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Between Social Technology and Human Relationships. Is Mediated Intimacy Viable?

written for an academic paper

The usage of social media technology in the daily life of the common citizen has prompted extensive academic research across the globe. Consequently, such technology is no longer seen as an external factor that assists everyday functionality but as an internal tool, ingrained in how people view, manage, and maintain their lives. The intersection of technology and human intimate practices has been exemplified in diverse examples. From parents educating their children using digital media software, to adults seeking sexual and romantic relations on dating applications, to teenagers uploading videos to broad digital audiences - there are markings of technological influences on all sublevels of social relationships (Andreassen et al. 1). Therefore a concept that emerges to classify this aforementioned technological mediation is now commonly referred to as ‘mediated intimacy’. In brief, mediated intimacy has been defined as a practice that choreographically - “within the technological development of media, [witnesses] new form[s] of human-technological entanglement that does not radically change the dance, but rather where and how [people] move and are moved” (Andreassen et al. 15). In other words, this concept is established to help viewers academically understand the usage of technology within our interpersonal relationships and, for the purpose of this essay, specifically romantic relationships. Hence, within the construct of romantic intimacy between couples as opposed to familial and/or platonic relations, intimacy has been characterized as a temporal evolution as stated by Ken Plummer to historically “examin[e] the way in which relationships associated with intimacy have evolved, developing from traditional intimacies carried out in proximity to local communities and families to modern or late modern intimacies, characterised by relationships of choice” (Andreassen et al. 4). In a closer examination of intimacy, Lauren Berlant has additionally argued that the evolution of intimacy from the public sphere to the private sphere as a transition from the “public institutions, ideologies and regulations to ‘private’ fantasies, desires and life goals, and vice versa” (Andreassen et al. 4). In the citation of these works, it is evident that there is an established importance of the role of evaluating how technology affects the quality of human life through a specialized focus on the overlap between social media technology and romantic intimacy. But does ‘mediated intimacy’ prove to be a viable concept in understanding research regarding the role of technology in its effects on human behavior - as performed and demonstrated through interpersonal relationships? As this essay further investigates the aforementioned ‘quality’ of human life through the proposed lens of technological communication - how the usage of social media applications in our daily communication affects the emotionality within romantic relationships - would the constructs of mediated intimacy still be an appropriate lens in gauging this question? How useful is the concept of mediated intimacy for making sense of the technological presence in everyday life as well as the pinpointing of whether technology deflates or inflates existing human behavior as opposed to being an independent agent of change?

Within the aforementioned definition of mediated intimacy as a practice that can be metaphorically viewed as an examination of theoretical choreography - it is important to note that the researchers explicitly identify that the technological development of media does not “radically change the dance” (Andreassen et al. 1). In this context, change is a key term in highlighting that under the concept of mediated intimacy - technology is not an independent causal agent. In other words, researchers are rather focused on examining technology within pre-existing forces - the readymade ‘dance’ - formulated conventions of human behavior and society, as opposed to seeing technology as a catalyst that formulates completely new behavior. Therefore by investigating “where and how [people] move and are moved” by technology, there is a presumptive stance that is rooted within the concept of mediated intimacy in its grounding definition (Andreassen et al. 1). Thus, if the aim of a research project is to view whether or not technology deflates or inflates existing human behavior and compulsions rather than being a destructive force on its own - then operating under the norms that technology merely influences or ‘moves’ beings, or people, within the choreography of society would be a complementary concept. Specifically, mediated intimacy can be seen as a viable umbrella concept to further examine the technological effects within society (as its theoretical framework is focused on tracking the effects of technology within human social relations) as it does not presume that said social technology completely alters existing social dynamics.

