In Spike Jonze's recent movie, Her, a love-shy Joaquin Phoenix falls for his computerised PA. Software with the voice of Scarlett Johansson, this AI assistant is envisaged as a super-sophisticated Siri. Now, while a man going gaga for a silicone seductress is, on the surface, rather sad, the film is interesting because on some level we identify with this notion of having a 'relationship' with technology. The three paradigm shifts of the internet, social media and mobile, have evolved to make digital technology a truly integral part of the shared human experience.
It's a startling statistic that 50% of 18- to 34-year-olds reach for Facebook within one minute of waking up in the morning. By implication, they are reaching for their mobile devices before they reach for their loved ones. To underscore that further, technology is there for all our most personal moments.
For devout Catholics, for example, the 2013 Papal inauguration was one of their most auspicious occasions - something they wanted share with the world in real-time. This is evidenced by this telling photo - comparing the previous inauguration of 2005 with 2013...
[All rights reserved NBC News/Micheal Sohn AP]
If a picture speaks a thousand words, this snapshot eloquently reflects how technology has swept over us in just a few short years - empowering our human behaviours to share experiences and connect via a sea of shining windows onto our world. With 6.7 billion mobile devices on Earth and 5 exabytes - that's 5 quintillion bytes - of data being shared this year (a figure forecast to quadruple by 2017), there is no question that we are deeply involved in a relationship with our technology.
The question at hand is: what kind of mature relationship do we want? And by extension: Will it be a healthy one for humanity?
Building on concepts we formed while at the global tech conference SXSWi this year, I think the movement that will define this relationship in the future is 'Humanising Technology'. Four concepts that sit beneath this are as follows:
• Platforms not products: technology must work across a broad range of software and devices to expand, not restrict, experience.
• Divine data: next-level algorithms will curate and suggest content discovery, based on extrapolating what you might like from what you currently like.
• Invisible interface: the way we control technology will become increasingly more human and intuitive, e.g. the Xbox Kinect and Leap Motion.
• Quantified self: helping us to better understand our personal data and enrich our health and life control, by better understanding our own habits.
When we look at what we get up to with technology (keeping it clean), it's interesting to see how usage has evolved around the concepts above. Where at first there was a sense of messing about with the novelty of new technology (e.g. Facebook 'pokes'), true adoption over time has been driven mostly by utility, which can be in the context of business or pleasure.
Dr Genevieve Bell, Intel's Director of Interaction and Experience Research, sums it up like this: "We've put technology on our bodies to make ourselves better, to find a way to kind of move through the world and extend ourselves." I'd assert that this 'extension' doesn't have to be all work and no play; it can be functional (e.g. Google search/Maps), or more emotional -wanting to share things with friends (e.g. Facebook and Twitter).
This mix exists in technology as a reflection of human beings - and a natural part of that is mobility. The latest Nielsen stats on mobile usage support this thinking: with Facebook and Google maps vying for the top usage spot, and weather apps and Google search in close contention. These rankings vary on whether we are talking about Apple or Android users. On the surface at least, the Android platform seems to reflect a more utilitarian mindset.
Dr Bell again talks eloquently about how people perceive their relationship with their technology. She highlights how one of her interviewees had this to say, typically, about their smartphone: "I fight with it sometimes, but we make up, and I know it will always have my back." Bell adds to this by reflecting on Google's latest hardware, the Moto X smartphone. This device has a built-in feature that means it's always actively listening for verbal instructions that start with: "OK Google", even from standby. Bell says this is pointing at something deep and meaningful in terms of how technology responds to us: "There's an implicit promise in the listening."
If you ask the question: if technology were a person, whom would you partner with? For me, it has to be Google...
So, while people get caught up in the latest salvos of software and hardware releases, I feel there is a much bigger war going on for our technological hearts and minds. This is particularly apparent among the four major players with the deepest pockets - Google, Apple, Microsoft and Facebook. With the exception of Facebook, all of the above span products and services ecosystems, and incorporate or have gone on to acquire serious mobile divisions (Microsoft having recently bought Nokia's).
So what are we 'looking for in a partner'? Is it software and technology that is more social and playful, like Facebook? Or someone more business-like, so Google or Microsoft? Do we want a relationship with someone who's creative but introverted, like Apple (playing in their own walled garden)? Or someone who talks more freely with others, like Google and Microsoft? For me, Apple will start to lose its appeal because it's too introverted in its self-indulgent thinking. Microsoft feels a little old now and while the Xbox Kinect camera is great, a lot of its innovation feels a little 'me too'. Facebook, while a bit of fun, doesn't strike me as a life-partner. It feels like someone I met at a party.
If you ask the question: If technology were a person, whom would you partner with? For me, it has to be Google, because in the most human sense - and literally with Moto X - it gives me the impression of starting to really listen to me. Google search is now used to make 114 billion searches every month, as a principal way that people signal what they desire. Android, while 'Balkanised', is on 79% of the world's smartphones. Across its services and products, Google has an increasingly granular understanding of what, when and where I want things. Plus, with apps such as Google Now it is, critically, starting to anticipate and suggest solutions to my needs proactively; if my train is delayed, it will let me know.
Over time, it will even suggest clothes based on the weather forecast; this is truly divine data. And now, with hardware such as Chromecast - which let's you simply and affordably play content on your main home screen - Google is signaling that it's letting me expand my experience, thinking about platforms and not just its own product ecosystem.
The critical thing with Google software and hardware is that it is starting to anticipate my needs and doing so in increasingly human ways, e.g. the voice control on Moto X. The revolutionary Google Glass is also taking giant leaps in terms of making the extended experience more intuitive and naturalistic. Now, Google has announced its acquisition of Flutter - which allows gesture control through your webcam - so with increasingly invisible interfaces the company is making the experience across its services and products more seamless, human and futuristic.
In the grand scheme of things, it feels like Google could be 'The One' for me (although that's still a long way off falling for a digital Scarlett Johansson). The simple reason for this is that it makes me feel like it's enriching my life and allowing me to do more, by suggesting things to discover based on what it knows I like. Simply put, Google 'gets' me. I believe that, as we all grow up with technology, we'll gravitate towards that which most allows us to expand our experience as human beings. Technology that incorporates aspects of platforms not products, divine data, invisible interfaces and quantification of self. That means sublime, effortless connections and increasingly shared content.
So it's ironic that, for all the anthropomorphisation of our relationship with technology, not all things carry across from the 'technology as person' metaphor. This relationship is not a case of 'give and take' or 'opposites attract', but of our new technological partner simply giving us what we want - whenever we want it. So while whichever partner we choose is enriching our lives in this one-sided way, let's hope as our relationship with technology blossoms, it doesn't simply make us all spoilt.