Reach Out and Touch Someone: Technology and the Promise of Intimacy

This is the start of a paper I am going to be giving at TAPRA in a few weeks time. I thought I’d post the intro here to see if anyone has anything they think I’ve got horribly wrong so far – and to invite thoughts that might inform how the rest of the paper flows. I’m planning on talking about Fortnight primarily in the rest of the paper, although I’ll also talk a bit about the SKYPE-powered rehearsal process I’ve been involved in with Tiffany Mills Company.

‘These days, insecure in our relationships and anxious about intimacy, we look to technology for ways to be in relationships and protect ourselves from them at the same time.’

(Turkle, 2011: 20)

In 1979 the Bell Companies[1] came out with an advertising campaign that featured the feel-good tag line of ‘reach out and touch someone’ to promote their long-distance telephone service. In the ads, happy families camping or eating dinner ‘reach out’ and ‘touch’ family members who are not able to be with them by phoning them. Gauzy images of children speaking to grandparents, mothers speaking to fathers and smiling teenagers speaking to their friends portray the merits of long-distance telephony as harbingers of a more connected age of always available intimate encounters. The advertising campaigns promised that technology (in this case communication technology) would bring people together and create a better sense of closeness amongst families. It is telling that in most of the television commercials for this campaign the image of a phone is not seen until the end of the ad and even then it is not shown in any particular context. The phone, in these ads, are overshadowed by the smiling images of people ‘reaching out and touching’ each other, as it were.

Fast forward thirty-two years and major communications companies are still promising to make our lives more satisfying by bringing people closer together via the magic of technology. CISCO, the telecommunications giant, released a series of advertisements using the slogan ‘The Human Network’ to promote their range of products. These ads are filled with smiling couples, a woman giving birth while her family watches on a video link, a grandmother joining a birthday party for her grandchild remotely, and other scenes of intimate experiences made digital (or perhaps, more accurately, digital experiences wearing the guise of intimacy). The ads end by encouraging us to be the ‘human network’, a suggestion that implies that we are becoming more and more part of a society of convergence where the bounds between the human and the machine are blurred.

The notion of ‘the human network’ is clearly an evolution of the Bell Companies’ earlier entreaty; the ad does not specifically mention technology, although it features heavily in its imagery. Instead, the ad focuses on the intimate connections that these technologies might make possible. I would like to suggest that the notion of possibility or potential is a useful way of thinking about the changing landscape of intimate encounters proliferating in the sea of technological advances of the current social-networking era. I believe that the ‘always on’ and ‘portable’ mobile Internet, the proliferation of high speed internet connectivity, and the mix of social networks and augmented reality experiences offer us, as artists and as humans, the possibility of finding new ways of experiencing notions of embodiment – but they do not implicitly create more intimate encounters or even more opportunities for intimacy. The question is, do they, as the Bell Companies promised, bring us closer together?

In an online debate called ‘Reasonable People Disagree About Connectivity’ between the Dalton Conley, Dean of the School of Social Sciences at NYU and his wife, artist and director of NYUs xDesign Environmental Health Centre Natalie Jeremijenko, we see two opposing views about whether technology is bringing us closer together or eroding our private space. Dean Dalton Conley says:

The more that we’re on stage (posting on Facebook or Twitter, or otherwise broadcasting our daily states and moods), the less of a backstage there is. The boundary between public and private is increasingly blurred. I think of intimacy as selectively granting passes to your personal backstage, where you let certain people see your grumpy side, or get the update on how you’re feeling at 3:00 in the afternoon. But if you’re using social media as a soapbox to post one-to-all, then there’s no backstage anymore.

(Conley and Jeremijenko, 2010)

Conley’s impression that communicating through social networks, which are inherently one-to-many platforms for expressing ideas, emotions or locations, is somehow eroding the notion of a private, ‘backstage’ touches on a growing trend, observed by Sherry Turkle (2011) in her studies with teens that suggests we feel more anxiety and isolation the more we distribute ourselves. In her words, ‘as we distribute ourselves, we abandon ourselves’. Turkle also suggests that although the current proliferation of communication technologies is making us feel more anxious and busy, ‘the solution will be another technology that will organize, amuse and relax us.’ In Turkle’s view, then, we see a solution being proposed by the very thing that caused the problem to begin with.

Artist Natalie Jerimejenko, however, suggests that we simply need to learn to take agency or control over how we behave with these new technologies. She says:

We can use technology to connect with one another or to disconnect. The question becomes: To what extent do we exercise that agency? And why don’t we feel more in control of it? My position is that we have more agency than we often exercise.

(Conley and Jeremijenko, 2010)

Jeremikenko is not suggesting that the pervasiveness of these technologies does not exist; she just sees them as another set of configurable elements in our daily lives that require processing. The feeling of being out of control may be a side-effect of the always-on Internet environment that we live in. Jeremijenko’s position seems to suggest that we merely need to make the decision to turn off. I wonder whether it is as simple as turning off. Are we, possibly, becoming more like addicts: aware of the danger of getting swallowed by the non-stop mediaverse, yet still consuming it against all caution?

