How Modernity Transformed Relationship Building

The complicated relationship between tech and our desire to relate

Published January 16th, 2021

The one constant in human nature is our desire to relate with other humans, but modern technology has irreversibly changed the cultural implications of how we go about doing this. The design of technology now dictates how we carry out relationships.

Before the technology came, urbanization happened. The rise of commercial aviation and interstate development in the 1950's made it possible for people to move away from their home communities for work or education. This combined with the disintegration of local community in swathes of the US, replaced by impersonal suburbia, fully altered the way we made relationships. Our closest relationships were no longer our closest neighbors, but people we happened to meet from school, clubs, or religious organizations that lived anywhere between 2-2000 miles away from us.

Technology adapted to and enabled this. SMS became available in the early 1990's, mobile phones shortly after, and a mere 20 years later, smart devices were ubiquitous. Fast forward to today, and most communication takes place through text messages, audio, and video calls. The desire to connect remains; the way we do it is transformed.

The closest tech we have to seeing people in person is video calling, but even in this all we see is a 2D image, losing the physicality of the person we speak to and thus important body language. Our virtual technology still hasn't adapted to the nuances of communication in large group settings; the serendipity of side conversations or environmental cues is lost. We have optimized away the human aspects of communication and skimmed it to the core of the communication of ideas.

Now, with the ubiquity of online "virtual" communities, many interact more with people online than the people they actually know in real life. For youth, this is especially impactful as research is pointing towards increased time on screens leading to lesser social skills later on. There is a difference between on-screen interaction and in-person interaction, and although online communities attempt to recreate it with tools like Discord and Slack, it is not quite the same.

On the flip-side, online networks allow you to meet people with similar interests much better than you could when location bound. Just like relationships in person though, it takes a considerable amount of contact to make meaningful relationships.

New products seem to acknowledge the above shortcomings of the digital realm, bringing relationships back into the real world. All of the newest dating apps facilitate this, and services like Meetup also focus on facilitating connections online to lead to experiences offline.

Online community and relationship building is a hot topic right now. The buzz around creating the best tools for virtual community can not only allow for novel connections but also lead to enhanced interactions in person.