Reality and Its Alternatives   /   Summer 2019   /    Essays

Technology and Modern 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,

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.

Setting the Terms

My claim raises two questions: What makes friendship modern? And what counts as technology? I’ll tackle the first right away, returning shortly to the second. For a useful definition of modern friendship, we could turn to multiple authorities from a host of disciplines. But in my estimation, the wisest account appears in the historian Keith Thomas’s study The Ends of Life: Roads to Fulfillment in Early Modern England. After commenting on earlier forms of extrafamilial “alliance” such as the “sworn brotherhood” between warriors, Thomas says this about the dernier cri of the early modern social scene:

The novelty of the early modern period is that it witnessed the emergence into public view of a type of relationship which differed from these older kinds of alliance in purporting to be based wholly on mutual sympathy, and cherished for its own sake rather than its practical advantages. In this relationship, the parties were friends in the modern sense, that is intimate companions, freely chosen, without regard to an ulterior end.99xKeith Thomas, The Ends of Life: Roads to Fulfillment in Early Modern England (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2009), 193.

Thomas’s definition owes debts to a number of previous commentators. His invocation of “sympathy,” for example, recalls Adam Smith, whose The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) made human relations in general a matter of “sympathy,” but friendship especially. The sociologist Anthony Giddens, to cite a more recent authority, names friendship as one of the quintessentially modern relationships. Whereas traditional relationships are determined by social givens (one’s bloodline, for example), the new friendship emerging in the modern period is, Giddens argues, entirely voluntary and noninstrumental, enduring only as long as it pleases both parties. Modern friendship is “free-floating,” a “pure relationship” existing for its own sake.1010xAnthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity (Cambridge, England: Polity Press, 1991), 87–89.

With his more concentrated gaze, Thomas presents nuances necessarily papered over in Giddens’s more sweeping theory. Thomas rightly observes that early modern Europe didn’t invent “noninstrumental friendship”—it was not only found among but held up for praise by the ancient Greeks, particularly Aristotle. More strikingly still, Thomas complicates the familiar picture of friendship’s withdrawal in modernity from the public arena into an emerging sphere of purely private life. This idea is, of course, operative in Giddens’s theory. More recently, it has been promoted by the philosopher Alexander Nehamas in his book On Friendship, the title of which alludes to Michel de Montaigne’s great essay of the same name, which Nehamas treats as the herald of friendship’s privatization. In Nehamas’s telling, the Brahmins of the Scottish Enlightenment, led by Smith and his friend David Hume, gave the new friendship its seminal formulation. “In commercial societies,” Nehamas writes, in the Smithian vein, “issues of practical interest belong to the public domain of the market while our ties to those closest to us in the private realm are rooted in love and friendship.”1111xAlexander Nehamas, On Friendship (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2016), 49. In brief, choosing a BFF no longer needed to be a calculated political or business decision.

While he does not repudiate the commercial account in toto, Thomas highlights modern friendship’s considerable investment in publicity. Immediately after noting the classical antecedents to our ideal of noninstrumental friendship, Thomas observes,

But there was no precedent for the volume of extravagant claims made in the early modern period for the life-enhancing value of intimate friendship. There was a torrent of printed literature—sermons, essays, poems, plays, and novels—celebrating the value of “perfect” friendship, elaborating on the duties of friends to each other.1212xThomas, The Ends of Life, 193.

So voluminous was this flood, in fact, that in 1780 a friendship-weary essayist dispatched a letter to the magazine The Mirror complaining that “the praises of friendship, and descriptions of the happiness arising from it, I remember to have met with in almost every book and poem since first I could read.”1313xQuoted in Thomas, 194. Thus, while modern friendship may have retreated somewhat from its traditional theaters of war and politics, it was not content to sit quietly at home either. It made itself a prominent citizen in the Republic of Letters, the territory of which was vastly expanding in the early modern period thanks to the advent of print. And let us recognize that Nehamas’s privatizers must be counted among modern friendship’s chief publicists. Montaigne’s Essays was issued in multiple editions during his own lifetime, and in numerous other languages in short order. Smith’s and Hume’s respective encomiums to friendship appeared a generation before our exhausted correspondent sighed into The Mirror.

