Book Review-Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other

In a world where we’re more connected how can we be more alone? How can we be reachable in nearly every part of the world and feel so separated from our humanity and from each other? The answers aren’t easy nor are they straightforward. It turns out that our fear has turned against us. We’ve leveraged technology to take the risk out of communications and in the process we’ve created a new set of problems that we don’t know how to handle.

Whether we’re discussing the next cool gadget, the latest use for the Internet, or care-focused robots the challenges are the same. We’ve found ways to be more connected and at the same time protect ourselves from the chance to be harmed. The result is that we’ve found a way to be Alone Together.

Intimacy

In our world today we’re trading intimacy for efficiency. We no longer speak with the gas station manager or attendants. We don’t even walk in. We insert our credit card at the pump and leave having never said a word to anyone. We no longer have relationships with our bankers. For those bankers that stay at the bank, we rarely see them. Instead we insert our bank card into an automated teller who asks us what we want to do and dutifully complies – if you have sufficient funds that is. We call companies and no longer speak with a receptionist. Instead we dial the extension of the person that we’re trying to reach – or we navigate the byzantine interactive voice response (IVR) to get the answer we need. If we’re lucky we’ll find a person who can help us at the end of this combination of keystrokes.

Intimacy is “in-to-me-see.” The trick is what will the other person see? (See Intimacy Anorexia and my post Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy for more on what Intimacy is.) If you see yourself with more shame and remorse you assume that others will see this in you as well. You assume that they’ll see that you’re not worthy of love. (See The Gifts of Imperfection, Daring Greatly, and Rising Strong (Part 1 and Part 2) for Brown’s work on shame and guilt.)

Viewed from the lens of the shame that we carry it’s easy to see how we would want to avoid intimacy. After all if you want to be intimate with others you need to be vulnerable and that means you might get hurt. We’re wired to seek connection and love. What happens when our bids for love are rejected? Do we feel like we’re outside the community and therefore outside of the protection that being in the community affords?

Discover the Truth

Vulnerability

The trick of vulnerability is to be vulnerable enough to be known and to be intimate with others and not so vulnerable that a breach of trust will be crushing. (See more about betrayal in Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace.) When you’re dealing with a computer program like Eliza –which keeps no records of the conversation you can be assured that there will be no betrayal. (Eliza is the first program to try to pass the Turing test for artificial intelligence. It mimics a humanistic psychologist’s response.) Maybe this is why students were looking for “alone time” with the program.

When dealing with others there is the chance of vulnerability and betrayal – but we can mitigate our vulnerability by providing the opportunity for delayed reaction. This is precisely why millennials don’t want to telephone each other. They prefer to text instead where they can ponder, consider, rewrite, and finally after much consideration send their message before developing anxiety about what the other person is going to reply with. The ellipsis that indicate the other party are typing can trigger fear of what the other person is going to say – and therefore the threat of harm.

However, when there is no chance of betrayal there is no vulnerability. Vulnerability requires the possibility of betrayal just like courage requires fear. (See Find Your Courage for more on fear and courage.) When considered from a robotic perspective, how can we be harmed by vulnerability with a robot?

Should we allow – or encourage – robotic caretakers for the elderly? In Being Mortal Atul Gawande discussed the options for dignified geriatric care and the factors that enriched it. It was often focused around the elderly caring for other things – plants or animals. In this context, couldn’t they care for a robot that in turn “cared for them” as well?

How the robot cared for them might be physical, ensuring that they can safely walk to the bathroom or remember to take their medicines. However, the “caring” might be more ephemeral. It could be that the My Real Baby, or Furby, or other “toy” just listens.

Recovering Relationships

However, lest you get the perspective that technology is all bad, sometimes mediating the vulnerability is appropriate and is something that can be healing. Boundaries and Beyond Boundaries explain the importance of boundaries – what you will and won’t allow. Defining boundaries are how you define yourself as a person. For instance, perhaps you believe that you’ll never kill another person. Temporary boundaries are protective structures like the barriers erected around wet concrete to prevent people from wandering in and destroying it before it’s dry.

Being able to so precisely mediate your responsiveness and therefore your vulnerability has definite advantages in creating the opportunity for healing even if that healing never comes. There is something to be said for feeling like you’ve given the other person in a relationship every opportunity to recover the relationship. However, that’s not possible if every interaction risks another serious harm.

