Essay by Colby Ballingall
Art by Amy Ng
Human connection is defined as a “person’s subjective sense of having close and positively experienced relationships with others in the social world” (Seppala et al. 412). Psychologists argue that this connection is essential for health and survival (Seppala et al. 411), building on Maslow’s famous theories that a sense of affection and connection is a primary human need, next to basic physiological and safety requirements (Seppala et al. 413). However, technological developments have greatly altered the nature of social interaction (Antonucci et al. 3) since technology is no longer just a supplementary accessory; it is at “the very center of those forms and practices of communication” (Alhumaid 10). While there is discourse that technology has freed people from space and time limitations to allow for convenience, consequently generating what Tripathi and Bajpai call ‘omnipresence’ (2), technological innovations have also fragmented the way humans are naturally adapted to connect; virtual connection juxtaposes human connectedness with relational dissociation and interactive detachment (Tripathi and Bajpai 2). The societies within Ken Liu’s “The Perfect Match” and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun display a similar reliance on technological innovations that eventually replaces human connection, a vital component intrinsic to humans. In this paper, I will analyze how the privileging of advanced technology within these societies has negatively altered the way the human characters connect, and then explore the subsequent destructive effects this has to their relationships, health, and personal agency. Furthermore, I will argue that these texts expose a need for their societies to re-evaluate the mobilization of technology to be a medium that assists human-to-human connection, instead of the pervasive governing structure that prescribes relational potential in “The Perfect Match”, and machinic socialization in Klara and the Sun, otherwise the characters risk losing an intrinsic aspect of humanity.
In the texts, the issue is not located in technology itself, but in how it is mobilized by the people within these societies. “The Perfect Match” highlights a reliance on technology that, ultimately, privileges a digital personal assistant over human connection. The characters sacrifice their privacy for convenience as they allow their “educational background, ShareAll profile, reviews by previous boyfriends/girlfriends, interests, likes, dislikes, and of course, pictures–dozens of photos” (Liu 29) to be gathered by Tilly, an AI device, and shared on an online database called Centillion. The way they form relationships shows new norms have been developed – they have chosen to live in a dual reality where they have a physical existence, as well as a virtual one, thus creating omnipresence (Tripathi and Banjai 2). Their positionality is projected for everyone to see: “‘Why would I need to stalk you? Your phone automatically checks in and out of everywhere you go with a status message based on your mood’” (Liu 33). This virtual presence allows them to keep tabs on one another, without feeling the need to physically check in or connect in the flesh. Their pursuit of love, an integral aspect of human connection, is even constructed through these online indexes: “The compatibility index is very high. I think you’ll be in love for at least six months” (Liu 26). Algorithms make decisions for the characters so that they do not have to; this demonstrates that the ‘perfect match’ is truly the commodified relationship between the technological innovation that is Tilly, and her consumers, not a form of human connection.
Analogously, Klara and the Sun reveals a similar society where the greed for convenience of technological innovation is more significant than the need for physical human contact (Tripathi and Banjai 2). Human-to-human educational interactions are replaced by human-to-machine interfaces, as the youth learn through a device they call an “oblong” (Ishiguro 58). Alhumaid states that a dependence on technology for a classroom creates a lack of rapport between teachers and students, and among the students themselves, extinguishing the human connection involved in teaching (15). The dehumanization of the society’s educational environment, ultimately, isolates and distances the characters from any form of social interaction with their teachers or peers. The children mature in an environment that promotes isolation and disconnection. Thus, they eventually internalize these systems, which affects the development of their communication and social skills. Artificial friends are another technologized element in their society that have been created to befriend the youth and prevent loneliness: “humans, in their wish to escape loneliness, made maneuvers that were very complex and hard to fathom” (Ishiguro 114). Loneliness is a feeling that surfaces because of the lack of social interaction in their lives, primarily due to their reliance on technology. The society’s solution for loneliness is to ironically add more technology, which then replaces human relationships with artificial ones. Josie’s relationship with Klara, her artificial friend, is arguably stronger than her connection to any of the human characters. Manheim and Kaplan have posited artificial intelligence as the most disruptive form of technology due to its permeability (qtd. in Tripathi & Bajpai 2). This is highlighted in the text, as the technology infiltrates their society, ultimately replacing human connection.
