Space and Time: Interpersonal Relationships on the New Technology Frontier

Today I was reading up on some of the interviews conducted by Tribeca prior to the festival. One of their magazine contributors, Zachary Wigon, premiered an indie film at SXSW called The Heart Machine, and Tribeca caught up with him about it. The film, his first ever effort, is about an online relationship between a man in New York City and a woman in Berlin. In reading the interview with Mr. Wigon, I found myself compelled by the themes he sought to explore; namely how new technology affects interpersonal relationships without any physical connection.

More and more people are having relationships, both romantic and otherwise exclusively online. Yet as Mr. Wigon explores in his film, you are “separating emotional intimacy from physical intimacy.” While this film tends to eventually pursue more of a conspiratorial/thriller lead, the initial premise is quite fascinating. It was also the central premise in Spike Jonze’s Her. How can a person fall in love with a “computer?” How can a person fall in love with someone thousands of miles away, their only connection through electronic communication? In the case of mind-uploading and Singularity, how can someone have a relationship or friendship with the consciousness of a human that does not exist in the physical realm, a subject to be explored in Wally Pfister’s Transcendence staring Johnny Depp?

The answer of course is that an interpersonal relationship, romantic or otherwise, does not need to exist in the physical realm in order for there to be an emotional connection. The ability to have relationships online or travel to another country in a matter of hours has eroded the concept of spacial familiarity. We can feel as if we are apart of something because in a sense an online community can feel like a real one. The communication has not changed, only the method  by which we do so has. We still learn about one another, bond with one another and even exchange a very deep understanding with one another through mediums like social media, text and email or more visual oriented forms of electronic communication like Skype and FaceTime.

Online relationships are interesting in that the fundamental emotional component is there; one can get to know someone online, one can even fall in love with someone online. The problem is that this is only a part of the whole. The complexity of this problem is that it represents an essential part of the whole. The conversations are real, the person is real, the information is real. The problem is contextualizing the emotional response to the stimuli.

The reason the relationships discussed at the outset of this article are sometimes problematic is because there is no physical manifestation of that emotional connection. The emotional response of love in particular requires physicality. That incredible excitement and emotional connection begs for physical proximity, closeness; the human desire to make love, to have sex. Without the physical manifestation of that emotion, the emotional response peaks and plateaus. There is that emotional excitement every time Theodore speaks to Samantha in Her. But she is only artificial. He cannot express his love physically in her. He loves her deeply, and his emotional connection to her is very, very real. But without physical connection, there is that disconnect, there is a plateau of emotional involvement. This sort of emotional attachment can have negative consequences. When we are unable to naturally be gregarious as humans, to have physical proximity, to express ourselves physically in love, that unsatisfied emotion can turn into frustration. Of course the unresolved emotion at the root is love and the deep frustration to not be able to express it; that unfulfilled desire of loving human interaction. And that desire can foster in humans action both good and bad.

Beyond romantic online relationships, casual or professional relationships exclusively online fall trap to the same level of proximity issues. Albert Mehrabian, a pioneer in the field of interpersonal communications argued in his research that 7% of communication is in the words only, additionally 38% is in the voice (inflection, tone) and a whopping 55% is nonverbal body language. The best human communication naturally requires physical presence. Otherwise too much meaning is left open to a single individuals interpretation, leaving room for misunderstanding. This is of course less often the case with methods of online communication like Skype.

Of course non-romantic online relationships do not suffer in the way romantic relationships do, but they can feel a bit impersonal. Online communities like forums, social media and even private interpersonal communication create a sense of community much like a physical community. You can certainly become familiar with the nuances of someone, appreciate their common interests and even become close to someone online. But without being able to meet them in the flesh, one can’t help but feel a bit invalidated. The experience feels artificial to a degree because you haven’t been able to verify the experience in a natural sense. Many folks who meet online eventually decide to meet one another in person because that step becomes a sort of authentication of the experience. While we may know someone from online conversations and relationships, the human psyche on a subconscious level requires some sort of physical experience to verify it. It’s not to say we suspect people of being insincere but when folks meet in person, they tend to confirm or deny assumptions out of a feeling of comfort; I’ve meet this person in real life now, they’re everything I thought and I can feel more comfortable now. In a way this behavior doesn’t make sense, but in a natural order, the physical proximity matters very much on a subconscious level.

Ultimately where space and time is separate, interpersonal relationships are limited by physical boundaries. While there is a certain convenience in this type of communication, when one over-relies upon it without physical manifestation, problems may arise. Humans are naturally gregarious beings. We need to socialize with one another in person. The internet has allowed many folks to come into contact with one another but this sort of relationship still requires physical follow-up. Its not to say we cannot achieve emotional satisfaction from online communication, social networking or lack of physical connection. However without the physical manifestation of that emotion or friendship, you are left with only part of a relationship. The best relationships involve the full package. And so no matter how far technology advances, without that physical component, we as humans will always be left wanting, yearning for something more with a desire of natural human interaction left to be filled.