Our well-being centers on the meaningfulness of our relationships: our intimate ties, our associations with a larger circle of people, and our sense of interconnectivity with a collective tribe. Technology has become deeply embedded in how we build these relationships and define ourselves. It is undeniable that we can use technology in ways that are alienating—texting while talking, for example. But as a clinical psychologist creating and studying technology, I have been impressed by how people draw on their devices to enhance their relationships—in particular their capacities for being alone, interconnected, and attuned.
Aloneness is central both to individual identity and close relationships. We move between aloneness and togetherness, throughout life and in the context of any particular relationship. Aloneness is often generative, allowing us to immerse in creative work or recharge before engaging with others. Recent demographic and lifestyle shifts foreground aloneness even more. More of us live alone today, and the decline of traditional marriage has helped individuals define themselves less by one particular relationship.
Amidst this relational fluidity, people attach to technologies as transitional objects—items that represent nurturing relationships and thereby provide psychological comfort. Technologies provide an emotional security that emboldens people to venture out independently, either alone or toward others. For many, the phone encapsulates both social belongingness and social aspiration. My devices, particularly my laptop, provide a sense of connectedness that allows me to feel calm when alone and collected when with others (i.e., reminded of a range of friendships when I am in a potentially overwhelming interaction) Technologies are also becoming more explicit transitional objects. Observing small children negotiating for play time with their parents’ highly valued phones, for example, shows how the phone has partly taken over the role of the baby blanket as a transitional object mediating between the self and the world.
These relationships are also reflected in popular culture. A romance with the Operating System in the movie Her carries the main character from depressive isolation back to his real world friendships. Partly inspired by Her, on April Fool’s Day, the app Couple reportedly lured over 15,000 users into signing up for Alice, a mock digital partner smart enough to be loved and to love back. As they are alone, people enlist technology to nourish themselves and develop the ability to be with others.
Our identities and relationships are also affected by the connection we feel to a broader tribe. We use technology as a compass to navigate unknowns associated with interconnectedness: new roles and relationships, intense emotions, aloneness, and the external world. In reaching for our devices to cope with the unknown we frequently draw on a social safety net, such as a text dialogue with a friend while venturing out alone. Sometimes, our devices invite us to understand our own emotional complexities or those of others. Occasionally they help us confront fundamental challenges of human condition. In funeral selfies, for example, some find meaning by situating their personal loss within a collective experience.
Metaphor offers one way to connect our own struggles to universal experiences. A mobile app called the Mood Phone that my colleagues and I developed invites self awareness and self-regulation by asking people to use the symbols of fire and water to characterize their emotional states and to practice and practice techniques from yoga and cognitive therapy. In the app, images of fire—from an unlit match to raging flame and the aftermath of a forest fire—represent different stages of anger. Conversely, water symbolizes calm. These heating and cooling metaphors represent stress; they are rooted in medical models as well as folklore and ethnographic research.
The individuals who used the mobile therapy app readily used the images to describe their own emotions and interpersonal dynamics. “I’m the fire; he’s the water” said one woman about her marriage. Another woman found that the image of raging fire resonated with the intensity of anger she frequently experienced with her family and at work. The images of fire—natural, beautiful, powerful—gave her license to feel anger, whereas a more traditional 1-10 scale evoked denial. One day, she erupted at her son after getting a call from his teacher about disruptive behavior. A couple of hours later, they she sat down together, using fire images to talk about the anger they felt and exploring the emotional coaching built into the app. She articulated how ashamed she felt, and he described his anger at the teacher. Ultimately they were able to sympathize with one another and even the teacher, and to talk about how much their feelings had changed over the day.
Another participant in the study wished that his and his wife’s mood phones could exchange emotional data—a transfer to help them connect after a day apart and ease into otherwise contentious conversations. This mobile app was created to help people privately monitor and regulate emotions, but almost everyone who used it shared the application or its data with family, friends or colleagues—or speculated about how they might do so. They wanted it to be integrated not just with their own wearable sensors, entertainment, and productivity systems, but also with other people’s devices.
We also use metaphors to communicate complexity, to get beyond the limitations of any communication platform. A woman at a party uploads an image of a skeleton to Instagram with the caption “death, isolation.” A moment later the hauntingly beautiful image appears projected on the large wall in front of her, an interactive exhibit of attendees’ Instagram images. I ask her about it. She had previously taken the image at a museum simply because she liked it, but she shared it on that day to convey her recent break up.
This installation, called PIXEE, also frames the images with colors that reflect the sentiment in the caption. Her skeleton image was framed with a sad grey. But after talking with me about it, she decided to emotionally reframe the image. She explained that it was a painful loss, but that she was optimistic, not sad. She walked up to the wall and redialed the frame from grey to pink through a gestural interface.