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.
One of my favorite evocations of this habitual ease comes from the psychologist Sherry Turkle, in her 2011 book Alone Together. “Technology is seductive when what it offers meets our human vulnerabilities,” she writes. “And as it turns out, we are very vulnerable indeed.” It’s a disconcerting description—but not necessarily a cause for despair. We are vulnerable, inconsistent, unreliable, remarkable creatures. But it’s in confronting and sharing these vulnerabilities that we learn and connect to others. And technology can help us do this too, so long as we’re prepared to deploy it for self-revelation as well as for concealment.
Here’s the paradox: Onscreen, it is easy for us to treat others as less than human—while treating the device we’re holding as far more than a machine. Yet we are only likely to form an honest sense of technology’s place in our lives if we admit that it’s the experiences it facilitates that count—and that, when it comes to evaluating what these experiences are worth, even the most sophisticated software is clueless. The only meaningful measure of whether we’re doing it right is how it makes us, and others, feel—and this lies resolutely beyond the screen.
Emptying my email inbox can feel like the most essential and satisfying of tasks: a burden that simply has to be shifted to others as fast as possible. Yet sending more email simply means getting more email back in return—while filling up everybody else’s inboxes along the way. What I actually want isn’t a clear inbox. It’s peace of mind. It’s meaningful communication with friends and colleagues. It’s being left alone by those I don’t want to hear from. It’s having enough space in my head for other things. The inbox offers the illusion of these things but often falls frustratingly short. However, I keep coming back for more.
Above all, it seems to me, we face two entwined questions every time we reach towards a screen. What does the computer want us to do—and what do we ourselves want? If we’re not careful, we will only ever answer the first. Ours is a world in which we are nudged, cajoled, bribed, and enticed ceaselessly; in which we are locked in an embrace with tirelessly fascinating tools. More than ever, we must be prepared to admit how messily personal this relationship is; how toxic habit and excessive ease can be; and that, as in all relationships, the easiest and the best option are rarely the same thing.
As the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman once put it, “when faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution.” If we’re not careful, our days will become a sequence of answers to questions that aren’t worth asking: what do you like, dislike, think in 140 characters; how can a friend most efficiently be acknowledged or dismissed; what distraction might help you forget the life you forgot to lead?
Tom Chatfield is a British author, broadcaster, and technology theorist. The author of five books exploring digital culture – most recently Netymology (Quercus) and How to Thrive in the Digital Age (Pan Macmillan) – his work has appeared in over twenty languages.