Digital Intimacy and the Facade of Electronic Connection

By: Alexander Mervar


Over the course of the past twenty-nine years, the world-wide web has revolutionized the way humans interact and exchange information. The introduction to the “internet of things,” which is the idea of increased connectivity between devices and other pieces of hardware, created many options that allow Americans to remain constantly connected to one another and be virtually always with one another., Moore’s Law, an interpretation on the increased amount of processors within circuits, states that there will be an increase in computational capabilities at an exponential rate over time., Gordon Moore shared and predicted that over the course of time, the ability to have multiple sources of data storage would become a possibility. The rate of technological advancement has also mirrored his conclusions at advancing at an exponential rate as well as decreasing in cost at an exponential rate. This correlates to show an increase in electronic sensors’ capabilities to read and process information. Gershon Dublon, a new media artist, electrical engineer, and PhD student at the MIT Media Lab, and Joseph A. Paradiso, a professor and Associate Academic Head at the Program of Media Arts and Sciences at MIT, explain in their paper, “Extra Sensory Perception,” that the theoretical process proposed within Moore’s law created the ability for “increased connectivity” to constantly progress and grow throughout American society and thus, change the way Americans percieve relationships and act with one another., , This increase in computational capabilities and increased integration with other electronic sensors has shaped the way Americans perceive and carry out romantic relationships. Due to this implementation of technologies within the general population of America, the idea of the American romantic relationship has been reformed into something that could possibly create a more self-centered and less fulfilling lifestyle.

Preference of a Computer over a Human

Sherry Turkle, the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT, and the founding director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, shares that her observations of humans with objects such as Zhu Zhu Pets (robotic pet hamsters), Paro (a robotic pet seal designed for the elderly), and students interacting with early forms of bots (AI that can simulate the responses and interactions of a human) all point toward a psychological development within humans to create manufactured relationships with our machines and the facades that we create on the internet. By using a social network, humans are able to shape and mold the way the world views them. A girl who is shy, can be virtually outgoing. A Chinese man can be British. The list of possibilities is endless and continuously expanding. This ability to create the perfect lifestyle that an individual desires, intrigues humans and draws them to spend more time with machines than other people. Thus, this ultimately leads to a degradation of face-to-face interaction.

The Degradation of Face-to-Face Interaction

With the constant expansion of ways that humans are able to virtually interact with one another (e.g. massively-multiplayer online video games, sms text messages, video calling, etc.), several different preferences for communication, that are seen throughout American society, have formed. Within today’s society, many Americans have a physical device that tethers them to work, media, current events, and to other people. This impedes on the ability for individuals to obtain moments of true seclusion and disconnectivity, which Sherry Turkle shares is vital for mental health. At a moments notice, anyone who has access to the internet through a computational device has the capability of reaching out to any individual or group of people and being able to consume media to bring about the idea of being “alone together.” Sherry Turkle states in her work, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, that the American preference toward constant communication through sms (short message service) text messaging and other forms of instantaneous communication that do not require full attention create a degradation of fulfillment within communication participants., Turkle explains that a common complaint within her observations of human interaction over the course of her many years of research is the idea that, “sometimes you don’t have time for your friends except if they’re online.” The idea of a facade of numerous friends and utilization of time with digital connectivity in replacement for physical connectivity shows the social irony when observing the average romantic relationship within the United States and how this implementation of technology has forced Americans to mutilate or drastically evolve and adapt the characteristics of the modern romance due to a self-imposed emphasis on electronic communication when physical communication is required. With the continuation of more and more people adopting technology, the increased amount of technologically connected relationships will only grow and the physically connected relationships will diminish.

The Destructive and Constructive Power of Social Media

Relationships are constantly and continuously communicating between individuals. With an increase in electronic communication, this relational maintenance of communicating and making sure the relationship is furthering and prospering has shifted to being developed and voiced electronically. According to Amanda Lenhart, Monica Anderson, and Aaron Smith from Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping the world, 50% of teens have expressed their interest in a potential romantic partner through a social media site. This strong use of social media in a romantic context has led to many using social media as a platform for relational maintenance. When displacing some of the work that would typically come in the form of one-on-one interaction with a person in a physical face-to-face conversation or a voice or video call, it destroys the efficiency of the relational maintenance taking place, which increases relationship satisfaction for both partners. Without this conversation between the two parties in a non-attentive setting, direct interaction is no longer necessary and an individual can go without knowledge of the other wanting to know how he or she is doing or what current events happened in their life, which belittles the attention that an individual typically receives within a romantic relationship.