Moreover, falling under the research category of the impact of technology on human relations - is the aforementioned proposed research focus that highlights how the usage of social media applications in our daily communication affect the emotionality within romantic relationships. Hence, some key topics that stem from this focus would be social media, mobile intimacy, communication, romantic intimacy with a central common theme of technological intimacy. Under mediated intimacy, the concept does not focus on a singular definition of intimacy but instead extrapolates upon many different forms of intimacy between both humans (from romantic to platonic) but also on the different sub-levels of the intimacies - noticeably, plural, of human digital interactions of both the user with the device as well as the relationship mediations that the device surrogates between user to user (such the resulting relationship formed when using social media applications to communicate). More importantly, there is a key terminology that investigates the different textures of intimacy to both help categorize as well as characterize these interrelated agents. Consequently, in looking at said textures of intimacy, the spheres of being ‘intimate’ can also be characterized to be “increasingly shaped by new forms of ‘mobile intimacy’; that is, the infusion of intimacy and various forms of mobility (across technological, geographic, psychological, physical and temporal differences) into public and private spaces” (Hjorth et al. 60). Therefore the very definition of intimacy here is being redefined as well as revalued under a technological scope - into questioning what it means to be intimate in the digital age and how that transition of intimacy is brought forth as a lens to view digital culture helps redefine what a relationship is in the modern world. This concept aids in bringing up new forms of intimacy in correlation to users’ connections with technology which is beneficial when the aforementioned proposed project looks at quantifying emotionality - a very subjective and qualitative human aspect of relationships through the lens of social technology. Thus, in further reference to the textures of intimacy, the focus of intimacy being viewed through a modern digital lens is exemplified in the study of camera phone practices as the concept also highlights how phone as “contemporary modes of vernacular photography [are] integral to our everyday activities, relationships, senses, pleasures and ambivalent feelings” (Hjorth et al. 60). Therefore the concept does not only refuse to view the existence of social technology as an external parallel to our intimate relations but applies technology as an internal digital factor that affects emotional human relationships on multiple planes, whilst acknowledging that “camera phone practices enact different meanings of the ordinary and mundane” (Hjorth et al. 60). The different and diverse levels of human-digital-interactions may greatly vary across the spectrum amongst users with multifaceted backgrounds and individual personalities, but nonetheless under mediated intimacy, it is important to note that while this notion is understood, there is the same underlying existing technological mediation between these different users, with different digital devices, and the different combinations these two spheres can cross-correlate. Furthermore, within this case study, “camera phone and mobile media practices amplify inner subjectivities” - therefore this notion can be applied quite literally that technology, demonstrated through this specific product, is used as an apparatus for existing human behavior (Hjorth et al. 60). The underlying importance of viewing how the usage of social media applications in our daily communication affects the emotionality within romantic relationships can be best translated that the emotionality effect is rather just another index of viewing technological impacts on existing human behavior (such as the natural emotions that exists and occur between couples), while the social media application would be the literal surrogate of the relation as it literally carries through digital means as the foundational medium for physical communication between human beings via digital synapses. Therefore the intention of this proposed project falls under the notion of the said textured intimacy as under mediated intimacy, such social technology has already been viewed and more importantly, defined as “a vessel for – and of – our intimacies and emotions that shapes and is shaped by affective bonds” (Hjorth et al. 60). In the case study of the camera phone and its media practices alone, it is clear that under this concept one “can grasp and trace some of the normative aspects of everyday life and mundane intimacies by looking at how the production and sharing of digital images contribut[e] to the modulation of presence and the modulation of intimacy beyond clear-cut divides between the private and public, closeness and distance” (Hjorth et al. 60). In other words, there is a clear symbiotic relationship between the effects of the technology on its human user as well as the content of the effects in terms of revealing greater aspects of human society.

However, mediated intimacy can be perceived as an inadequate theory in researching the aforementioned project as the concept is currently existing on a foundation of norms. More specifically, if the proposed aim is to determine whether or not technology is used as an apparatus to deflate or inflate pre-existing human behavior then the project goal would not be able to be fully encapsulated under the notions of mediated intimacy. Particularly, as the concept of mediated intimacy is predicated on the norm of witnessing “new form[s] of human-technological entanglement that does not radically change the dance, but rather where and how [people] move and are moved”- then by default the definition of mediated intimacy is already presuming that technology is not a causal agent of radical change, whereas the proposed research aim is focused on investigating the space that exists before that decision (Andreassen et al. 15). Consequently, there is a foreseeable tension between the concept and the research intention, specifically between examining if technology inflates or deflates existing human behavior rather than being a causal agent - as opposed to already dictating that technology does indeed act as an apparatus rather than the catalyst.

Moreover, on the basis of the aforementioned “radical change”, what is considered as radical change (Andreassen et al. 15)? Under this definition of mediated change, radical change is presumed to be the line that is drawn between technological interference (on the basis of interfering and meddling as a non-causal agent) and transformation (as caused by technology), and hence, the examination of the “where and how [people] move and are moved” would be the results of said technological mediation operating as mere apparatuses (Andreassen et al. 15). But how would one draw that line? In the operating role of mediated intimacy - a concept that emerges to help viewers academically understand the usage of technology within our interpersonal relationships (such as romantic relationships) - there is a high level of subjectivity that is being inadequately considered. In other words, the difficulty in quantifying as well as determining the quality of human relations correlates with the basis that such connections are highly privy to the individualized experiences and perspectives of the human partaker. Consequently, the highly subjective norms of interpersonal relationships as each relationship is characterized, formed, and enacted from a biased, and subjective view of the user makes is hard to objectively track to the extent of when and where technology began its mediation in said personal relationships versus the ‘natural’, ‘untouched’ state of that relationship prior to the mediation. In addition, the said ‘natural’, ‘untouched’ state would also be a difficult point of reference to begin research as the modern world is increasingly immersed in digital culture, so where would the beginning point of non-technological mediation truly begin?