While a reliance on technology is the norm for both societies, there remain a few characters who differ, and accordingly, they are ostracized because of this. In “The Perfect Match,” to be asocial means to not participate in the new technological consumerism, and this is shown through the character Jenny. Jenny is described as a “Freak” (Liu 28), “nuts” (35), and someone who “somehow had missed the ethos of sharing” (27), because she does not conform to the conventional uses of technology. As Tripathi and Banjai state, false grounds of suspicion are built if a person refuses to let others in (4). Since it is custom to sacrifice privacy in their society, when Jenny does not, she is considered unusual, and is shunned, contributing to a further limitation in her human interaction. Alhumaid notes, the deepening of social inequalities between those who have status, and those who do not, is based on who can possess technology (13). In Klara and the Sun, Rick does not have access to the society’s form of technologized education as he does not have the privilege of being “lifted”, which implies he wasn’t genetically modified as a child. As a result, he is essentially ostracized and left uncertain about his future, since not engaging in the society’s technological norms means he fundamentally “doesn’t have society” (Ishiguro 128). Social inequalities are deepened by a technological deficit that then extends to Rick’s ability to connect, or even associate, with others in their society. The extreme deployment of technology in the texts is foreground by the portrayal of those who do not, or are unable, to adhere to it.
There is no doubt that technology is prevalent within these societies, but it is how the humans interact with one another that exposes the ways technology has changed their standards of human connection. In “The Perfect Match,” the characters let technology dictate how they interact, which eventually leads to a complete loss of agency in their lives. Tilly not only finds Sai a date, but she also walks him through the conversation when he no longer can on his own: “As Sai’s mind wandered, there was a lull in the conversation…In that moment, Tilly’s voice burst into his earpiece. ‘You might want to ask her if she likes contemporary Japanese desserts’” (Liu 30). The characters lose their independence by relying on technology, and consequently lose their fundamental abilities to naturally connect with one another. This is emphasized by Ellen later in the date when Sai frustratingly turns Tilly off: “Ellen looked confused. ‘But you know that the more Tilly knows, the more helpful she can be. Don’t you want to be sure we don’t make silly mistakes on a first date?’” (Liu 31). Ellen is apprehensive to interact with another human devoid of Tilly’s involvement, highlighting the boundary technology has interposed in the characters’ ability to connect. Sai’s noncompliance to Tilly makes Ellen end their relationship, proving interacting without Tilly is unprecedented. This interaction is a perfect example of how the privileging of technology has resulted in a loss of human-to-human connection in their society.
While technology in “The Perfect Match” prescribes human relational capacity, in Klara and the Sun technology induces reduced intimacy. The socialization between the human characters is extremely disconnected and impersonal, whereupon they seem almost robotic. One of the only times Josie and her mother interact is during a rushed moment in the mornings:
We would find the Mother sitting at the Island, staring at her oblong as she drank her coffee…There was often not much time for Josie and the Mother to converse, but I soon learned how important it was, nonetheless, for Josie to be able to sit with the Mother during the quick coffee. (Ishiguro 52)
Technology, in this case the oblong, interferes with the mother-daughter interaction and impedes conversation from occurring, creating a disconnected atmosphere that immobilizes human connection. Because of their extreme detachment, this moment of physically being in close proximity with one another is a naturalized form of ‘connecting’. However, being in close contact is not sufficient for human connection; it is the affective quality of a relationship that matters (Seppala et al. 417), thus further proving their interactive deficiencies. Moreover, a component of the youth’s education is, ironically, assessing their “social interaction scores” (Ishiguro 91). Objectively evaluating human interaction emphasizes the lack of understanding and the distortion of human connection in their society. The youth partake in ‘interaction meetings’ where they are instructed to conversate and essentially practice human connectivity. Consequently, the interactions are extremely awkward and structured: “‘See Danny over there? First thing he comes in, he announces how he got detained by the police. No greeting, nothing. When we told him he had to greet correctly first, he still doesn’t get it’” (Ishiguro 75). The youth’s capacity to connect is conditioned out of them from a young age because they are socialized in a society that does not entertain the importance of human connection, but instead fosters a dependence on AI technology. Josie and Rick’s bubble drawings can be read as an attempt to acquire a form of human connection: “In each picture, Josie left an empty bubble hovering above one head or the other…for Rick to fill with written words” (Ishiguro 120). As the drawings continue, Rick’s task begins to carry “some danger” (120), as unspoken feelings linger between them. The fact that they require this method to interact emphasizes the difficulties and barriers they experience in their struggle to communicate. The result of their reliance on technology is a society that has lost the capacity to connect and is now moving towards a machinic form of socialization.
