Reality and Its Alternatives   /   Summer 2019   /    Essays

Technology and Friendship

The interplay of friendship and technology has been far longer-running than we think.

Richard Hughes Gibson

Two women with smartphones/THR composite, Antonio García Resena/Alamy Stock Photo.

There’s no shortage of debate about friendship.
—Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 8.1.3311xAuthor’s translation.

Complaints about the decline of friendship have become a staple of conversation in our digital times. But before we dismiss them as simply byproducts of generational turnover, consider the evidence that something more substantial is going on. The very language of friendship, for instance, is changing right before our eyes. Facebook has convinced us that “friend” can be a verb, often deployed in the imperative mood (“Friend me on…”). Apps have elevated the number of friends above the quality of friendship, displaying the tallies for onlookers to admire, one’s (envious) friends especially. As more than one observer has noted, “Friends used to be counted on; now they are counted up.” The digital age has even spawned a new species of friend, its title still evolving: Online friend? Internet friend? E-friend? These are friends whose acquaintances we make, and whose company we almost exclusively keep, in digital domains, and advice columns warn of the challenges of meeting such friends “IRL”—that is, in real life.

Concerns about technology’s impact on friendship have been issuing from the academy as well. Sherry Turkle, founder and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, begins her influential Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (2011) with this ominous declaration: “Technology proposes itself as the architect of our intimacies.”22xSherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2011), 1. Life online and “sociable robots,” Turkle argues, aren’t just taking a psychological toll (through, for example, the exhausting need to be “always on” lest a digital friendship fizzle). She’s also anxious that these virtual encounters are seeping into our very notions of friendship, making it more difficult to spot the real thing IRL.33xIbid., 126. More despairing still is the literary critic William Deresiewicz. In his 2009 essay “Faux Friendship,” he notes that while past generations did friendship “face-to-face,” “the face of friendship in the new century” is engineered “face time.” “We have given our hearts to machines,” he concludes, “and now we are turning into machines.”44xWilliam Deresiewicz, “Faux Friendship,” Chronicle Review, December 6, 2009, https://www.chronicle.com/article/Faux-Friendship/49308.

While I do not seek to discredit these assessments (which are often astute), I want to highlight an assumption quietly at work within them—and, indeed, in much of the recent popular writing on friendship. Prior to the advent of the digital age, these critiques imply, friendship and technology belonged to separate spheres of life. Notice how Turkle disparages “technology” in itself: “Technology gives us the illusions of companionship without the demands of friendship.”55xTurkle, Alone Together, 1. The basis of this belief is not difficult to find. For most of today’s critics, conversation remains friendship’s characteristic activity, just as it was for Aristotle. Turkle’s follow-up to Alone Together makes that point plainly in its title: Reclaiming Conversation. Deresiewicz sets his critique in the same terms: “‘It’s like they’re all having a conversation,’ a woman I know once said about her Facebook page, full of posts and comments from friends and friends of friends. ‘Except they’re not.’”66xDeresiewicz, “Faux Friendship.” The lesson? Tech has displaced talk.

Taking notable exception to this view is the essayist Joseph Epstein. In a chapter of his Friendship: An Exposé (2006) winkingly titled “Techno-Friendships,” Epstein addresses the emergence of online friendship, but he does not start there. He begins, instead, with a boyhood recollection: his parents’ friends dropping by unannounced for a few hours of chitchat. “This almost never happens to my wife and me,” Epstein observes.77xJoseph Epstein, “Techno-Friendships,” in Friendship: An Exposé (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 180. What changed? As the telephone became more fully integrated into daily life, he explains, friends were expected to ring up before dropping in. In fact, pervasive telephony produced a form of friendship that didn’t require regular meet-ups. “I have a few friendships that, without the telephone, probably wouldn’t exist,” Epstein says, referring to someone he has known for decades but has met only three times.88xIbid., 182. The novel-seeming “techno-friendships” circa 2006—those conducted via e-mail and Facebook’s forebear, Friendster—are, in this account, not unprecedented. “Wired” friendship was already decades old.

One can’t admit the telephone into the conversation about technologies that have hosted, and thereby molded, friendship, and then calmly set the matter aside. What other technologies deserve consideration? Two-way radio? Telegraphy? How far back can we go? I suggest that the interplay of friendship and technology has been far longer-running than even Epstein acknowledges. Indeed, I propose that technology has been there from the start of what we call “modern friendship,” though we have difficulty now recognizing its pervasive presence.

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