Technology, Risk, and Relationships
Over the last few weeks I’ve run a number of focus groups on relationships – platonic, professional, and everything in between. Some of the themes that came up were love, kinship, ghosting, and cloaking (for those not down with the new lingo “cloaking” is when one blocks you on any platform you’ve communicated on. As if your potential mate donned a Harry Potter invisibility cloak).
But the term that was espoused the most frequently was risk. Risk in talking to someone at a bar, risk of falling in love with the wrong person, but specifically the largely held belief that technology has expunged risk from relationship building.
In one group focused on millennials one participant said, “For me it’s about not getting hurt, it’s not worth the risk of trying to talk to a stranger at a bar or public space. That’s why I only meet people online. No risk that way.”
Another individual, who was in a group focused on senior citizens, noted, “I’m old, but I like that there is no longer a risk in losing friends. We can just stick to people who think, vote, and act like us. My son downloaded an app to find and connect with people who hate Hillary as much as I do.”
The statement that made me churl was from a Gen Z dude who explained, “Why take the risk of getting yelled at from your boss if you want to quit. I like that my generation doesn’t give a fuck about giving notice and walks away from their job. There’s no risk in doing that anymore which is great.” (Yes, his name was Chad.)
In a demographically mixed panel there was a near universal affirmation of the statement, “New social filters and norms such as dating apps, not giving notice, social media are potentially discourteous but decrease the risk of having bad relationships.”
It’s clear we’ve convinced ourselves that cyber innovations have helped us develop ironclad measures to blunt the chance of forming unhealthy relationships. We are more likely than ever, in the modern Internet era, to digitally sync up with folks with mirror-like qualities and features. Numerous studies explain this is largely in hopes to evade the toxicity of unhealthy relationships.
The heartbroken, socially obtuse, and culture preferentialists shouldn’t rejoice just yet (sorry Elon Musk). Even in an era where our socialization can be customized, some connections will inevitably collapse. Modern risk mitigation measures won’t change that reality.
As economist Allison Schrager explains in her insightful book An Economist Walks Into a Brothel: And Other Places to Understand Risk, risk management, of any variety, can have extreme limitations.
For starters, when we attempt to build tools to thwart risk it only protects us from risks we can plan and anticipate. In the case of relationships, dating apps can give romance seekers a cursory and fun idea of a potential companion’s personality and hobbies. This is great for avoiding a bad date or interacting with someone who doesn’t share any pastimes with you. They do not, however, expose if one is to listen to you during difficult times, be transparent with their vulnerabilities, deal with your racist grandma at Thanksgiving, or has the will to compromise in difficult situations. Traits all essential to forming deeper and meaningful relationships.
Moreover, digital filters to sync up with others who share your political and cultural preferences are a great way to weed out those who differ and disagree with you. They may also wipe out opportunities to form some of the best bonds that are often derived from uncomfortable organic small talk, finding commonalities in our differences and insecurities, and listening to new perspectives.
Risk mitigation efforts often amplify risk. In 1975, social science nerd Sam Peltzman discovered that advanced car safety measures resulted in more car accidents. More efficient anti-lock brakes, better auto software, higher adoption of seatbelts, and driver prompts gave drivers an ability to be more secure on the road, but also led to an uptick in car accidents as well faster and aggressive drivers. Taking on larger risks because broader technology and innovations induce a new sense of safety became known as the Peltzman effect.
We can see the Peltzman effect in how we bond today. Even with the proliferation of platforms to connect on any level, people are even lonelier than previous generations. Generation Z, the cohort most locked into these agents of digital interaction, feel the most destitute and isolated. Individuals who are on the most dating websites have found the least success in finding a mate. As political scientist Robert Putnam chronicles in his book Bowling Alone: The Revival and Collapse of American Community, white men are the most active in online chat rooms, but are the most likely to report zero close friends.
We’ve all heard countless stories, or personally experienced, meeting someone online, building up an attachment and excitement about them only to be burnt in the most dehumanizing way. Cloaking, an inconsiderate act that makes people feel unwanted and dejected, would not be possible without dating apps selling the illusion that forming connections is a seamless endeavor.
When I had a follow up interview with the individual on the “hate-Hillary” app about how many true friends he made over the past two years, he admitted while he met countless people he hadn’t made any. When he reached out to a few after he was sent to the hospital, they never responded.
The risk of an uncomfortable conversation or the hassle of self-explanation associated with relationships may have vanished, but these self-defense mechanisms only exacerbate the sadness and humiliation felt on the receiving end. The pain stemming from misplacing one’s faith and heart in another human is even more possible as we can now forgo difficult interactions.
While so many of these risk preventative tactics attempt to prevent us from the trouble, awkwardness, and potential sadness from building human bond, the reality is that cultivating a relationship, of any kind, has sticky nuances that no algorithm can account for. No technological development can capture the spontaneity, emotions, uncertainty, and pitfalls that may arise on this journey.
When asked about whether technology can eliminate risk in his profession, former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, a risk management expert, called it a “vampire fallacy” because risk will never die. Not in warfare, nor in a professional or personal setting.
There is no easy solution to escape the pain that so often results when putting oneself out there. But we should continue to take that leap of faith or we further erode the foundation of what makes us human – a desire to spiritually synchronize, relate, bond, and love. Thinking we can function without solid and meaningful connections is an incredibly dangerous risk to take, one that only cloak us from what really makes us human.
Also published on Medium.