The Walrus Talks

Humanity and Technology: Siri Agrell

How to get laid without your phone

BY


Siri Agrell
From The Walrus Talks Humanity and Technology presented by the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, October 3, 2018, in Toronto

Siri Agrell compares dating in the “old days” where you had to talk #IRL, get naked in the same room and actually make conversation to the digital dating of today.

She says we need to fight for the moments that make us human, for the thrill of real human connection.

You can listen to Agrell’s talk or read it below.

My name is Siri Agrell yes, like the iPhone. And no, I haven’t heard that joke before.

I’m going to start tonight with something I started thinking about after talking to some young people in my former office, many of whom were dating exclusively through apps like Tinder.

It was inspired, initially, by one young guy: smart, funny, interesting, ambitious, who told me about a text he’d received from a girl he’d been seeing for about six months saying that they needed to talk.

He knew they were going to break up, that it was time, and he started to dial her number.

And then he thought, Nah, I’m going to see I can play this out.

So he texted her back. And they broke up entirely by text. No face to face contact. No talking. Never seen again.

When we talked about it, he admitted to be propelled by laziness, by an developed aversion to conflict, to a discomfort for tension, to the fact that there really wasn’t anything there to begin with.

And partly, just because he could, because the option was available to him.

He asked me about the olden days and seemed genuinely amazed and intrigued that people of my advanced years had ever managed to find and connect with romantic partners without technology, without swiping or the benefits of algorithm propelled curation.

He couldn’t imagine how it was done. And it sounded pretty terrible to him.

So…

In grade nine French class. He was sitting behind me.

He made up some excuse to ask me something and I turned around and saw it in his face.

I remember the girl sitting next to him giggled and quickly looked away.

In a new job out of university, hired to run a literary magazine.

The publisher had hired someone else and arranged for us to meet at a College street coffee shop. Walked in and thought, oh my god… Hours later, walking around the city, still.

In a meeting at work, a frustrating conversation with many people who lacked vision or creativity.

Suddenly realized that one of the voices was speaking of possibility, of answers, of opportunities to be seized. Recognized something in the voice before I even looked up…

In grade ten, on the phone for hours, conversations that seem silly now but mindblowing at the time. No anecdotes or opinions, just question after question. The same clumsy dreams in response. The same naive fears. I remember exactly where I was sitting in my bedroom when I had that conversation.

Shopping together for a Christmas present for my mom, in my twenties. She wanted a jewelry box and there were many jokes about looking for my mom’s box. He said something that caught me off guard and made me laugh so hard and all I could think was that I was going to be with him for a very long time.

Hours and hours straight. Everything and anything. Reading poetry aloud. Silence only to think about what had been said and the improbability and luck of having had the chance to hear it.

Over drinks. Often, it was over drinks…

For the first time, anyways, always in the same room as one another.

That used to be obvious.

Once, in university, while tree planting, pulled slightly out of the shadows of a tree while we kiss, not so anyone can see or for a picture, but simply so we’re fully in the moonlight.

On a small plane flying across northern Ontario in my twenties. The turbulence is terrible and I am a person who firmly believes that a plane crash is how I’m going to die.

At a brief stopover, the pilot sits with me and talks about sailing, that planes are like boats on the sea, riding the waves.

Realizing that if there’s a possibility I’m going to grow old and die with the person I love, then chances are it’s going to be a bumpy ride. But that doesn’t automatically mean you’re going to crash.

So hold onto the armrests and try and enjoy the ride.

In highschool it was outside his house in the middle of the night. Crying. Sinead O’Conner’s Last Day of our Acquaintance playing from the car I stole from my parents’ garage.

In a bar, once, him not taking it well, trying to talk me out of it, explaining that its simply because I’m young and haven’t yet learned to settle. Dragged out for hours until the candle on our table finally burns itself out, and I leave.

On the porch, quietly. Leaves falling from the trees.

Drawn out. Painful. Wallowing in it painful, really rolling around in it. Relapses and recurrences. Until there are less.

Until they are cast into the part of yourself that is simply memory. And you let the rest fade away.

Dating apps are a low stakes example of the intersection between humanity and technology.

They were not introduced to do harm, quite the opposite, they are designed to forge human connections. And they’re doing so. Sometimes more than once in the same night.

But to me, they demonstrate the need to think about those connections, about the type of moments we seek, the moments that define us as human – both individually and collectively. That make us who we are.

What are those moments, how do we enable them through technology and how do we protect them for the sake of humanity?