We fail to do justice to all of this writing, though, if we handle it simply as material about friendship. These documents—and many more that don’t explicitly refer to friendship on the title page—were also often a means of doing friendship. With that last italicized word, I invoke J.L. Austin’s philosophical classic How to Do Things with Words, which gave a name, “performative utterances,” to the ways we use language to bring things about, such as conferring a title, solemnizing a marriage, or granting forgiveness.1414xJ.L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words (Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1962). In How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain (2012), the literary critic Leah Price highlighted the power of books to “do” things too, including creating and sustaining social ties as they passed between hands.1515xLeah Price, How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012).

Yet the “performative” nature of the early modern book is often readily apparent from the text itself. As Nehamas notes, Montaigne “originally undertook the Essays for the sake of [his] friendship” with the short-lived Étienne La Boétie.1616xNehamas, On Friendship, 44. Although named directly only in “On Friendship,” La Boétie haunts the Essays, and not merely in the sense that their friendship represents the relational paragon; more practically, the Essays’ range of reference hinges on the great-books library La Boétie bequeathed to the author. In no small way, the Essays extended the friends’ commerce across the gulf of death. Smith likewise “published” his friendship with Hume after his fellow philosopher’s death, writing a public letter that, controversially, praised the infidel Hume’s virtues.1717xFor the letter (known as the “Letter to Strahan”), associated documents, and commentary, see Adam Smith and the Death of David Hume: The Letter to Strahan and Related Texts, ed. Dennis Rasmussen (New York, NY: Lexington Books, 2018). Hume had himself provided a template: His lone dedication (of Four Dissertations, 1757) celebrated his friendship with the clergyman John Home. Hume, moreover, withheld the book from publication until he was certain its dedication would benefit his friend Home.1818xFor a discussion of the dedication, see Dennis Rasmussen’s David Hume: An Intellectual Biography (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 366. Many of modernity’s landmark texts do such friendly book deals in the front matter, whether with the quick or the dead. Remarkably, Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651), which one scholar has dubbed “a sustained attack on friendship,” does both.1919xTravis D. Smith, “Hobbes on Getting By with a Little Help from Friends,” in Friendship and Politics: Essays in Political Thought (South Bend, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2008), 214. In the dedicatory epistle to his “Most Honor’ed Friend,” Francis Godolphin, Hobbes gushes about the friendship of the late Sidney Godolphin, Francis’s brother. Hobbes sings Sidney’s praises again in Leviathan’s conclusion; their friendship bookends the tome.2020xFor a thoughtful treatment of the significance of Hobbes’s “framing” of Leviathan with friendship, see John T. Scott’s “Godolphin and the Whale: Friendship and the Frame of Hobbes’s Leviathan,” in Love and Friendship: Rethinking Politics and Affection in Modern Times (New York, NY: Lexington Books, 2003): 119–138.

We take these objects and practices for granted now, of course. And it is exactly for this reason that we fail to recognize not only the print book but also material like public letters and dedicatory epistles as technologies. As the historian of science Eric Schatzberg observes in Technology: Critical History of a Concept (2018), “technology” often serves in “popular discourse” as “little more than shorthand for the latest innovation in digital devices.”2121xEric Schatzberg, Technology: Critical History of a Concept (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2018), 1. That is true even among academics. When Turkle says “technology,” she means digital technology; print books and personal journals are “physical objects.” Alone Together in fact concludes with Turkle dispatching a letter to her daughter in homage to the correspondence the author maintained with her own mother. (“The telephone was expensive,” she notes.) These letters, past and present, are straightforwardly juxtaposed with “technology” in the forms of Skype and text messages.2222xTurkle, Alone Together, 298.

