The next topic for the Association of Professional Futurists twitter chat (#futrchat) is the future of relationships. Futrchat will be held at 4pm EST (USA) on 21 April, and Guy Yeomans has set out the six questions we will explore. When I heard this topic, I was immediately reminded of the conversations I have had in the past few months about how we as humans need to connect with each other in person. I can't disagree, but those relationships can surely take many forms depending on the context (as @casudi tell us in her post), and I think the definition of 'in person' might be changing.
For example, some people in education tell us that learning is experiential and that means face-to-face delivery is the optimum mode. Yet I had the most intense and life-changing learning experience in a fully online course - and when I went back into the classroom the following year, I felt like my learning experience had been diluted - not less real, just not as intense, and not as connected with my fellow students compared to my online experience. I experienced the content in both modes, yet for me, online was more useful.
And we hear, more generally, that all this technology that we now have at our fingertips is dumbing us down, or that the internet is changing the way we think, source and interpret information - and not necessarily in good ways. There are arguments that we fall prey to group think, or that we lose our individuality, or that the anonymity of commenting means intelligent arguments are shouted down by the internet flamers out there. For example, Sherry Turkel, in her book Together Alone: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, suggests that we are increasingly going about our day-to-day lives without the required face-to-face contact. That somehow, all this technology is making our 'human' relationships somehow more shallow and less meaningful.
On the other hand, I read mystery and thrillers when I've nothing else to do, and the series of books by J.D. Robb (the 'in death' series) are set in the future where technology permeates the world. And it's a very, very technological world. Yet, the core of the stories is human relationships. Sure, in this future sci-fi context, we have technology mediated relationships, but they are still very, very human relationships.
The Singularity is the ultimate takeover of our humanness by technology. This is the future space where artificial intelligence moves beyond human intelligence and creates a self-generating, self-improving super intelligence - and life as we know it know, and relationships as we know them now, can't really be envisaged. I'm not sure I agree with the premises underpinning the Singularlity, but if it is true, and we move into a whole new world, how will our definition of relationships change?
So, I wonder if it's an either/or argument about which type of relationship is more human or more valid, or better, or valuable, or real? Or whether it's just that we haven't yet worked out what constitutes a meaningful, human, online relationship? And, in all of these arguments about the dangers of technology for relationships there might lurk some unquestioned assumptions.
One, that connecting with people online and building a trustful relationship without ever meeting them 'in person' is impossible. Period. Just like learning online isn't truly experiential compared to learning in a classroom. That some how online relationships are less authentic. Yes, online relationships are different, but does that automatically mean they are less human, or don't incorporate our human-ness?
And two, that we are all stupid. And by that I mean, that there seems to be an assumption that we, as a human race, are unconsciously being subsumed by technology and letting it run our lives, narrowing down our worldviews and our minds without us even knowing it. Huh? Whatever happened to human agency?
We are responsible for how we interact with technology, not the other way around. And I have to fess up here that I love gadgets and try to be an early adopter of things I think will help me simplify my life. But does that make me a gadget - no, it means I'm trying to see how I can connect technology and my life in ways that let me spend my time doing what I really want to do.
There is much rubbish on the internet, and some people delight in telling us what they ate for breakfast and sharing far too much information about their lives than is necessary or healthy - they like the 'sound' of their online voice. We can drown in the amount of information out there and we can succumb to wasting our time online because that's very easy to do.
But then there is much rubbish in our relationships with people we meet in the physical realm. Don't we waste time in a meeting listening to someone drone on and on because they like the sound of their voice? And isn't, technically, watching TV a waste of time and/or dangerous to our brains, depending on who you read. I'm not sure that it necessarily follows that technology per se is doing nasty things to our human-ness and our relationships, but rather it's more that we have found a new way to waste time. It's more about our choices about how we use technology and integrate it into our lives.
We need to filter the information we receive and test it for relevance and credibility and authencity, and we need to asses our relationships in the digital world with the same criteria we use when we meet someone in the physical world. It is precisely because we are 'human' that we are able to judge the emerging quality of relationships in either realm. I don't judge my online interactions with a different set of criteria just because they are online. I apply my human-ness to my online relationships to decide whether or not there in value in connecting and interacting with that person in the same way that I do it in person. The context is different, the criteria is the same. Human criteria.
So, how will the intersection of technology and relationships play out in the future? I don't know, and precisely because I don't know means that I won't make judgements today about what will be viewed as a real human relationship in the future. With technologies like holographics and haptics, who knows what relationships will be like in the future? And what might noetic sciences do to our definition of human-ness in the future?
Relationships in the future will be different, but will that mean they will be any less human? Maybe, maybe not, depending on whether today's definition of being human survives intact into the future. Dismissing technology mediated relationships as negative and dangerous today closes down opportunities to explore, shape and influence the degree of human-ness in those online relationships. And that's just dumb.