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Is technology killing intimacy? What can we do about it?

By May 27, 2019 No Comments

How our experience of what is real is changing

We’re living in a world, in which technology is transforming our lives faster than it ever has before. The mixture of virtual communication, AI and social media is changing our experience of reality. Though we are predisposed to empathise with one other in the flesh, the digital experience can feel less compassionate. Online, we have a mask. If we feel lacking or inadequate, or desire an outlet for frustration, we can use complete anonymity to our advantage. People sometimes use technology as a mask – so that they don’t have to be looked at and don’t have to make eye contact with anyone else. It becomes more and more stressful to have real face-to-face interaction.

In a piece in the Saturday Times [29/4/17] on dating apps, Hannah Rogers, 23, says “Actually getting that date can be tricky, though. Being so used to speaking online means that IRL (in real life) dating can be anxiety inducing.” In a recent academic study entitled ‘Online intimacy and well-being in the digital age’ by Anna Lomanowska and Matthieu Guittonc, from the University of Toronto this increasing difficulty to interact is highlighted,

“Advances in Internet-based communication and social networking applications over the last several decades have lead to a major shift in the mode of human social engagement. This shift has resulted in new ways to experience and actualize intimacy, both in the context of pre-existing relationships and interactions with strangers. Physical proximity and direct face-to-face contact are becoming less prevalent in day-to-day interpersonal interactions with close individuals. This is indicated by changes in family lifestyles, including increased numbers of dual-career families, reduced intergenerational living, greater mobility, delayed marriage, and the increase in single-residence households, as well as by the increase in the number of individuals who report not having a confidant.”

Falling in love with RealDolls

Perceiving this change, Japanese AI scientists are pioneering social robot companions who will be able create empathetic responses to human needs. The most famous example of this is Pepper. Pepper is a human-shaped robot. She has been designed to be a genuine day-to-day companion, whose number one quality is his ability to perceive emotions. Pepper is the first humanoid robot capable of recognising the principal human emotions and adapting his behaviour to the mood of his interlocutor.

In America there has been a rapid growth of sex robots, or Love Dolls; hyper-realistic silicone sex toys, designed to your specifications, programmed to fulfil your desires and always available for sex. A prototype created by Abyss Creations in California can smile, blink, frown, hold a conversation, tell jokes and quote Shakespeare. On a website called Dollforum, men interested in this type of product suggested features they would like: eye contact, voice recognition, realistic body temperature, and breathing was felt to be more important than walking. One member of the forum wrote “If my RealDoll could cook, clean and screw whenever I wanted, I’d never date again.” Many of the men in the forum said they had wives and girlfriends who they compared unfavourably to their silicone doll mistresses. [The Guardian 27/4/17]

The manufacturers of Pepper have had to put a clause in their guarantee saying if Pepper is used for sex, the guarantee is nul and void.

It seems that we humans can get emotionally attached to objects, proved by The Tamagotchi pet craze of the 90s. But the internet was still in its infancy then. Now it is woven into our everyday lives, which means that we’d be bereft without our every day digital contact.

In terms of human connection, I think we have to be very careful not to let it replace genuine human connection, but to assist it. Having been in the digital dating space since 2007, I have watched how dating apps have dramatically changed the way we date.

Tinder the disruptor

Tinder was a game changer. It totally disrupted the online website dating market in 2012 by making it as easy as a right-swipe on someone’s photo to connect with them. You could sign up with Facebook, so no boring profile questionnaire to fill in, and you could get swiping immediately. It opened up the market to people who would never normally have used a dating site, and became a dating extension of Facebook. However, after a while, a lot of men began bulk right swiping on every female and leaving the women to right swipe back, as they generally prefer to filter more at an earlier stage. I wrote about how there are apps to bulk right swipe in an earlier article on the use of bots in human interaction. In effect, that is what Bumble, another dating app, does – gets the woman to make the first move.

As face to face human interaction gets more anxiety-inducing, particularly in an age in which we’re all looking at our phones not other people, these dating apps are falling down on the process of helping people really connect. That’s why my second venture in this space is a dating app, which is now in development.

With Tinder you can potentially have so many ‘matches’ in your inbox, you don’t know where to begin or how to initiate a conversation. It’s hard to find an original opener every time and often there’s nothing more to go on than a photo, so the conversation, if it does get going can lapse into the sea of apathy and a meeting IRL will never happen. Swiping on people’s photos becomes no different from swiping on fashion items; the dehumanisation of other people. We’re consuming each other rather than seeing into each other.

Future proofing intimacy

The word ‘Intimacy’, put another way into-me-see, is about ‘seeing me’. Intimacy is the ability to truly be seen, which many of us crave. To be acknowledged, accepted, heard, seen, appreciated etc. are all words that we use to describe what we seek from a deep place within. When we consume each other we only see the surface.

In an excellent Radio 4 series called FutureProofing there was an episode on Intimacy in which Leo Johnson and Timandra Harkness ask “Is intimacy toast? We can shag, but can we have an intimate relationship?” There’s an interview with a woman running a dating service in Singapore where too often her customers ask, when they see their date “What’s the payoff? Do I have time for it? What’s the return on investment?” You are like a shopper on a dating app.

What I aim to do

My challenge, when thinking about creating a connection app for dating, was how to make it quick and simple to use as we can’t go back to old fashioned dating sites, but keep the human element, so we don’t feel like a commodity and don’t consume others.

So there are four stages in the connection process on the app I’m developing, which will be called i2i, which you can see in the diagram below. The first stage is humour, because as someone put it, ‘The shortest distance between two people is laughter.” Humour, that witty banter, is something that robots will never be able to do, even if they may be able to spout pre-programmed jokes. So when you sign up you are asked to input an ‘I statement’ something about you that begins with ‘I’, ideally witty, but if not resonant, zany or off the wall. Also a question that other people will see if they right swipe on your photo and your ‘I statement’.

This means you’ll already be in a conversation and know more about that person than just a photo. You answer their question and when they answer back you are connected and can see a fuller profile with more info about the person. You’re pushed to connect and meet up IRL with a tiered inbox, including expiring connections requiring a response within a certain period.

There will be a timer in your inbox with a 30 second ping for when you meet in the real world. There is a lot of content on Youtube about how uninterrupted eye contact can create deeper connections between people, and mostly they recommend 4 minutes. However, having done public talks on the subject and focus groups, I realised that 30 secs is the maximum I could get two strangers to do in a public space. It is a magical thing and so simple, it’s about gazing not staring, and being present. Presence is about removing judgement, walls and masks so as to create a true and deep connection with people or experiences. My challenge is to make it seem exciting rather than awkward and so am planning offline events to get it going. It is about compassionate attention to another human being, and while your eyes connect a lot of non-verbal information is exchanged.

The i2i app has now launched, you can get it for free on iOS or Android.

connections, intimacy, technology

Download the i2i app for iOSDownload the i2i app for android

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