Now consider Schatzberg’s proposal: Technology is “the set of practices humans use to transform the material world, practices involved in creating and using material things”—with the ambitions, he adds, to “sustain life and express culture.”2323xSchatzberg, Technology, 2. This definition may risk corralling too much, as Schatzberg acknowledges. But notice how, in the present case, it allows us to recognize Turkle’s letters as an alternative technology aimed toward the same end as a Skype session: intimacy. Recognizing letters and print books as technologies not only gives dignity to paper media in our techie times. It also helps us to see afresh the “mature technological systems” (to use Paul Edwards’s terminology) sitting in the “naturalized background” of our lives “as ordinary and unremarkable to us as trees, daylight and dirt.”2424xQuoted in Schatzberg, 5. Books and letters aren’t just themselves technologies; they are the components of technological systems, the post and print, that have taken centuries to assume their current nonassuming forms.

Roused from the state of “technological somnambulism,” to use the philosopher Langdon Winner’s apt phrase, we may now acknowledge that modern friendship has had a technological dimension from the get-go.2525xIbid. Indeed, friendship appears to have always been modernity’s tech-savviest relationship, given that many of its most ardent promulgators were among the early adopters of early modern new media.

A Model Lettered Friendship

To the untrained eye, the images above might seem to portray neither friendship nor technology. But our reflections can help us to recognize that these depictions celebrate both, and on distinctly early modern terms. The two portraits were once the panels of a diptych. The painter, Quentin Massys, borrowed a trick from his predecessors in the Flemish tradition in which a subtle visual cue tips off the viewer to the fact that the two seemingly separate figures in fact inhabit the same space (as seen, for example, in Hans Memling’s famous work of 1487, Maarten Nieuwenhove and the Virgin and Child). In this case, the hint lies in the bookcases: Their shelves align exactly, which means that the two figures are seated at the same table, sharing their books, their correspondence, their writing.

Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam (left) and Portrait of Pieter Gillis (right), both 1517, by Quentin Massys (1466–1530); Alamy Stock Photos (2).

In this way, Massys makes a clever visual allusion to a cherished maxim in early modern Europe: Amicorum communia omnia (“Friends hold all things in common”). This was one of many friendship proverbs humanist educators culled from Greco-Roman literature and packaged in anthologies like Erasmus’s best-selling Adagia (first edition, 1508), which featured Amicorum communia omnia as the first entry across its many editions. Yet the notion soon spread far beyond educators’ lessons: Beginning in fifteenth-century Italy, readers throughout Europe inscribed friendship formulas such as Et amicorum (“My friends’, too”) on the title pages, colophons, and, sometimes, covers of their books. The meaning of these inscriptions seems, to me at least, less practical (although scholarly sharing did happen) than spiritual, a form of virtual connection. The logic is reciprocal: I write my friends into my books, trusting that they write me into theirs. Massys’s diptych thus visualizes what the literary critic Lorna Hutson has called the “textualization of friendship” in the wake of humanism.2626xLorna Hutson, The Usurer’s Daughter: Male Friendship and Fictions of Women in Sixteenth-Century England (London, England: Routledge, 1994), 6. Here, in brief, is an early modern meme.

But the diptych isn’t just about libraries. It also marks the moving parts of friendship networks—as signaled, above all, by the letter held up by the figure on the right. Early modern letters were not “personal” in the way we understand that term. They were “often collaborative or mediated, and intended for wider, sometimes even more ‘public’ dissemination,” as James Daybell notes in The Material Letter in Early Modern England.2727xJames Daybell, The Material Letter in Early Modern England: Manuscript Letters and the Culture and Practices of Letter-Writing, 1512–1635 (Basingstoke, England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 12. In the scene portrayed by Massys, the letter’s content is material to be shared, just like the content of the books on the shelves. Letters were also characterized by a formality that we have largely abandoned. As the German critic Bernard Siegert has observed, one had to have a special sort of classical education to compose such a letter, and for this reason Siegert suggests that we recognize letters themselves as “technology.”2828xBernard Siegert, Relays: Literature as an Epoch of the Postal System, trans. Kevin Repp (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999), 31. As Siegert further observes, the increasing circulation of letters in early modernity, especially across national boundaries, began the process of erecting the vast technologies that became postal systems. In concert with the print market, letters allowed early modern readers to conduct a new form of friendship, akin to Epstein’s phone friendship, in which the “conversation” consisted primarily or even exclusively of texts. The diptych could well be titled Pen Pals.