Technology, as we have heard tonight, is advancing rapidly and introducing new tools and new interventions in our daily lives that present many opportunities and breakthroughs but also the potential of many new threats, to our well-being, to our society, to our security to our sense of selves.

I would argue, too, that discourse around technology is framed incorrectly, as it is put forward in terms of a battle we must fight.

There are those who will argue that we need to fight against these threats, against the potential dangers of unchecked technology.

And there are fierce generals in this fight, pointing out the advancing enemies on our shores, the casualties who have been lost, and who understand from history and insight and common sense, experience and sometimes, from complicit involvement, where these evolutions can lead and the danger they hold.

But fighting against something requires troops, it requires those who will follow you into battle, and who believe they are not being conscripted into a losing war.

And so, I would argue that this conversation about technology and humanity should not be framed in terms of what we’re fighting against, but what we are fighting for.

As technology continues to advance, we must fight for the moments that make us human.

For the magic of critical thought, for the thrill of real human connection, for the nuance of language, properly used, for the benefits of community lived out in the open, for the principles of public service, of civility, of compassion, of straight up passion.

We must fight for the painful moments, too, and recognize that there is something to be gained from them, and something that is lost when they are scrubbed away by convenience and efficiency.

What do we lose when we no longer experience inconvenience?
Awkwardness. Solitude. Pain. Loss. Actualy getting lost?

We must fight for an unsanitized experience of humanity, remember it, seek it out, even if we do it with our phones firmly in our hands.

We must frame our conversations about humanity and technology against a goal, not a threat, against experiences we want, not processes we’re introducing.

We must remind ourselves what we are fighting for.

That doesn’t mean talking against technology, but in defence of humanity.

I run a space for scale up technology companies and I will tell you that no one starts a company or creates a piece of technology with the goal of making things worse.

When you talk to people about what they are working toward, they will always talk in human terms, that they are trying to free up time, to create opportunity, empowerment, to make things easier so that other priorities can emerge, so that people can apply their true expertise.

They are trying to solve problems to create the moments we seek.

And so if those are the goals, then those are the metrics against which we must measure success.

If we are trying to create time, we must seize on that time, if we are trying to enable expertise, we should listen to those experts, if we are trying to create opportunities, we must make sure they materialize for many, and not just a few.

Technology is a tool, it is not a crutch. It should empower, not erode.

And so we must remain focused on the humanity, and ask ourselves constantly, is this what we were working for? Are these impacts acceptable and can they be mitigated?

Are we doing something the opportunity is simply there, because we can, or because we should?

In many ways, the choices we face today are no different than ones of the past, when other industrial revolutions have occurred.

There are always innovations, there are always costs. But perhaps today we can push ourselves to get to solutions faster.

We can anticipate the cost and make some upfront investments.

No one here is arguing that cars shouldn’t have been invented. But we probably could have thought about seatbelts and sobriety a little earlier.

We must task ourselves, as creators and also as consumers, to constantly measure the benefit of what is gained through technology while fighting to ensure that nothing important or essential is simultaneously lost.

We must ground ourselves in the human experiences we seek.

It’s not that we must find love with a phone or without one.

It’s not that we must reject technology or choose to work without it.

It’s not that we shouldn’t communicate through Twitter or Facebook, we should just remember that some of the people on there exist in real life too.

When it comes to finding love, I have managed to do it in my life without a phone without an app, and I know the moments that define who I am and how I have chosen to live.

There are those today, I’m sure, who are using Tinder and finding those moments as well. Those moments of eyes meeting, those flashes of familiarity, of talking til the candles burn out.

And they are likely finding pain too. They are definitely finding awkwardness.

And I hope they are experiencing those moments too, at least for a minute.

I hope they are taking a moment to really live them, to feel them, to wallow around, to take the time to call instead of text, to look each other in the eyes and say it isn’t working, to steal one last kiss in the moonlight, and maybe to be alone for a minute and asking themselves who they are and what they want, before raising their hand for the next swipe.

Siri Agrell is the managing director of OneEleven Toronto, which helps local tech companies scale. Prior to joining OneEleven in September 2018, Siri was director of strategic initiatives in the Office of the Mayor, where she was responsible for files including government modernization, the technology ecosystem, federal intergovernmental affairs, and the King Street Pilot Project. Previously, Siri was deputy director of communications to premier Kathleen Wynne and also worked as a journalist for over ten years, most recently as the urban affairs reporter for the Globe and Mail.




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