The Meaning of Robotic Life

I remember Eliza, a computer program designed to pass the Turing test for intelligence. Eliza was an inquisitive program designed to mimic humanistic psychiatry. That is Eliza was programmed to reflect back what you said. In this way the program seemed like you were communicating with another human being. It was a bit of an eerie feeling if you were willing to suspend disbelief and consider that you might be communicating with another person. This worked because you assumed a very small solution set. By constraining and specifying the engagement it was possible to reach a level of realism that was passable.

We now have Siri and Cortana, the supposed virtual assistants designed to help us organize our lives. I don’t know about your experience but I’ve found that I can ask Siri or Cortana a relatively small number of things and get a meaningful answer. I can ask about the weather but I can’t even ask about my upcoming appointments without risk of getting an incorrect answer. As a result, I’ve stopped asking them all but a handful of questions. I don’t think of either of them as in anyway alive.

However, what happens when the responses are constrained slightly again but this time instead of as a humanistic psychologist, as a companion. Over the years we’ve had many toys where really robotic with a soft fur covering. These toys are designed to interact with children and be perceived as being alive. (Or in the case of a few of my children’s beliefs – possessed. The stories of Furby’s talking to each other and randomly in the middle of the night was a bit spooky.)

So the pondering is what would consist of robotic emotions? Could robots really provide an alternative to human companionship and human compassion? For now, the answer depends on what passes for emotions. Do preprogrammed responses count? Do the emotions need to be felt as we feel them as humans or do they only need to be approximations?

I was reminded of the conversation between the Skin Horse and Velveteen Rabbit in Velveteen Rabbit. “Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but really loves you, then you become Real.” Of course, this isn’t a literal truth but at the same time, it’s at the heart of emotions – our connections to others. If a robot or a computer program can help someone feel connected, what’s the harm?

Must See TV

I can remember while I was growing up that Cheers was on TV and Thursday nights were prime time. Families would save their Thursday nights to stay home and watch TV together. Temporally we were all synchronized to a single event. Then came VCRs and we could record our shows and watch them later. This disrupted the water cooler effect which was where employees gathered to discuss the last night’s shows and establish their shared experience. Those who recorded the programs would sheepishly stay away for fear of spoilers.

In today’s on-demand and Digital Video Recorder (DVR) world we’ve lost that shared connection. We don’t have a common experience of entertainment any longer. Hundreds of channels and more YouTube videos uploaded each hour than anyone could possibly watch have made shared experience mostly a thing of the past.

The way that we call others has changed as well. It used to be we called places. We called the home of our friends and we asked those who answered to either fetch our friend for us or to leave them a message (which invariably they rarely got). If your friend or their family wasn’t home, you didn’t get the opportunity to even leave a message until the advent of the answering machine. A subtle shift happened here as people began screening their calls and callers – who didn’t really want to talk to you any way called at times when it was clear you wouldn’t be home. When voice mail replaced answering machines we had caller ID to let us know who was calling so we wouldn’t have to pick up if we didn’t want to.

However, the most radical change in calling behavior wasn’t voice mail or caller ID. It happened when we stopped calling places and started calling people. Most of the time we don’t call others houses any longer. In fact, fewer and fewer homes even have telephones any longer. The home phones have been replaced with mobile phones for each of the home’s residents. Other than minor children most people today – even in poor neighborhoods – have mobile phones.

Virtual Affairs

Some wives have begun to describe themselves as gaming widows. Their husbands have lost themselves not in baseball, basketball, or even watching games on TV but have instead lost themselves into the world of online gaming where they can become anyone they want. They can create a virtual persona that is anyone they want. The addictive nature of games makes spouses feel like they’re no longer connected – much less intimate with their spouse. (See The Science of Trust for bids for attention and how failing to respond to them can create serious issues in a relationship.)

It’s not really that the games are technically addictive but rather they induce a state of flow and an altered sense of connection. (See Flow, Finding Flow, and The Rise of Superman for more on flow.) Addictions technically require dangerous or compulsive behaviors. That is true addiction requires impact or probable impact on other areas of our life. (See Chasing the Scream for more on addiction.)

Games are one thing but what about virtual worlds like Second Life, Sims, and others where people interact in virtual worlds not based around games and quests, but based in alternate identities. These virtual worlds begin sucking in people and engulfing their experiences. This robs them of real world experiences and drains energies away from the things in life which are real.

Where is the line between having a second source of emotional support and when the support crosses the line to become too important? It used to be that men and women would have extramarital affairs when their emotional (and secondarily physical) needs weren’t being met in their marriage. In some families these indiscretions were accepted and dismissed. In others the results of the infidelity ripped families apart as was seen in the increase in divorce rates. (See Divorce for more on the impacts of divorce.)

