindful of the way humans connect — which often times requires us to put down our devices and practice being alone.