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.
Attunement involves a broad range of mirroring mechanisms, from neuronal to conversational, that help us get in synch with others’ perspectives and emotions. We are hard wired to mirror one another at a basic physiological level, and we invest enormous effort trying to resonate in more complex ways. The examples above show how people push the limits of technology to understand others and to be understood. Whether it’s sharing data about stress with a spouse or posting visual metaphors to express loss and hope. The next wave of technology will facilitate this attunement.
My colleagues and I are starting to explore how linguistic analytics can facilitate empathy and perspective shifting. One application, Verbalucce, gives feedback about whether one is mirroring the sentiment and style of another person in email exchanges, inviting people to notice emotional disconnects within a conversation. Affective computing researchers are examining attunement through the sharing of biosensor and facial expression data. For example, an MIT spin-out called Affectiva classifies and communicates facial expressions; similar applications have been explored using Google Glass. Electrodermal activity and heart rate sensors have been used by people with autism, their friends and counselors, and businesses (such as Best Buy and Lego) trying to understand their customers. Eventually, these tools will model relational dynamics across cultures and roles.
Attunement will also be cultivated in the ways we share media and personal data. Rather than simply broadcasting information across our entire networks about our runs, biorhythms or music, we will find ways to stream our experiences and physical sensations directly to others—whether through wrist sensors, audioplayers, household appliances or clothing. If I am trying to get energized, I might be able to feel the pulse of my highly active friend as if it were my own. I might hear the music she is hearing. In some cases, we will want to ride on a friend’s excitement, in others, to feel someone’s pain. Often we will want more compelling ways of understanding someone’s perspective. Some examples already exit. The Hug Shirt, that transmits qualities of an embrace across distances using sensors, actuators and a mobile app, and Internet Tea Pot conveys an elderly person’s routines to a family member.
Connectivity across devices within a household also invites new forms of attunement. Hue and Nest, two devices that allow us to intuitively recalibrate our environments from our phones, have given me a sense of what the future holds. Hue allows me to change the colors of associated LED lights scattered around my home. My apartment is less than 800 square feet, but takes on the quality of a city with neighborhoods of different vibes. A red light district here, a Zen zone there. A strip of blue or sometimes white above my bed wakes me up in the morning. These lights are sometimes sent remotely as a welcoming surprise, a contemporary SOS. The colors mostly reflect what looks good, but I can also link to them to other applications that track emotional states, activity, and conversation dynamics, for example. What is the light that describes a stressful day, and more importantly what is the light that soothes, the light that brings a couple or family in synch?
Like light, heat is primal. We have huddled around fire throughout time. Fire can connote anger, but it also signals physical and emotional warmth. The Nest smart thermostat has largely been marketed as an energy-saving convenience, but it also affords domestic attunement. I can warm up my home while driving back from the airport and, as I fall asleep, dig my phone out from under the pillow to cool it down. I’ve turned off its persistently erroneous attempts to learn routines, but I still consider it a living part of the household—if nothing else a scapegoat for an unreasonable temperature or an unreasonable bill. Despite its imperfections, I have affection for the Nest, and perhaps for that reason feel more confident regulating the heating and cooling in my home than I have with programmable thermostats in the past. With Nest and Hue, the phone becomes a contemporary torch, a way of altering light and heat according to our moment-to-moment needs. Whether we actively select the settings or they are based on the phone’s understanding of us, there may be a closer tie between our states and our surroundings. Most of my mobile apps are useful just for me, and I think that’s true for most of us. But when we use Nest and Hue, we change shared environments. We use them to change the way we connect with other people.
Whether we are regulating the personal heating and cooling dynamics in our autonomic nervous system to manage stress, or those in our homes to cultivate coziness, our mobile apps provide intuitive points of access to otherwise complicated systems. And, as technologies become interconnected, we have more choices about how to establish aloneness, interconnectedness and attunement. Future versions of devices like Nest and Hue will allow us to project ourselves onto the physical environment. Today, such “immersibles” allow me to easily configure the lighting and temperature of my surroundings, but soon they will become extensions of my emotions or relationship dynamics. Through light, heat, and other sensations, we can devise new ways to connect. Sometimes we may feel like we don’t have control of the technologies that define our lives. But we are left to our own devices when it comes to taking care of ourselves and connecting with others.