How our machines have kept us in touch, tuned in and turned on
by Kate Devlin
In 2019 I travelled round the world. From London to Helsinki, then on to Hong Kong, then another bleary-eyed leg to Sydney where I arrived in another hemisphere and another season. From there it was a whirl of talks and panels, then onwards to the sunshine and skies of Los Angeles, then up the coast to Palo Alto where for three days I planned and plotted with scientists from all around the world. From there, back to London and my child, who had spent a delighted two weeks with her visiting granny and her best friend’s family; both had stepped in to let this single mother swan around the globe from one airport lounge to the next. Now I’m in Norwich and I can’t leave.
To be fair (to both Norwich and my child), I love it here. We moved from London in the gap between lockdowns, having been told by our landlord he was selling up and we were in the way. This time, I moved with a partner in tow: a Norfolk man I met when he slid into my DMs on Twitter nearly three years back and asked what a nice girl like me was doing on a hellsite like this. He turned out to be someone I loved – something I swore was off the cards after a nasty divorce.
My view from the table where I write is of him sloping over his desk, lamp shining on his keyboard. Beside me is my daughter, complaining that her English lesson is dull. (It is.) Outside the window, the last of the snow is melting and dripping off the roofs of the flats on the other side of the courtyard. There isn’t a single cloud in the sky. There isn’t a single plane, either. No one gets to travel round the world now.
I study technology and how people use it. I investigate our often intimate relationships with machines. My work as an academic explores the way we embrace, sometimes literally, all things digital. A theme I explored in my book, Turned On: Science, Sex and Robots (2018). Years of this have unexpectedly made me a tech optimist; I have plenty of worries and fears, but overall I love the clever and very social ways that we imagine, build, adopt and adapt technology. We’ve only had computers for a comparatively short time – smart-phones even shorter – but we’ve dreamt about such things for centuries.
Covid forced us into new ways of connecting almost overnight. For me, it was a fascinating, deeply engaging and era-defining moment. Did I get to research it? Did I, buggery. I was too busy homes-chooling, panicking and drinking every time a Downing Street press conference came on. I was modelling student numbers, department strategies and teaching plans on endless bloody spreadsheets, worrying about my family in Northern Ireland, trying to edit the auto-generated captioning on my lectures that couldn’t cope with my accent. Meanwhile, funding bodies put out calls for Covid-related grant funding and I pretended I was okay with having no time to apply for them. Instead, my research became my life in a different and very real sense.
There is an elephant in the room here: I am safe, healthy, financially stable, and have a) the kind of academic life where pre-pandemic I could travel for work, childcare permitting; and b) the tech and the broadband to remain connected online. I like to think I never took any of that for granted. There have definitely been things that I have taken for granted, though. The in-person world, for one.
The world took the technology and ran with it. There were online pizza parties, pub quizzes – orgies, even
We started the first lockdown with Zoom cocktails. That was fine; I was drinking one anyway, sometimes two, and isn’t it nice to see all those people talking instead of just reading what they typed? Well, yes. For a while. The world took the technology and ran with it. There were online pizza parties, pub quizzes – orgies, even. (I was impressed with the orgies. Lockdown with children in the next room doesn’t really lend itself to that type of thing. I wouldn’t want to use my work laptop for that either, despite my line of research.)
I remember the frisson of the early days of my relationship. I will spare you examples of the prose, but he lived 100 miles away and messaging was how we got to know each other after we outgrew Twitter DMs. At that time, I’d been divorced for two years. I’d been dating – happily and casually so – and had no intentions of settling down. Yet initial flirtation via the double blue tick of WhatsApp became an intense and compelling daily conversation.
There is an intimacy in that brevity, in the written word composed for one person only. Once the initial spark is there, it takes very little time before confidences are shared and swapped. Before you know it, you’re in love. Technology has not only aided it, it’s sped it up. We are more disposed to confiding in people when we can’t see them because we don’t feel as embarrassed or as judged. The intensity is immediate. If you can fall in love with a character in a book simply through words on a page, then is it any wonder you can fall in love with a person just through their words on a screen?
As we approach a year of isolation, I read piece after piece about who has been hit hardest by a restricted life. The answer, of course, is that we all suffer in many different ways. I feel sorry for those in pursuit of love: Teenagers who are falling into it for the first time, who don’t really get to make a choice on where they live and who they see. I feel sorry for those who had rejoined the dating world, only to have the excitement of new flirtations pulled away from them. I feel sorry for those with weddings planned and their dream day dashed. I feel sorry for those of us in our coupled-up lives where, even though we love our partners deeply, they are just always there; always inescapably there.
Digital fatigue has set in. The novelty of instantaneous video connection is gone. To those who worried about screen addiction, we can safely respond that no one is feeling a buzz after their fourth Teams meeting of the day. The children actively run from the kitchen table when their time on Google Classroom is done. I hope never to take part in an online games night again. Nonetheless, we still make space for words of love: a message to a friend or an emoji response to a social media post. My partner goes to bed early and is up at dawn while I read late into the night. While he sleeps, I send him links to things I know will make him laugh. I tell him via my phone screen that I love him, even though he’s always, always inescapably there. He brings me cups of tea in the morning by way of reply.
We are moving away from screens, but we’re not moving away from each other. Phone calls have increased by 50% during lockdown. Clubhouse, the drop-in audio chat social network beloved by tech elites, relies on voice to inform and entertain. Far more widespread are messaging apps, optimised for short, quick words: WhatsApp has over two billion active users; Facebook Messenger another 1.3 billion. We neatly compartmentalise our lives into different applications: the video calls for work, the phone calls for family, and the messages for friends and lovers.
Can you imagine a pandemic fifteen years ago when the first iPhone had yet to be launched? I spend my time trying to hold Silicon Valley to account, but I’m grateful for what they’ve produced too. We are maintaining our relationships and we are even building new ones, with new ways of holding them. Technology has given us this. Technology is not isolating us. It’s keeping us together.
Kate Devlin is a writer and Senior Lecturer in Social and Cultural Artificial Intelligence at King’s College London. Her book, “Turned On: Science, Sex and Robots” was published in October 2018. She tweets as @drkatedevlin