This change in perception of the relationship creates an environment where individuals would act differently under different circumstances. A physical representation of individuals acting differently due to perspective is the worldy alterations that is created in 3D pavement art by Joe Hills. Due to the physical location of a viewer, the world and the art can appear much differently than it actually is perceived at different angles. These attributes are reflective of people and their online social media presence. Due to the capability to put up a facade, this electronic connection subconsciously encourages users to become jealous and have feelings for the portrayal of a person instead of the person themselves. This jealousy can catalyze from a partner adding an unknown member of the opposite sex on a social network site. This can ultimately cause relational discourse and destroy the relationship entirely.

Inverse to this, SNS (social network sites) can also increase relational happiness. Sonja Utz and Camiel Beukeboom state in their paper, “The Role of Social Network Sites in Romantic Relationships: Effects on Jealousy and Relationship Happiness,” that grooming, which involves browsing of the profiles of friends and the partner, can determine if an individual experiences SNS jealousy or relational happiness. The results of this SNS interaction is due to what is witnessed within the SNS platform. If an individual witnesses a partner sharing their relationship, relational happiness can grow. This juxtaposes the idea that SNS interaction exclusively creates jealousy within a romantic relationship in the United States.

Sexual Exploration Through Electronic Means

Over the years, there has been a gradual increase in the amount of Americans who own cell phones and smartphones. Pew Research Center provides that in January of 2018, 95% of all US adults own a cellphone and 77% of US adults had smartphones. In addition, 73% have reported owning a desktop or laptop computer; 53% of US adults have reported a tablet computer; finally, 22% of American adults own an e-reader. These physical devices have mirrored the exponential growth of Moore’s Law in the amount of people who own these devices. Thus, more and more people have the capability to share digital information with one another. With all of this increase in digital information, the ability to share different types of information has also materialized into the American romance. Due to this, the participation in what is commonly known as “sexting”, sending and receiving of sexually suggestive images, has become a main facet of the online presence within the American electronic romance. Amanda Lenhart states in her piece on sexting, that 31% of adults and 15% of teens have reported receiving sexts. By devaluing the relationship and pushing toward an increased amount of electronic sexual activity, the device is subconsciously seen as the bearer of the relationship and devalues the sexual interaction. These types of messages have also been seen to be a strong signal for increased connection and dependence on technology within a person. This increased dependence and ability to send these kinds of messages show that the structure of romantic relationships within the United States is rapidly changing and becoming more reclusive and technologically reliant through social electronic interfaces.

Nationally Addressing Increased Implementation of Technology

With the increased implementation of technology within American society, there have been growing divides between romantic partners. Over the course of twenty-nine years, there has been an exponential increase in the amount of processors within our technologies and there has also been an exponential increase in the amount of physical devices that are present within our society due to Moore’s Law. Nick Bostrom, a philosopher and researcher of AI at Oxford, states that society in the past has always been exponentially decreasing the amount of time it takes to reach the next level of technological advancement. If, hypothetically, it takes 100 years to reach a technological achievement, mankind has consistently reached the next level of progression within a shorter period of time. In today’s modern society, STEM fields are pushed within major corporations. But, these fields are pushing for progress that we may not be ready to handle as a human collective. This kind of technological development is also appearing within our relationships. With every new technological innovation and new product, an increasing amount of humans are relying on inanimate and two-dimensional objects to sustain and satisfy their needs for personal relationships. Acting as a middle-man, these devices operate as a social duality and separate while also joining us together. By granting the ability to constantly share information, relationships are oversaturated with unnecessary and frivolous information that overwhelms romantic partners. This information can also catalyze into relational jealousy if individuals are seen to be with other humans of the opposite gender.

Another facet of the increase in societal technological abilities is the devalued nature of sexual interactions due to different forms of communication. Sexting, for instance, creates an environment where individuals are presented as bits of information and objects instead of human beings who are providing an intimate connection. Technology is subconsciously perceived to be a middle man and thus, devalues the interactions between two individuals. This type of communication between individuals furthers Sherry Turkle’s idea of being “alone together.”