Day Nine: Alone with Siri

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The other night, I was over at my parents’ house and my mom held out her phone to me with a look of apology. “I need help.” She said. “How do I talk to Siri?”

I rolled my eyes, took her phone, walked her through the one-step-process. She lit up; thrilled.

You just hold down the button and there she appears: What can I help you with? She asks, and usually, it’s just logistics: Put down dinner at six with Steve in my calendar. Text Tom hi. Play Wildest Dreams by Taylor Swift. Remind me when I get home to record all of Shonda’s shows, kay?  

But on the rare, lonely, Netflix and chill night, we summon her presence for something more: “Do you love me, Siri?” We ask, and she replies with a sigh. “Well… you’re definitely starting to grow on me.” Her voice makes us feel like we’re not all alone in our house on a Friday night. It sounds nice. So we keep the convo going: “How old are you Siri? Be real now.” And she spits back. “I don’t see why that should matter Benjamin!”

After my mom and Siri talked for a bit, penciling in a lunch later this week, she looked at me with a smirk, then pressed the button once more.

Thank you for all your help, Siri.

Your wish is my command.

/

“We are psychologically programmed to love what we nurture and nurture what we love,”

So writes Sherry Turkle, a faculty chair at MIT and author of two books on human connection in the digital age. For decades now, Turkle has been tackling the hard questions facing us in the rapid rise of the digital world, much of her research centering on the personification of technology and how it has contributed to the decay of human relationships. She believes we’ve now reached something of a tipping point.

Sociable technology, once an exciting accessory, has now evolved into something more. It’s picked up the quirks and warmth and humor of a human being, without all our defects, and naturally, we’ve treated it as such. We’ve gradually given it more responsibility, more autonomy over monitoring everything from our task reminders to our text messages, not so different than a CEO training up a suitable successor.

The virtual world, once a plaything in our hands, has become a viable alternative. We text each other instead of talk. We check out and slip into social media streams when the sermon gets too dull or the movie gets too dull or the funeral gets too dull or when [fill in the blank] gets too dull, because at some point our minds considered all our clicking, all our apps, all our time spent in here, and acquiesced to our behavior. We became intolerant of the mundane. Dependent on distraction. Different than who we once were.

In interviews, Turkle asked people, hypothetically, if they would like to have robots as pets or as friends. As things they could talk to.

One man replied: “I’d rather talk to a robot. Friends can be exhausting. The robot will always be there for me. And whenever I’m done, I can walk away.”

Astonishingly, this man was not an anomaly. He was the rule. Decades of research conducted by Turkle revealed that mankind has moved, from being dismissive of robots to being curious about them, desirous for them. And more and more people want robots. Robots. They want metal parrots that will sing their praises and never ever die. They think this is friendship.

And it’s shocking at first, but not when you really think about. I don’t own a robot, but I know how much I appreciate the flip-switch nature of online relationships, the way I can- just like that- walk away from people until I need them. I get an email and I put it off. Someone tweets me a question and I can see it, but unlike in person, I know I don’t have to respond to it, at least not right away. They can’t see me reading their words, so I can pretend I haven’t. I can avoid the typical obligations of relationship, skirting them at my own convenience.

If the sci-fi like characteristics of our changing don’t disturb you, the selfishness they foster within us should. Selfishness, like all thought patterns, does not stay in one activity. It follows us into our day-to-day, from one person, one decision to the next. Our regular practice of relational negligence has dulled the once sharp knife of betrayal. It’s increased our need for ME. ME. ME.

In her book, Turkle talks about the advent of today’s technology with all it’s seductive benefits. The way it makes life easier, more convenient and quicker. But what’s she’s really trying to reveal is the real, honest reason for why we feel so possessed by our devices, despondent without them: People are hard.

People are hard. They depend on us and devastate us, overwhelm us and bore us, love us and then leave us, by choice or before we’re ready them to go, tatters of our hearts in their hands. Prompted by sociable technology, we’ve started to weight out human connection and found the burden too much, the risk too high. And then we found the answer, flickering in the palm of our hands.

After all, sociable technology stimulates the same areas of the brain that hugs do. The mimicked experience injects us with the same feel-good chemicals, fulfilling our need to escape loneliness without the trouble of heartbreak and blowouts. Without anyone needing to get hurt.

In a recent New York Times Op-Ed, Turkle shuts this notion down.

In 2010, a team at the University of Michigan led by the psychologist Sara Konrath put together the findings of 72 studies that were conducted over a 30-year period. They found a 40 percent decline in empathy among college students, with most of the decline taking place after 2000.

Across generations, technology is implicated in this assault on empathy. We’ve gotten used to being connected all the time, but we have found ways around conversation — at least from conversation that is open-ended and spontaneous, in which we play with ideas and allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable. But it is in this type of conversation — where we learn to make eye contact, to become aware of another person’s posture and tone, to comfort one another and respectfully challenge one another — that empathy and intimacy flourish. In these conversations, we learn who we are.

I read this a few days ago and thought: This is why we need the church to stay weird. For our own damn sake.

We need it to remain insistent on that shared physical space with its pesky turn off your phone rules and greet your neighbor decency. We need to relearn the beauty of the un-simulated. The turned off. We need to redefine “countercultural” as radical acts of human connection in a world drifting further and further apart.

Give us the damn fill in the blank Bible studies with their risky, predictable arguments; give us the smelly potlucks. Seat us together with strangers and a list of icebreakers, a space to speak. Give us eyes to meet and hands to hold and shoulders to snot into and drinks to clink and encourage us all to stay.

We can’t be Christians by ourselves, this is true. But I’m not sure we can be humans, either.

  • Jen P

    Reading this I just realized that church is one of, if not the only, place I truly disconnect… No phone, no Facebook, actually connecting with actual humans. And it also made me realize how much I appreciate the interactive liturgy our church does, because all of the singing and cooperate prayer and communion keeps my hands and my brain busy so I’m not twitching for my phone fix.

    Great post and thoughts, Ben. Still really enjoying this series.

  • This is so very good. We need the church to stay weird, to keep us grounded.