Relationship technology

It can be quite difficult to explain the modern internet to people who haven't spent much time with it. Not even just in terms of how it works or how to do specific things, but more fundamental questions like "why are you doing any of this?" You start to sound a bit nonsensical trying to explain the intricacies of whether to favourite or retweet, or whether someone is a friend friend or a Facebook friend, or what "seen @ 5pm" with no reply until 6pm means.

The point is that the complexity of the technology itself is dwarfed by the complexity of the relationships we build around it. You could produce an acceptable clone of the functionality of most popular websites without much difficulty, but to clone their community is effectively impossible. I suppose it's no surprise that community has become so important to our technology; even as apes we built and lived within intricate social structures. What we see now is just that the setting for those structures has gone from plantain picking to agriculture to industrialisation to... whatever this is.

But putting aside communities, it's also interesting to consider how technology has shaped the kinds of relationships we have on an individual level. The rise of broadcast media has made it much easier to have very asymmetric relationships, like between a celebrity and an audience member. Of course, we've always had celebrities, but the big difference is that the asymmetry used to be obvious; nobody thought they were Liszt's best friend just because they saw him play piano. Broadcasting makes it possible to hide that asymmetry and make a one-sided relationship feel two-sided.

I was once told that the difficult thing about television is that you have to have the voice and body language of someone very close to the audience, but the volume and eye contact of someone much further away. The goal is to create the feeling of intimacy without actual intimacy. If you can do that, you can save your intimately non-intimate recording once and distribute it to thousands of people, each of whom can feel a connection with you even though you have no idea who they are.

And that only gets us as far as TV and radio, nearly a hundred years ago! Now we have systems that let you share your diary with the world, broadcast text messages back and forth, publish your activities and movements, record off-the-cuff video, or even stream yourself live. There are so many ways to speak the language of intimacy online that in many ways it's a better environment than offline. But with the crucial distinction that this online intimacy is designed to scale, to be packaged and distributed. And there's no requirement it be reciprocal.

I'm not saying this is necessarily a bad thing, but I think it does require a rethinking of how we understand our relationships. If I watch someone talk about their life every day and I form a connection, am I forming it with that person? Or with the version of them I have constructed to fit my needs, like a character in a book? And if, so, where does this imaginary intimacy lie on the spectrum from quirky imaginary friend to Nicolas Cage body pillow?

On the other hand, maybe we should be prepared to accept a kind of abstracted intimacy: I form a relationship with a group, and the members of that group form a relationship with me. Neither the group nor me in this scenario are strictly capable of reciprocating a relationship; one is a collective with no single identity, and the other is a kind of ur-person, reconstituted from various snippets of public information but incapable of volition. So maybe we each form a half-relationship with someone who doesn't really exist, and that's still okay.

Whatever the case, this is only one example of the weirdness that's being left in the wake of all our new relationship technology. The future's going to be an interesting place.