Relationships with Tech

What kinds of relationships are appropriate with machines? How are our answers to this changing?

Coming from a background in industrial and interaction design I have studied the nature of objects quite intensively, but until now had not fully considered the nature of technological objects. In general terms, “every objects [has] two functions, to be put to use and to be possessed” (Baudrillard, 1996). It has become quite normal to have relationships with objects, from your favorite coffee cup to your beloved sweater. People tend to personify the objects and artifacts that have held our attention and these even begin to hold our affection. Self-objects go a step further than collection and are “experienced as part of the self, thus in perfect tune with the fragile individual’s inner state” (Turkle, 2004). The main difference I see in technological objects, is a sense of reciprocity or mechanized listening and response; “increasingly, technology [puts] itself into a position of [doing] things with us” (Turkle et al., 2006). Indeed it seems for this reason that communicative objects tend to be anthropomorphized more so, than non-communicative ones. This makes sense say in the case of cell phones (an object that houses or embodies communication and language) particularly since they are endowed with a sense of mobility (through people). Our mobile phones can hear, process information, they have a memory, and they can speak. These are generally considered to be human qualities that help to define what it is to be human. Another example perhaps of Haraway’s notion of blurring lines between human and machine.


It’s hard to gauge the appropriateness of something that comes from our natural tendencies towards objects and the evolution of our technologies. One might say that it is perhaps inevitable, but appropriate is very subjective. It certainly doesn’t seem appropriate to have human-level relationships with “non-humans” if “technology can appear to determine or compel certain actions” (Latour, 1992). If this drive or compulsion can have negative moral and ethical implications, then perhaps our relationships with them are inappropriate. I’ll point out that human actions can also compel and drive us, so is this one more aspect of technology that is becoming like us? It’s clear that the power of a designer’s intentions embodied in technological objects is sometimes still present, and may lead us astray when the prescription for action is not subverted. Isn’t this all hinged on how we decide to use technologies though? Sometimes we don’t stick to those prescriptions.


Technologies do predispose us to “the idea of being in a tribe of one” (Turkle, 2012) perhaps implying a movement towards egocentrism, which as adults may not be socially appropriate. We’ve all seen this manifested in one form or another in society today through the obsessive use of mobile technologies in public spaces. Turkle also implies that the further we climb into our personal bubbles, the more we rely on technologies. Is this the potential for a negative cycle? If you’ve ever seen the movie Castaway you’ve seen illustrated, that the more isolated we are, the more we need companionship and the further we are willing to bend our personal psychologies towards personifying things that we know are inanimate. Some argue that “technology is making gestures precise and brutal, and with them [people]” (Adorno, 2009). Others think that these technologies can benefit the masses. Turkle’s introduction of objects to interact with seniors and children are examples of technology that perhaps have good aims, but their social, ethical and moral implications remain unclear. The appropriateness or inappropriateness has yet to entirely reveal itself and may rely on how we choose to use these technologies and let them affect our lives. Unfortunately, more mainstream personal and relational technologies become, perhaps the less people stop to consider the ramifications of use. This further muddies the waters of answering the question of appropriateness.


If you want to see interesting self-ethnographic documentation on how our relationships with technology have changed, take a look at how often objects of technology show up on “The Burning” as the ‘top things’ people would take with them if their house was on fire.


What is a “relational artifact” and why does Turkle emphasize their importance?


Relational artifacts are “artifacts that present themselves as having ‘states of mind’ for which an understanding of those states enriches human encounters with them” (Turkle, 2004). She emphasizes their important as “successors to the always resistant human material” (Turkle, 2004). This means that relational objects can look alive, but do not disappoint the way humans do reinforcing the notion that we can use technologies as a substitute for “unreliable humans” (Latour, 1992).


Interestingly one would think that this level of relation would make people more loyal to their relational artifacts. One might assume that they would keep them for the same periods that they would a loved one or beloved pet, but this isn’t necessarily the case. We are constantly upgrading, disposing and purchasing new technologies. If we are beginning to confuse our relationships with technological objects and people, would this same notion of disposability or lack of loyalty/carelessness ever translate to people? This is a troubling thought. Also, as a designer thinking in relation to the growth and environmental factors mentioned this week, I can’t help but wonder if these new relational artifacts constitute the new cultural debris of this century?


Adorno, T., in Clark, H., & Brody, D. (Eds.). (2009). Design studies: A reader, pp 411. Berg.

Baudrillard, Jean. (2005). System Of Objects. New York, NY: Verso Press, 2005.

Dall’Alba, G.& Barnacle, R. (2005). Embodied knowing in online environments. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 37(5), 719-744.

Latour, B. (1992). “Where are the Missing Masses? The Sociology of a Few Mundane Artifacts”, in Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change, edited by Wiebe E. Bijker & John Law, MIT Press, USA, pp. 225–258. Accessed online.

Turkle, S. (2004). Whither psychoanalysis in computer culture. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 21(1), 16-30.

Turkle, S. (2012, April 21). The flight from conversation. New York Times. Accessed online.

Turkle, S., Taggart, W., & Kidd, C. (2006). Relational Artifacts with Children and Elders: the Complexities of Cybercompanionship. Connection Science. Vol. 18, No. 4, 347-361. Accessed online.

Image source: COM SALUS Agencia de… (2011). Congreso Wearables Big Data Salus 2. From Flicker under CC by 2.0 license.

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