The reason why Spike Jonze’s Her wasn’t much of a surprise to me is because human-robot affairs don’t seem Twilight Zone strange as it might have been in the past.
It’s already happening, isn’t it? Remember that story about a Japanese man married to a video game character? Likewise, a robot seal named Paro is now being used to help dementia patients in Denmark, while an erotically stimulating game using the Oculus Rift VR headset may just be on its way to fulfill every socially-inept man’s virtual fantasies.
It’s a given: technology has shaped, is bound to transform, and will push for the evolution of human relationships. The question begging for an answer is: with the exponential advancements in our technology, is the quality of our relationships today better or worse?
Easier–but less raw and authentic?
In his New York Times article, Pulitzer finalist Jonathan Franzen observed, “Our technology has become extremely adept at creating products that correspond to our fantasy ideal of an erotic relationship…The ultimate goal of technology, the telos of techne, is to replace a natural world that’s indifferent to our wishes—a world of hurricanes and hardships and breakable hearts, a world of resistance—with a world so responsive to our wishes as to be, effectively, a mere extension of the self.”
Meanwhile, a study by University of Essex researchers Andrew K. Przybylski and Netta Weinstein highlighted the impact of a particular piece of technology to relationships: “The mere presence of mobile phones inhibited the development of interpersonal closeness and trust, and reduced the extent to which individuals felt empathy and understanding from their partners.”
But it wasn’t the case though for Viva Gonzalez, a Marketing and Visual Merchandising student based in Toronto; her mobile phone was a big factor to the longevity of her long-distance relationship. She first met her boyfriend Justin while he was on vacation in the Philippines in 2011, and they were apart for two years — corresponding through Blackberry Messenger as well as Skype and Facebook –until she decided to migrate to Canada, where her boyfriend lives.
“It’s easier to be in a long distance relationship today with the outlets available for communication — and it’s free too, so that helps,” she mused, though adding, “It was incredibly difficult to fight online. You couldn’t hug each other or accurately gauge each other’s mood or body language; we really had to rely on communication. And when you’re angry on Skype, it’s really easy to be spiteful and just shut off your laptop.”
Freelance musician Marnelli Puyot, whose boyfriend is a music theory teacher in Abu Dhabi, agreed, “The distance fuels all negative emotions; there’s a diminished rawness or authenticity of all senses and sensations between the two of us. You can take advantage of going into your corner when you should be really talking, you can go offline and turn all of your gadgets off, or simply delay responding to messages and dodging calls. Plus, instant messages or emails can be interpreted several different ways, as opposed to talking face to face.”
It should be noted, however, that Viva and Marnelli met their respective partners offline before transitioning to an (in)convenient online setup. On the other end of the spectrum, there are people who are resorting to dating apps to find potential mates and partners.
Tech amplifies relationships’ strengths and frailties
Romanticism is dead, declared Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, University College London Business Psychology Professor and metaprofiling.com Co-founder, “The realities of the dating world could not be more different. People are time-deprived, careers have priority over relationships, not least because they are often a prerequisite to them, and the idea of a unique perfect match or soul-mate is a statistical impossibility.”
The rise of dating apps like Tinder therefore shouldn’t come as a shock — it’s just human nature. “Like any successful internet service, we tend to overestimate the impact of technology on human behaviour; more often than not, it is human behaviour that drives technological changes and explains their success or failures. In our technosexual era, the process of dating has not only been gamified, but also sexualised, by technology,” said Chamorro-Premuzic.
A female friend of mine (who refused to be named) recounted her Tinder experience which seemed to agree with the observation above: “Guys 37 years old and above are more likely to want to meet up and give their numbers. There was a guy whose opening line was, ‘hey… wanna f-k?’ I blocked him immediately.”
These incidents are not a big deal though to Rica Estrada, a communications specialist of BPO company Sykes. She opined on Tinder’s merits and failures vis-à-vis real-life interactions: “You start a conversation. You see if you click. You decide to move forward. And you’re never really sure if the other person’s telling the whole truth. How is that different from traditional dating?”
Come to think of it, technology is just mimicking, amplifying, and supporting what’s already there to begin with — our human strengths and frailties.
Speaking of art imitating life (and vice versa), the office scene with Her’s protagonist Theodore Twombly, a professional writer who crafts love letters for people who can’t express their feelings as eloquently as he can, actually reminded me of the freelancer hired by one of our case studies.
Just before he got married, Hooi Jun Keat signed up on Freelancer.com and hired Dicanime, an animation studio from China, to create a video of his wedding vows. After Hooi made the professional understand what he wanted, Dicanime then proceeded to create a script and delivered the presentation after two weeks.
The Malaysian groom waxed lyrical about the end result, thanking Freelancer.com and Dicanime for making his wedding “perfect” and “meaningful”. He said, “The video animation was a killer blow on my wedding day because it’s not only incredibly touching — it also amused all my guests. Most importantly, my newlywed wife cried tears of joy.”
Stories like these only show how advancements in our technology add another dimension to relationships and take away some of the challenges that once came with being in one. Do these advancements make love less real? It really depends on who you ask. To the sentimental, these developments diminish it; to the believer, everything is an improvement. Whichever side we’re on, change is coming — whether our heart’s ready for it or not.