A few months ago, my mother purchased Alexa for my family. Alexa is among the newer technological gadgets to infiltrate our chaotic lives. Often times, these gadgets are touted as helping to streamline the chaos or to make things easier. They also promise improved communication despite distances with family and friends. For those of you who feel piled under multiple cellular phones, computers, iPads, game systems, and fancy cars (if anyone is looking to give away a Tesla, please look no further!), you may on occasion come up for air and wonder whether your life or your family’s life truly is any better and whether you actually are more or less connected.
Setting up Alexa was easy enough—plug it in to an electric outlet, type in the password to my WIFI, and get online. I should have stopped there. My wife and I spent the next few hours switching between laughing and pulling out hair from our respective heads. On the humorous side, I tried asking Alexa to show me the clip from the children’s movie Sing, where one of the characters shouts, “Look at her butt.” I was attempting to show the clip to my then five- and two-year-old daughters, as the latter had been going around for a month saying, “Look at my butt. Look at my butt.” As you might imagine, there is a lot out there on the Internet regarding the hind side. With some jeers and laughter, we soon found the correct video. Alexa also told us jokes when we asked. On the other side, it was mind boggling how this device is supposed to be set up with all other accounts (e.g., Amazon Prime, Pandora). This raised the question of whether this gadget and others like it, touted as helping to make things easier or to connect to others in novel ways, really do the job.
Keeping up with technological advances and trying to connect to one more network, device, or service is enough to make one’s head spin (I am not going to even touch the privacy issues that have verified many of conspiracy theorists’ worst notions). Does it really help me to connect with people either on the other end of these devices or with the people who are physically around us? I often wonder about this and I tend to instinctively resist encroaching technology. However, I know there is considerable work being done to investigate the extent to which families, partners, friends, and strangers connect. For the most part, the answer to the question about whether technology enriches our lives and connects us to others is both yes and no and even more obscurely, “it depends”. To be a bit less flippant, it depends on how the technology is used. If it is used to replace face-to-face contact to an extreme or if we value ourselves based on responses or feedback from these systems – looking for “Likes” on Facebook (e.g.,Burrow & Rainone, 2017) – then there can be a downside. Alternatively, because it facilitates regular communication (e.g., Neale & Brown, 2016) and because we may be more likely to present our more genuine selves due to perceived anonymity or distance (although the opposite can also be true; see Drouin, Miller, Wehle, & Hernandez, 2016), it can also enhance our connections with others. Furthermore, the extent to which we transfer our (online) connections with others to our offline relationships—for example, talking to my wife about the communication I had with my mother (her mother-in-law)—may broaden connections within families and social networks. Furthermore, online technologies allow us to seek out social networks that fit with our interests, no matter how strange we think they are. As a result, the person who is the most outcast in offline society can find someone to “talk” to in the online world.
Even more recently, I read an article about the Crisis Text Line (see https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/12/opinion/a-crisis-line-that-calms-with-texting-and-data.html) that considers how youth often communicate when they may be at their worst state. At first, I was skeptical, but then I considered a person who may be thinking about suicide calling a toll-free hotline and what hurdles that really introduces to a person. I could definitely see the value of texting. Amazingly, the system allows for a data-driven risk analysis based on the typed messages to triage who might be in the most need of care. Thus, technology has its place and can be good. Nevertheless, this does not mean I will refuse to give up my old curmudgeon stance that things were better before we had all this stuff. Can’t we go back to the days with our single rotary dial phones in the middle of the kitchen where every conversation was heard by the entire family?!? Talk about real entertainment!