All of these messages are amplified when we acknowledge the identities of the sitters in Massys’s double painting. The man on the left is Erasmus, the famously peripatetic philosopher. On his right is Pieter Gillis, fellow scholar, leading citizen of Antwerp, and, last but not least, printer. These are thus both distinctly modern figures: One is a “free-floating” author (the original “author based in”); the other is the day’s version of the entrepreneurial “technologist.” From the handwriting on the epistle we learn that there is a third party to the affair, Erasmus and Gillis’s mutual friend and correspondent, the Englishman Thomas More. The diptych was a gift to him. The three friends were at this time “bound” together in the making of Utopia, which, while written by More, bears the marks of both Erasmus’s and Gillis’s hands. Gillis is the named recipient of Utopia’s original prefatory epistle; a letter by Erasmus would be included in later editions. Their friendship thus developed through a system of textual cross-referencing that included Erasmus’s dedication, a few years earlier, of Parabolae Sive Similia (1511), an anthology of classical maxims, to Gillis.]

That collection is important for present purposes because it serves as a reminder that these men participated in the humanist effort to restore the ancient practice of friendship that began with Petrarch—himself a model letter-writer—in the fourteenth century. These men, like so many today, lamented that friendship was not what it used to be. Paradoxically, the effort to resurrect an old mode of human relations led Erasmus and company to experiment with new media. In the process, they developed new ideals, albeit dressed in classical terms.

Friendship, on this model, could be sustained by reading for and writing to each other at a distance. Once again, for Aristotle, friendship’s characteristic activity is conversation; its medium is speech. Thus, Aristotle reasons, friendship necessarily must diminish during periods when there’s no conversation to be had. In his dedication to Gillis, Erasmus writes, by contrast, “Minds can develop an even closer link, the greater the space that comes between them. Our aim would be that any loss due to separation…should be made good, not without interest, by securities of this literary kind.”2929xErasmus, dedication to Parabolae Sive Similia, trans. R.A.B. Mynors, Collected Works of Erasmus: Literary and Educational Writings 1 (Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1978), 130. Under this “distant reading” program, friends could maintain their communion through their studies. Paper thus wasn’t simply a way of building a monument to one’s friends, dead or alive (à la Montaigne); it was friendship’s new interface. In the 1510s, these men sought to make the page, if I may paraphrase Deresiewicz, the face of friendship in their new century.

On Friendship’s History

The piles of books and paper amassed in the course of this essay seem to me sufficient basis for concluding that what we call “modern friendship” has always been immersed in technology. That might be a strong enough note on which to wrap things up, but I want to suggest, briefly, some further implications of the present archeological investigations. The history of friendship, in the West at least, is often told by running through the canonical philosophical writings on the subject, beginning with the Nicomachean Ethics (or perhaps Plato’s Lysis), proceeding through Cicero’s De Amicitia and medieval titles such as Aelred of Rievaulx’s Spiritual Friendship, and concluding with modern works such as “On Friendship” and The Theory of Moral Sentiments. As my approach, indeed my very title, makes plain, I too find in these classic works enduring resources for reflection. But as I hope I have demonstrated, there is more to these (and still other) books than their official pronouncements on friendship. They often contain subtler messages in their anatomies. Books themselves are technologies, along with letters, portraits, and the once novel systems of communication that supported their transmission. One must consider not just what these artifacts say about friendship but how they do friendship.

The writings of the philosophical tradition testify to the diverse ways that friendship has been spoken and spelled. These books, beginning with their dedications and inscriptions, offer an architectural history tour of intimacy and publicity. In landmark and many lesser works, we observe earlier generations wrestling with exactly the question before us now—how to make friendships flourish amid an evolving media ecology. Their lesson is that moderns cannot be “on” or “off” technology simpliciter; the question for us now, as it has been for friends for centuries, is—Which technologies?

Modern friendship has always been “techno-friendship.”

This piece is dedicated to Alan Jacobs, Daniel Treier, and Timothy Larsen. Et amicorum.