How Smartphones Change Our Relationships

“Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.”

-Anais Nin

The smartphone is amazing. The conveniences it has bestowed on modern life are nothing short of miraculous. But technological advances often carry unexpected drawbacks and unintended consequences. Just ask Alfred Nobel.

It is the responsibility of product designers to watch for the emergence of these unforeseen issues and, when we identify them, apply our methods to address their impact in our future products and services.

Today, one of these unexpected issues is emerging. The smartphone is driving a fundamental change in the way we interact as humans and it may be having an impact on our happiness.

Humans are social animals. We seek companionship and acceptance. The relationships we build are critical to our individual happiness and well-being. On the hierarchy of needs, Maslow puts “love and belonging” third, superseded only by basic physiological survival and general safety.

The way we fulfill this need is by sharing events, thoughts, feelings and ideas with one another. By opening ourselves up to others, we build the trust and common ground required for deep, reciprocal relationships.

This process of relationship building has played out since at least the dawn of recorded history, but technology is starting to shift this fundamental human activity.

I recently finished reading Enchanted Objects by David Rose, of the MIT Media Lab. The book was eye opening on many levels, but I was particularly struck by his points on a concept known as the “filter bubble”.

The filter bubble is the individual conscious space we each occupy. It is created by our unique perception of our surroundings. We all have a bubble. It comes part and parcel with life as a conscious being. Our bubble is shaped, over time, by the aggregate of our interactions with all the things around us.

While our personal bubble is unique, it also shares elements with the bubbles of other people in our lives. These common elements are the result of shared experiences. When we share an interaction with another person our filter bubbles overlap. These overlaps form the basis of our relationships.

Think of these overlaps as Venn diagrams. They are only partial and are never a complete mirror.

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Take, for example, two friends together at a concert. They both have a similar physical experience. They hear the same music, experience the same basic smells, sights, sounds, atmosphere, and weather. They share the same jokes and discussions and overhear some of the same conversations. This is the overlap. The shared portion of the Venn diagram. But, each person also has their own inner monologue. Their own reactions to the physical experience. You’ve no doubt experienced the flood of memories and emotions that can come from hearing a piece of music or smelling a familiar smell. This inner experience is where the Venn diagram diverges.

Our circle on the Venn diagram represents our full experience of life, both shared and internal. But the overlaps are where we stitch ourselves together. This is where connection, community, family, friendship and love happen.

The deeper our relationship with someone the more we work to expand the overlapping segments of our filter bubbles. We talk about our feelings in the moment and tell stories about the memories an experience dredges up. We divulge more of our inner monologue.

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This sharing strengthens our relationships, but it takes work. It requires presence and it often requires shared catalysts (i.e. the concert mentioned above).

This is where technology is changing things.

Smartphones are a persistent, personal window into a world outside of your current experience. The people you are with have no insight into what you are reading, watching or hearing. And even more, to interact with a smartphone requires attentive processing, which means your brain must be almost fully engaged. Mentally, the phone pulls you completely out of your current environment.

As such, the interactions that occur through your smartphone fall squarely on the divergent side of the Venn diagram. They are not shared, they are part of your inner experience.

The more time spent staring into your phone the less present you are in the moment, and the more the foundation of a shared experience shrinks. This means the divergent sides of the Venn diagram grow at the expense of the overlap. Even your inner monologue completely changes. You are no longer reacting to shared stimuli, you are reacting to something happening miles away in cyberspace that only you can see.

Take, once again, our two friends at the concert. If one is now spending time checking their phone, they are effectively eliminating the shared catalyst. They miss jokes and discussions. They don’t see events as they occur. Depending on the depth of interaction with the phone, they may even become oblivious to the music. From a sensory standpoint, they become functionally blind to their surroundings.

With every passing moment the two sides of the Venn diagram drift further and further apart. This disconnection chips away at the core of the shared experience. With less commonality in the physical experience, the work of sharing the inner experience becomes extremely challenging. It is difficult for the person on their phone to relay their feelings and thoughts because their friend is not privy to the other side of the interaction. Likewise, the friend engaged with the concert is unable share their thoughts and feelings because the other has missed the relevant pieces.

The smartphone dismantles all of the relationship building opportunities of the shared experience. Effectively, the two friends are alone together at a concert.

And the impact runs even deeper than that.

Almost all interactions on a smartphone are asynchronous. Take texting for example. You send a message out into cyberspace and wait for a response. In the time between sending the message and receiving a response there is no feedback. You are completely blind to the reaction of the message recipient. This of course differs from a face-to-face conversation, where, even if the verbal response is delayed, you still receive real-time feedback in the form of facial expressions and body language.

These non-verbal cues are part of the filter bubble overlap. They are physical insights into a person’s inner monologue. They improve your understanding of the person and help guide the conversation. Texting, social media and many other digital communication tools are devoid of this nuance. You’re left to interpret all of those cues from whatever digital response you receive. And the longer a response is delayed the more you start to infer things with no real context to support them.

Say a friend takes longer than normal to respond to a text message. Your mind attempts to fill in the gaps left by the lack of non-verbal cues and physical context. Maybe they are mad. Maybe your message offended them in some way. Maybe their phone is dead. Or maybe they are locked in a life or death struggle with a Grizzly bear. Unfortunately, in the asynchronous world of smartphone interactions there are a million reasons a response might be delayed, but you have no way of accurately reading the situation.

These asynchronous interactions create a weak filter bubble overlap. There is no shared physical context, as you are both in different locations, and all you are able to know about the inner context is what the other person chooses to divulge in their response.

Back to our concert goers, the net of all of this is that the person checking their phone at the concert is left with nothing but a set of weak connections. Their interactions through the phone are weak by nature, and in pursuing those, they have lost their opportunity for a strong connection with their friend who is physically with them at the show.

They have missed their chance to forge a deep connection with another person through shared experience. Which is the critical piece to addressing our need for love and belonging.

The more technology captures our attention, the more our shared experiences with others become weak and superficial. The Venn diagrams of our relationships overlap less and less. This change in our interactions is touching every aspect of our life. A recent study even found that 20% of young adults report using their smartphones during sex. That this is coinciding with a rise in loneliness, especially in young people, cannot be coincidental.

As screens become more and more personalized this filter bubble issue is only going to increase. Smartphones are just a middle step in personalizing our screen-based experiences. The next wave of screen technology, including personal heads-up displays like Google Glass and augmented reality, will eventually allow us to experience the entire world in a completely personal way of our own choosing. The possibilities are endless but they are also ripe with risk. How far could our filter bubbles diverge when every detail of our experience is personalized?

This is not to say that these technological advances are inherently bad. But it is to us to acknowledge that these issues exist and do the work to address them.

As designers, how might we change our design approaches in order to drive stronger human-to-human connections? How can we better leverage technology to enhancing shared experience and physical context instead of diminishing it?

We talk about human-centered design and/or user-centered design, but are these ideas too individualized? Do they miss the larger design context? What would it mean to start thinking about humanity-centered design or community-centered design instead?

Written by

My newsletter: | Director of Entrepreneurial Design @cmci_studio | Founder @ Design Like You Mean It

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