Everyday science: Intimate technology

| Rense Kuipers

Do you ever take the time in your busy life to wonder about everyday phenomena? Things that are obvious to us, or perhaps just make for a handy trick? Nevertheless, there is always a scientific explanation for such phenomena. In Everyday Science, a UT researcher sheds light on an everyday topic.

Whether you’re Skyping with a friend at the other end of the world, texting a classmate during a boring lecture or scrolling through holiday pictures of your crush, all these activities fall into the spectrum of intimate technology. The same goes for – not unsurprisingly – sex robots and teledildonics, says Philosophy researcher Nicola Liberati. ‘I always like to draw a comparison between Skype and teledildonics. Skype allows us to communicate face-to-face with other people over a distance, while teledildos allow us to have a tactile connection with someone over a distance, sometimes even at the other end of the room. It’s basically a different way of touching another person and thus being close to them. The question here is not whether the one form of communication is more intimate, better or even weirder than the other, but how they alter and shape the value you give to that situation.’

According to Liberati, people usually see intimacy with digital technology as something bad. ‘There are people who say that communication through texting is not something intimate. I think there is always a level of intimacy to it and it always reshapes our values. Whether you’re trying your best to arrange a date with someone, just sharing something funny, or break up with someone by ghosting. In the end, it’s all a form of communication. And in essence, communication is nothing more than a game of sharing and not sharing. That is a game we’ve been playing for ages. There are still human conversations that can be completely meaningless, even without mobile phones, while an emoji can be perceived as something entirely meaningful. Technology does play a role in shaping how you relate to yourself and others.’

'Communication is nothing more than a game of sharing and not sharing' 

To further explain his point, Liberati mentions the concept of online friends. ‘The moment you have a friend on Facebook or Instagram, what happens to your concept of ‘a friend’? You can have a lot of friends on social media, but how does this affect your definition of a friend? Does it strengthen your ties with the people you see often or are these relationships being diluted offline?’ On the other end of the intimate technology spectrum, emerging technologies like sex robots, in which the technology itself also develops, also alter the meaning we give to relationships. ‘There are robots nowadays that can say no to having sex, which goes directly against the classical idea of digital technology of helping us get what we want. While a sex robot is still an inanimate object, a robot saying no does affect the concept of a relationship and it reshuffles our values.’

Even though something seems weird like a Japanese man recently marrying a hologram like, or rude like playing a video game when the person next to you wants to talk, to Liberati intimate technology is never a game of right or wrong. ‘It all boils down to the value you put into 100 percent of your time and attention. The value you put into meaningful interaction, so to speak. Which is constantly shifting, every day.’