Nonetheless, although there can be difficulty in the feasible application of mediated intimacy to the research aims of determining whether technology is a causal agent of radical change or an apparatus for pre-existing, innate behaviors; mediated intimacy does currently operate under viable norms that plausibly strengthen the latter. Through the usage of case studies, technology has demonstrated to mainly inherently interfere, or affect existing social behaviors and relations through a said ‘mediation’, providing the grounded analytical framework in which mediated intimacy overarches. For example, “camera phone practices are collective and choreographed performances, in the sense that they are highly relational and interactive, involving mutual attunement and resonance. They relate to affective labour, emotions and witnessing” (Hjorth et al. 69). Here the actual ‘practice’ or usage of camera phones is being evaluated beyond the product in itself, the ‘practice’ of the camera phone in relation to the societal dynamics that exists around both the physical function of using the camera phone to the image that its users receive is the focal point. Moreover with further connotations to the metaphorical dance in which mediated intimacy views the ‘movers’ consummated within the choreography - with the example of the camera phone, “the notion of choreography, instead of suggesting just a performance, highlights the existence of a score or script” (Hjorth et al. 69). Thus, by having a said ‘script’, the analogy of such would refer to an pre-existing pattern of behavior that follows the theoretical anthology, and within that space does technology mediation take place. In other words, within the construct of technological mediation and viewing the effect that social media application usage in our daily communication would have on romantic relationships - under the wider research aim of the effects of everyday technology - there is an explicit consistency within both the research intention of the aforementioned proposed project and that of given mediated intimacy examples. This research intention falls in line with how the camera phone case study, under mediated intimacy, is noted to not merely be a product but that the “camera phone images and performances are modes of collective resonance and atmospheric [attunement] that colour the mood of everyday moments and places, both online and offline” (Hjorth et al. 69). There is a grounded underlying similarity between the aim of mediated intimacy and the proposed project aim as both are rectifying the existence of technology within the human interpersonal space but not only in its existential status but also to the quality of its effect as well as the quantity of those affected. Moreover, both research intentions aim to investigate the depth in which technology mediates from the macro to micro-level via the demonstration and presentation through the aforementioned layers of human to mobile intimacy.

Furthermore, although emotionality can be difficult to quantify within the context of human relationships due to its subjectivity, the difficulty in itself cannot warrant the research aim invalid and the concept infeasible. Interpersonal relationships are subjective to its user but social technology as well as the products of social technology, such as the images of the camera phones, “contribute[s] to the way in which we affect others and are affected” (Hjorth et al. 69). The research objective is not solely focused on the relationship, or intimacy in itself, but rather the technological mediation of social technology in human, intimate practices that seek out within mediated intimacy’s own definition, “how [people] move and are moved”, with the results seeking to use technology as a defining lens in addressing the greater questions of reflecting notions of how human behavior operates within society (Andreassen et al. 15). The aforementioned starting point of non-technological mediation may be difficult to define - but it also the very nature of the greying lines between where technology mediation begins and natural human behaviors and compulsions, hypothetically inflate, that renders this research aim important as the high influence of social technology has been so great that rendering a beginning point can be deemed as fiscally daunting. Therefore, it is in this very space that the proposed research aim is necessary as human interactions with digital and social media (from the aforementioned parent to the everyday teenager) already exhibit markings of technological influences on all sublevels of social relationships, hence, it would not be obtuse to use these very markings as indexes for tracking social and societal development. Through the means of investigating technology, and as a further extrapolation, using technology as a lens to investigate societal relations, the contributions of technology and the cultural and physical by-products of technology (such as both the intangible ‘selflie’ culture as well as tangible images created from a camera phone) “to our contemporary affective culture is a main aspect of their role in our sense-making of everyday subjectivities” (Hjorth et al. 69). Therefore it is important to note that the aim of this case study was to “demonstrate one of the many ways in which we might think through this phenomenon in terms of digital intimate publics and their relationship to cultural intimacy” (Hjorth et al. 69). The case study’s purpose is not merely to illustrate the findings of a particular digital product’s role in society but with an intention of using the product as a teaching, thought-provoking conduit that highlights existing issues and behaviors within society. In a similar wavelength, mediated intimacy is a viable umbrella concept to further examine the technological effects within society as its theoretical framework is focused on tracking both the effects as well as the impact of technology within human social relations whilst operating on the norm that said social technology does not completely alter existing social dynamics.

Works Cited

Andreassen, Rikke, et al. Mediated Intimacies: Connectivities, Relationalities and Proximities. Routledge, Taylor Et Francis Group, 2018.

Hyjorth, Larissa, et al. Textures of Intimacy: Witnessing Embodied Mobile Loss, Affect and Heartbreak. Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition. , 2018.