Do Devices Affect Intimacy?

By Scott Hughes

Under a Naked Sky - Skywatcher

I have always had a fascination with robots. As a kid, I really wanted this particular expensive robot, even though – looking back – its functionality was limited. But the dream of owning a device that would fetch me a drink as I controlled it from my comfy couch was tantalizing. That was decades ago, and our relationship with digital devices and robotics has grown dramatically.

Current research into the human relationship with robots suggests that robots might provide companionship and assistance to those who are lonely and need assistance. No matter how well they are engineered, however, robots are not truly capable of listening, caring, and empathy. Humans acquire such complex skills only through mature self-giving.

Sherry Turkle, professor of social studies of science and technology in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT, is exploring how our human relationships are affected by our relationships with technology, including robotics. In her research about the attachment children have to electronic Furby toys and older adults’ attachments to robotic nurses, she asserts in her book, Alone Together, “We make our technologies, and they, in turn, make and shape us.”1 She observes that our technologies have made us anxious about intimacy and vulnerability, and that we seek ways of fulfilling these needs through robotics and surface-level connections enabled by electronic devices. Although our phones and other devices keep us constantly connected, these technologies can also serve to limit human. We text or send e-mail instead of speaking to one another.

Even when human relationships with robots appear helpful in providing companionship, Turkle notes that people, “are drawn to the comfort of connection without the demands of intimacy.”2 She concludes that “we ask technology to perform what used to be ‘love's labor’: taking care of each other,”3 and that “the robots' special affordance is that they simulate listening, which meets a human vulnerability: people want to be heard.”4

We live in a fractured and broken world where people long for intimacy, acceptance, and love. The broken nature of our relationships can be seen in some people’s tendency to be lured into relationships that are self-serving, more about our wants than others’ needs, resulting in a lack of trust when it comes to being vulnerable in ways that lead to intimacy. For others, the broken nature of our relationships takes the form of oppression or even dependency. In order for identity (who we are and our purpose) formation to have a firm foundation, we must be clear about our boundaries, responsibilities, and potential for self-giving.
Reflections for Individuals:

  • How many electronic devices are in your home right now?
  • How often do you settle for mere connections in your relationships instead of allowing or risking yourself to be vulnerable?

Questions for Church Leaders:

  • How does your church use technology? Does it distract from human contact?
  • Are we explicit that self-giving is modeled for us in the Triune nature of God (Philippians 2:1-11)?

1 Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. Kindle Edition. (New York: Basic Books, 2011), 263.

2 Ibid, 10.

3 Ibid, 106.

4 Ibid, 116.