The lack of human connection, which is a result of the technological innovation within these societies, creates further added layers of harm to their lives. Fromm-Reichmann expresses humans are “born with the need for contact and tenderness” (qtd. in Seppala et al. 413), suggesting social connection is an innate necessity for humans, and is also strongly correlated with physical and mental health (Wilkinson et al. 2). In Klara and the Sun, there are very few lasting relationships. Josie’s mother and father constantly bicker, while Helen and Vance are bitter with each other and exchange harsh words. Despite their plans for a future, Josie and Rick grow apart in the end and cannot repair their relationship: “we’re no longer kids, we have to wish each other the best and go our different ways” (Ishiguro 288). Furthermore, Melania, who was Josie’s housekeeper for many years, is quickly replaced without difficulty or concern. The changing nature of their society, attributable to constant technological innovation, is reflected within their relationships, as they are unable to hold onto any long-standing form of human connection. In addition, the youth who are exposed to genetic lifting become severely ill. There is never an explanation provided for their sickness, just that “there were better days” (Ishiguro 263), and days when “Josie grew worse” (264). Since social isolation can result in “a deterioration in well-being with negative consequences on health” (Wilkinson et al. 2), it is probable that this isolation is a key component in the children’s sickness. While their society initially developed technological innovations to eliminate loneliness and to advance their population, it was over-prioritized, ensuing a loss in human connectivity, and multifaceted harms on their people.
In contrast, the harm for characters in “The Perfect Match” results in a loss of personal agency. They allow Tilly to command authority over their actions, creating a shift in human experience: “Without Tilly, you can’t do your job, you can’t remember your life, you can’t even call your mother. We are now a race of cyborgs” (Liu 48). The manner in which they utilize technology has resulted in a transfer of ownership over to the technology; Tilly knows exactly what Sai wants, before he wants it. Furthermore, the separation between a physical and virtual existence no longer exists for them: “We long ago began to spread our minds into the electronic realm, and it is no longer possible to squeeze all of ourselves back into our brains. The electronic copies of yourselves that you wanted to destroy are, in a literal sense, actually you” (Liu 48). Their society’s attempt to optimize existence by creating a virtual continuation has resulted in a loss of human connection, an intrinsic aspect of human existence. This degradation, ultimately, destroys their physical existence, so that they are only left with a cyber self. The cyber self denies human embodiment; thus, the characters’ loss of agency re-imagines them as robotic beings. Their society set out to employ technology to improve human connectivity, but they allowed it to replace it instead, ultimately surrendering a part of their humanity in the process.
Klara and the Sun and “The Perfect Match” illuminate societies that allow an over-prioritization of their relationship with technology that, ultimately, causes a degradation in human-to-human connection, as they both allow technology to replace socialization. The absence of connectivity ensues further harm on their societies, rendering a loss of relationships, agency, and even health. Technology is no longer a supplementary accessory that enhances the facilitation of human-to-human connection. It has acquired ownership and replaced the intrinsic functions of human connectivity, resulting in machinic forms of socialization. These texts argue against a demonization of technology, but instead for a need to reperceive their societies’ approach to the mobilization of it, in order to reassert control.
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