There is a myth in Western culture that technology is morally “neutral”, that any morality applied to technology must rest with humans who choose to use it for good or evil. This is a dangerous misconception.
Technology is not neutral, cannot be neutral, any more than art, poetry, religion, economics, science, sex or any of the fruits of human creativity and human intention can be neutral. By their very nature, creativity and intention are not neutral forces. When we treat technology as neutral, we become simultaneously alienated from and blindly dependent upon the consequences of our creativity. As our way of life grows increasingly subservient to electronic connections and the devices that enable them, we cannot be blind to the implications of this dependence.
What does this have to do with sex? Sex, in particular, has a great deal to teach us about our relationship with technology. In this hyperconnected digital world, our behaviors and attitudes toward sex and technology have become strikingly similar. We are, in many ways, like awkward adolescents when it comes to technology, bewitched by new pleasures and possibilities but lacking the wisdom required for intimacy.
Like sex, technology is at once an intensely private and unrelentingly public source of fascination and controversy. It lies at the core of many of our social interactions, and so we have constructed an elaborate system of norms and taboos surrounding its use. We regulate and control it with laws and debate the importance of individual privacy. We use it to express power, to connect with others, to show love, to entertain and to distract. We oggle iPads as lustfully as we oggle breasts. It is not an understatement to say that our fate as a species has become as intricately intertwined with technology as it has been with sex for millenia.
Technology, like sex, both liberates and enslaves us. It enslaves when we use it selfishly, narcissistically, manipulatively or even merely without self-reflection. It liberates when we use it to create possibility and deepen human connections. Narcissism, liberation, enslavement, possibility. These are not the qualities of a neutral thing. Technology is anything but neutral.
In human terms, the opposite of neutrality is not partiality; it is intimacy. In the 21st century, the capacity to both deepen and destroy intimacy is what sex and technology have in common. It seems strange to speak of technology as a way to deepen intimacy when our existing technologies offer us little more than infinite paths to distraction. Hyperconnection is not the same thing as human connection, and right now, we have mostly the former.
Technology as we know it destroys intimacy. The more dependent I grow upon technology, the less intimate I become with my surroundings. Rather than step outside and feel the air against my skin, I check the weather online to know if it will rain. Rather than grow intimately familiar with the lay of the land, I use a GPS to tell me where to go. And rather than visit an old friend when I wonder how she’s doing, I check her Facebook profile. I’m not saying that any of these advances are bad or even undesirable, but when we treat technology as a mere resource or convenience, we become blinded to and alienated from the webs of relationships upon which we depend, even as we become ever-more dependent upon them!
The way we treat technology now leads us to a kind of death, not just the death of the natural world but the slow, sinister demise of our own capacity to form and sustain deep and meaningful connections, which is the death of intimacy. Rather than treat technology as a thing apart from and outside of us, that is, as neutral, we must recognize that technology is as dynamic, as inseparable, as intricately bound up with our humanity as sexuality.
This is not a manifesto against technology. It is a call for self-awareness, not just to the people who use technologies but to the companies that build them. Technology can be a powerful, even transformative way to build human connections and deepen intimacy, but only when we use it consciously. As long as we continue to use technology blindly and addictively, it will at best distract us and at worst divide us.
I would love to hear your thoughts on the relationship between intimacy and technology. Do you know of any organizations right now who are helping us become more intimate through technology, not just more connected?