The difference in thinking between Conley/Turkle versus Jeremijenko frames a landscape of questions that ask whether the current wave of technologies are just another set of tools for us to engage with at our discretion, or if they are actually altering the way we think, behave, educate ourselves, conceive of space and intimacy, and collaborate. I want you to keep these perspectives in mind while we look at a few projects that fall into the realm of emerging digital experiences. In looking at these projects, hopefully we might get a better sense of what the impact of these technologies might be and what the potential is that they might offer artists, thinkers and users of digital communication technologies.

[1] The Bell Companies are now called AT&T.

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8 Replies to “Reach Out and Touch Someone: Technology and the Promise of Intimacy”

  1. I think it’s really good overall. It should capture the audience right from the start, especially if there are some Americans in the audience who remember that ad campaign! One question I have is whether you are making the connection to the work of artists clearly enough and perhaps early enough. I imagine that after the into you dive into this aspect in more detail, but just make sure that you feel like you’re helping them understand this connection early enough so that you don’t lose them… (Of course, I’m assuming that the conference is artist-focused–which it may not be!).

    1. Thanks Brian! I always have this problem in my writing: I tend to talk more about the theory before getting to the examples. I had been planning on going into stuff about Fortnight next, but I think I might try to work in an anecdote or something earlier as a way of setting everything up more clearly. It is only 20 minutes so I don’t have a ton of time…

  2. It got me thinking and made me want to hear and discuss more, so I think it’s doing its job. I would say that the balance of theory/case(art) also needs to be considered in relation to what you want feedback/discussion on. A friend had the experience of giving papers where people only ever talked about her case because they could identify with it, and never gave enough attention to the theory that she was really most interested in. So I don’t think it’s necessarily a problem to have this much theory on the front end – so long as you really want people to engage mostly with the theory. As long as you frame Fortnight using similar ideas, the transition into it shouldn’t be hard – i.e. in terms of connecting people and technology etc. Just mirror the kind of Bell story you tell and it should flow along nicely! Then again, I don’t know the kind of audience so you’ll be a better judge of what they will be expecting/engaging with.

    One small thing – I stumbled and had to re-read a few times the sentences where you first introduce the idea of possibility/potential in para 3. It makes sense, I just think it’s the way you have the sentences structured that made it hard to absorb on the first read.

    1. Thanks Allie! Really a relief to hear that you think it makes sense since you’re such a superstar writer/thinker.

      I will fix that slightly awkward phrasing – you’re right that it is confusing. I am planning on returning to those notions of the human network and the ‘reaching out and touching someone’ throughout… so hopefully it will make sense!

  3. I think this is a profoudly important area of sociology to discuss Peter and glad to have come across your article. Technology really is getting it in the neck at the moment, and I’m struggling to put my finger on why exactly. It’s iterestig how you use the onstage and offstage example, focussed on the acted or spoken word, as I find it’s the same in the digitally presented written word – email, Facebook etc. The number of times recently people blame email for communication problems, when the problem seems to be a blurring of conversational boundaries, sticking to the point and multiple talking heads around different aspects of a topic that go off on what appear to be tangents to the initiator of the conversation. So many people have said in response, that we should return to face to face or on the phone conversations, yet these are in many ways worse as often less considered and express a blurring of onstage and backstage thinking and intimacy. The broader political breakdown of intellectual and practical distinction between public and private is surely the driver and no amount of technology or lack of it can resolve that. When we elevate the importance of being able to see the expense claims of politicians online, and denigrate the ideas they are representing and organising around, technology may well be the focus and conduit, but the problem is definitely social rather than technical. I thik I may use this article as a ackgroud reading for the Salon discussion on the battle over the internet if you don’t mind.

    1. Simon – Of course you can use this as background reading. I’ll post the full paper in the next few weeks as I prepare to give the talk at the conference. Glad it sparked some thoughts for you!

  4. very interesting topic peter dear, I am actually working on my PhD. in the same realm of technology but with different implication. the promise of a better future through the use of technology has always been the promise of modernist or technological optimist especially in the US with the industrial revolution. new technology has fulfilled the dream of a utopia but only in the virtual as Virilio said: “The shift is being made for the advancement of what has already been called Teletopia, which carries manifold paradoxes that take, for example, the following form: “Reach out and touch someone,” or even “to be telepresent,” meaning to be here and elsewhere at the same time. This so-called real time is essentially nothing other than a real space-time, since different events surely take “place” even if, finally, this place constitutes that of the no-place of teletopical technologies (such as the interface of human and machine, a regime or nodal point of teletransmissions).”

    but now we are experiencing something new with mobile technologies, we are not anymore in the utopic space of the virtual but back into the actual “Augmented” with technological virtuality… and that is not utopia any more as there is an eruption of violence that went along those technologies namely after 9/11 and more precisely with the Arab revolution or the upheavals in europe or the states (occupy wall street)

    a la prochaine 🙂

    1. Hassan! I’d be very interested in hearing about what you are doing in PhD land. My PhD was very much about the impact of technology on performance, but with some hints of the wider implications in the realm of society. I’ve been writing and thinking more about the social/personal impacts of our new ‘always-on’ Internet in my more recent stuff. I used Virilio a bit in my MA and in my PhD – especially his notions around speed and time. What book is the quote you use above from? I haven’t read that one, I don’t think, but I really need to! Check out which is a project that I created with Proto-type that is playing around these areas in a practical/creative way….

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