So, I suppose having an obviously non-physical relationship in a virtual world is better than a physical relationship in the real world. But is it any better – or worse – to be emotionally connected to someone than physically connected?

Sexting

Sexting – the act of sending sexually explicit text messages between parties can be flirtatious and fun, criminal, or career ending. Consider Anthony Weiner’s sexually explicit text messages that ended his career. (Or any of the numerous other political figures who have stepped down because of their sexting with parties other than their wives.)

In high school where the senders and recipients are both frequently minors, sexting which includes photography is legally child pornography. Even shared between a girlfriend and a boyfriend there are serious legal entanglements that can happen. These get worse when one of the parties forwards the images to parties outside of the relationship – which is all too easily done.

Programs like SnapChat are designed to limit the time that the message can be visible on the recipient’s device, however, it didn’t take folks long to realize that they could take a screenshot of their device while the picture was visible to keep a copy. While the official SnapChat client application notifies the sender that a screen shot has been taken, not all client applications do.

In a married or committed relationship between consenting adults with the mental capacity to not share the content with others it can be a way to keep the “fires burning” when one or both of the parties travel. However, care must be taken to ensure that the photos aren’t accidentally discovered. (As one of my female friends was reminded of when she was showing me some pictures on her phone. I didn’t see anything but her face got very red very fast.)

Physically There, Mentally Away

In Our Kids Putnam explained the difference between children of affluent and non-affluent parents (using the proxy of education) being primarily in their ability to support their children in their time, attention, and resources (including social). The point was made that most children receive approximately the same amount of time from working mothers as they did a generation ago by stay-at-home mothers because the mothers have adjusted their behaviors to provide more time and resources for their children. We’re more focused on providing for our children than we’ve ever been in history – but the gap between the contributions of the affluent and non-affluent is widening.

However, in our always connected world we’re finding that even if parents are physically present moving children from practice-to-practice or school-to-school, they’re less connected with them. Children speak of parents who are on their phone or are texting during dinner or when they’re driving the children. (We have a no cell phone at the dinner table rule at our house – but we sometimes will take calls while transporting children.)

Confessions and Apologies

What’s the difference between a confession and an apology? In real life when you’re face-to-face with someone the difference seems obvious. One is admitting what has happened and the other is feeling remorse or sorrow for it happening. However, in an online world where you’re unable to read the other person’s face and when the audience expands from a one-on-one conversation with zero to a few observers to what happens online where there is a large audience, it becomes muddier.

If someone is apologizing to you in an open forum are they truly sorry or are they only sorry they got caught? This is an interesting distinction as I work with folks who struggle with hurts and addictions in their lives I most frequently initially hear that they’re sorry that they got caught. They’re not sorry for the thing they’re doing. They express no guilt or shame and therefore no remorse. As they come to mature in their understanding of the situation they begin to become sorry for what they’ve done – not just that they got caught.

The ability to understand the difference between being sorry for the action and being sorry for the act is often hard to see when all you have to go on is the text in a chat room or discussion board. The motivation for someone’s apology is hard to determine when you can’t look them in the eyes.

Holding Space

There’s a concept call Ba in Japanese culture. It’s a holding space for relationships. It happens in families, communities, and even in work groups. The concept of a holding space surfaced for me first in the study of knowledge management but has since appeared in Dialogue, Theory U, and Leading from the Emerging Future. The idea behind a holding space is that it is the vessel that is able to contain the context. In the past it used to be that our communities were vast holding spaces. However, the fabric of our connections with each other have begun to erode. (See Bowling Alone for how our communities are unraveling and how we are less connected to others than we’ve ever been before.) In the wake of the boat called individualism we find ourselves drifting from one space to another without the ability to create the “holding” that we so desperately need as humans.

Today online communities allow us to enter and leave with the click of a mouse. The ability to so easily choose which virtual space we’re in certainly allows freedom but without the barriers to exit that would normally cause us to try to work things out. (See Demand for the impact of small barriers on behavior.) Because of this, communities aren’t really spaces where one can foster true relationships. A relationship isn’t only a relationship when things are good. A relationship is proved in the difficult times. (See The Science of Trust for more about the good and bad of relationships.) When we leave a community before trying to work it out we’re doing harm to our ability to become fully intimate and connected with one another.

In the end, our technology has made our lives easier. However, in the process it’s made it harder to fully connect with each other on an emotional level. It’s left us Alone Together.