I was recently invited to eavesdrop on a conversation between Millenials — a motley bunch of six people — four girls, two guys, roughly between the ages of 14 and 16, talking about friendship and the kind of people they would like to date. The informal chat, in a hipster coffee shop in Boston, that specialises in selling only non-dairy slow-brewed coffee sold in cups without handles, was a fascinating journey into looking at how many young people are traversing the realms of friendship in the age of social networking. The entire conversation is too meandering and unstructured for me to encapsulate, but there is a particular snippet that is worth recounting. They were in the middle of discussing a particular person in school, who was recently subjected to “mass unfriending” because of school-room politics of the he-said, she-said, and then he-did, she-did style, and there was a clear division in the group, where two people had unfriended him and the other four were questioning them about it. Here is how the dialogue emerged (I am reconstructing them from notes I made, while I was pretending to be a fly on the wall).
Person 1: And I was thinking of unfriending him anyway. I mean, he is not the kind of person I would want to be friends with.
Person 2: But you DID become friends with him, originally, right?
Person 1: Yeah, sure. But we are in the same school and same form. So, you know, I accepted his request. But then I was thinking that it is not working out.
Person 3: Why? What was wrong?
Person 1: Oh, nothing was wrong. It was just, you know, we didn’t have anything in common. I mean, I have known him all my life, but he is not the kind of person I would want to be friends with.
Person 2: What kind of a person would you want to be friends with anyway?
Person 1: Well… I would want somebody smart, and responsive, and responsible, and independent…
Person 5: Right… like somebody who knows what I want, and gives me feedback when I ask for it…
Person 1: And, you know, somebody who is dependable, and flexible, and cares for me, but also gives me space.
Person 2: You know, you just described your phone, right?
(Two seconds of silence)
Person 5: Yeah, well, you know, if my phone were a person, it would be my best friend.
Person 1: Yup. Exactly like my phone. Why can’t people be like phones?
Person 6: That would be so cool. Then we could turn them off when we are tired of them.
Person 2: (Giggling) And if they improved the vibrate option, we might even be able to date them.
Frivolous, fantastic and funny as this snippet was, it is telling of a particular shift in the ways we relate to the gadgets that we live with. The conversation is reminiscent of the earlier days of consumer electronics, when the popular joke was about how if only there were instruction manuals that came with people, life would have been so much easier to deal with. Because we know that it is the human that is unpredictable, whimsical, inscrutable and bizarre. Machines never make mistakes. In fact, anybody who remembers the early history of computing will remember that magnificent term called GIGO — Garbage In, Garbage Out. If a computer makes a mistake, it is because we programmed it do that. We fed it garbage, and so it gave garbage out. Which is very different from how human beings parse and process things. This desire to have predictable, easy to live with, controllable humans has also been at the basis of science fiction dystopias like Stepford Wives, where a closed community of people tried to design the perfect wives by replacing them with robotic cybrids.
But in all those earlier fantasies and nightmares, there has always been a common core of relating to technologies — they were either about desiring to be less human or afraid that we are becoming less human because of the presence of the technologies. In this conversation with millenials, there is a distinct shift. They were not talking about making human beings like machines. They were thinking of machines through human values. Responsive, smart, responsible, dependable — attributes that we have always given to human beings are now being located in the gadget. We are not merely asking that humans around us, mere mortals that we are, be created in the image of the machine.
Instead, we are thinking of the machine as a human, and moaning that they are not more so. This is a new form of intimacy that is unprecedented. Because we have loved our machines, coveted our machines, used them for penetrative pleasures, and often wished that the people around us were more like them.
For digital natives, though, it seems to be a flip. They are already immersed in human social networks. They have options of engaging on multiple platforms and spaces. But a part of their sociality is also the interfaces and the gadgets that they work and live with. And they are no longer demanding that the people turn more like machines, but waiting for their machines to turn more human.