Interpersonal Communication

// Posted by on 04/24/2013 (8:23 PM)

Can we even consider our interactions with others real human “relationships” anymore? MIT professor and scientist Sherry Turkle explains in her TEDtalk how the use of cell phones, texting, and other social media is devolving relationships into no more than mediated connections between people.

Sherry Turkle, “Alone Together”

In his seminal work I and Thou, Martin Buber makes a fundamental distinction between the two modes of interacting with the world: the mode of “I-it” and the mode of “I-Thou.” The “I-it” mode of interaction, or engagement, with the world implies interaction as self-centered experience and is described in the first section of the book. That is, the “I” surveys his or her empirical surroundings (the “it”) and uses those observations to live life. The “it” is no more than the object of our experiences. There is necessarily a space between the “I” and the “it;” the “I” functions more as a subject while the “it” functions more as the object.  While the “I-it” mode of interacting may not imply a deep mutual understanding or relationship between the “I” and the “it,” the mode does have practical, applied value through its empirical nature. Texting someone implies an “I-it” relationship because the person with whom you are texting is treated as an object outside of the present.

Buber’s “I-thou” mode of interaction, on the other hand, is a much more intangible, intrinsically based mode of interacting with the world than the “I-it” subject-observing-object mode of interaction. Dubbed “encountering” or “turning towards,” the “I-Thou” mode of interaction is necessary for us to use in order to consider ourselves human. Buber explains the difference between “I-it” and “I-Thou” by examining a child’s instinct to “make everything into the “Thou.”[1] While a child is still young, he or she does not form preconceived notions or judgments about the objects with which he or is encounters. Therefore, children tend to encounter more than engage. In the “I-Thou” relationship, we form a mutual bond with the object, the “Thou,” and this bond has a determinable effect on both the “I” and the “Thou.” We treat the “Thou” as a child might treat his or her loved plaything; with minimal to no preconceived notions and no superficiality. Though we technically can encounter inanimate objects (e.g. Buber’s tree example), the “I-Thou” relationship is best evidenced when it occurs between humans in what Buber deems “love.”  That being said, Buber also tells us “we’re closer to connection when hating someone than when feeling nothing at all.”[1]

Sherry Turkle suggests that our new, mediated connections between each other (that is, relationships where we can choose to maintain a space between each other), are actually diminishing our ability to share an “I-Thou” relationship with each other; we can no longer engage in genuine dialogue and will eventually lose our ability to “live in the present.”

What do you think? Is texting going to catalyze the downfall of real human interaction? Will we all be lonelier in the future than we are now?


[1] Buber 30

[1] Buber 38

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