On technology and relationships

Or the limited perspective of an unartificial mind

How many times a day do you (un)consciously check your phone? Have you ever wondered what did people do when there were no smartphones around to kill time with, only a decade ago? Perhaps they simply looked around, eyes wide open, and observed life going by, but such behaviour would most certainly be labelled as “odd” in nowadays digitalised societies, where there seems to be a tacit approval of technology dependence.

The fact that a new word had to be made up in order to designate the feeling of anxiety experienced when not having the phone at hand (“nomophobia” or no-mobile-phone-phobia) only highlights the growing dominance of technological devices in our lives. The rapid digital development of this century has undoubtedly made our lives easier and brought societies closer to each other, probably the reason why this addiction to smart devices has become socially shared and accepted.

Above all the advancements, communication is, by far, the one activity that has been more radically transformed by technology. It’s no longer necessary to be with people to actually talk to them, or even see them. Relations can be built in the distance, no matter how big this is, and all your contacts can be reached by a gentle movement of your fingertips. Consequently, we seem to have grown attached to our smartphones to the point that they are almost an appendage of our bodies.

Amid this era of digital addiction and virtual relationships, and with artificial intelligence progressing at significant steps, I think the next question to ask is: How will our relation with technology evolve? Could we possibly become so absorbed in our digital lives that we relegate human relations to the background?

Only recently I saw a scene in a film where a man at a train station fell to the tracks and the immediate reaction of everyone around was to pick up their smartphones and start taking pictures or videos to document the tragedy. Some were even writing about the incident on their phones, but no one used them to call for help — isn’t it what mobile phones are meant for? — , and not a single one of them tried to make a move towards the railway to help the man out before the train arrived.

Although this fictional scene is a mere caricature of reality, this fact doesn’t make it less unsettling. We see it every day: people walking the streets looking down at their phones, people crossing the streets writing on their phones, people sitting together in a café not talking, each checking their phone… We also hear it every time from the news: the rate of road accidents and domestic accidents is consistently increasing due to the lack of attention people pay to their surroundings because they are glued to their screens. Our lives — our social lives — are now confined in that small squared tactile box.

Soon enough, if development continues at the current rate, the fine line that divides the digital world and the real world will be more diluted than ever.

Suddenly, so-called futuristic films don’t feel so distant from reality; instead, their depicted futures seem to be just around the corner. Choosing the features of your unborn child, having a clone or attaining immortality are not just the plot for a sci-fi movie aimed at entertaining audiences, but a more than plausible option that science is already struggling to bring about.

Suddenly, the possibility of machines acquiring new levels of “personality” that could ignite in us some sort of feelings does not seem that macabre anymore. Like in Her (2013), we might end up in a world of social loneliness in which we will turn our affection to the only thing that is still there for us: technology, yet forgetting that technology itself is the main cause for the widespread estrangement of individuals.

On Her, Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his artificially intelligent OS

As unartificial minds, our perspective on how human beings and technology are interconnected and how these connections will evolve is still very limited. However, we do know that the power to create ties, to reason and to choose is still within us, not in our smartphones. It is not late yet to question social trends and ask ourselves what kind of relationships we want in our lives, in our futures. We should stop right now to look around, eyes wide open, and see the life we are missing.