Pop Theory: Using People (as Things)

First featured in Marcie Bianco’s regular column for AfterEllen, “Pop Theory,”where she explores the way humans use each other as things. With the rise of an increasing number of social networking and dating apps, have we now been given carte blanche? 

There are people in the world who really do believe that the primary function of relationships, and intimate relationships in particular, is to use people. The rationale is typically, dryly articulated somewhere along the lines of, “People come together, use each other for what they need (emotionally, physically, psychologically) at that period of time and then, when the desired need is met, they move on.”

This may seem a cynical, ego-driven philosophy — and it is. Vapid. Heartless.

But is there something to “using” people and, specifically, using people as things?

In the history of philosophy, the idea of using people was often deliberated by those thinkers interested in the ethics of interpersonal relations. For Aristotle, friends and slaves alike could be conceived as “instrumental” to one’s happiness and success: “In many actions we use friends and riches and political power as instruments…” (Nichomachean Ethics). Whereas, for Cicero, these types of instrumental relations between people were different from the relation that he called “friendship,” which is, for him, a specifically intimate type of relation. In De Amicitia, Cicero explains friendship is not regarded as an act of kindness or as an investment, but “follow[s as] a natural inclination to liberality; so we look on friendship as worth trying for,” not because we are attracted to it by the expectation of ulterior gain, but in the conviction that what it has to give us is from first to last included in the feeling itself. He elaborates on the benefits of friendship in De Officiis — take note of how he describes the intimacy inherent in this type of “friendship”:

But of all the bonds of fellowship, there is none more noble, none more powerful than when good men of congenial character are joined in intimate friendship; for really, if we discover in another that moral goodness on which I dwell so much, it attracts us and makes us friends to the one in whose character it seems to dwell. And while every virtue attracts us and makes us love those who seem to possess it, still justice and generosity do so most of all. Nothing, moreover, is more conducive to love and intimacy than compatibility of character in good men; for when two people have the same ideals and the same tastes, it is a natural consequence that each loves the other as himself; and the result is, as Pythagoras requires of ideal friendship, that several are united in one. Another strong bond of fellowship is effected by mutual interchange of kind services; and as long as these kindnesses are mutual and acceptable, those between whom they are interchanged are united by the ties of an enduring intimacy.

Romantic people (including myself) might cringe at the notion of entering into a relationship because of the economy of the other person’s “use value.” The “ideal” is to envision the relationship through a lens of utilitarian compassion — that two individuals who agree to enter a relationship craft or formulate the codes, rules, desires, and objectives of that coupling. The “couple,” then, becomes an entity of concern and one that is nurtured by both individuals in that relation. Understanding use value in this regard might therefore be conveyed in individual terms of “mutual growth,” or “increased intimacy” — all of which give comfort to individuals.

The elevation of the couple to “person” status and the desire for mutual gain or happiness in a relation demands that both individuals respect each other as human.

…which seems, for us humans, to be really difficult to do.

Lesbian-feminist literary scholar Barbara Johnson analyzed the ubiquitous difficulty humans seem to face in their relations with other humans, the seeming impossibility of humans treating other humans as human in her collection of essays Persons and Things, writing:

“Using people, transforming others into a means for obtaining an end for oneself, is generally considered the very antithesis of ethical behavior…. [T]he more it seemed to me that people wanted other people to be things so that they could be dealt with. In other words, it is treating other people as things that we normally do, and that reassures us.”

Treating people like things is, according to Johnson, the human way. Treating humans as objects enables us that critical distance of between self and other that renders unnecessary self-exposure and self-questioning in that relation. Using (a human as) a thing does not jeopardize our own sense of self; this risk is one inherent in interpersonal relations between human and human. There is little to no risk in relating to an object, in part because the kind of intimacy possible between the human and the object is radically different from that between two humans. Thus the reassurance that Johnson speaks of, I think, comes with the preservation of our ego, with the protection of our fragility as emotional beings and with our vulnerability intact.

The demands of interpersonal relations between human and human, the risk and vulnerability of these relations, are what make intimate relationships in particular so messy and complicated — and frustrating and glorious.

There are some people who just refuse to entertain long-term relationships altogether, opting instead to have relations with people that preempt or prohibit intimacy (in their minds, at any rate). Relationships with real, live humans — humans that demand to be treated as human — requires authenticity, the willingness to make oneself vulnerable, as well as to the willingness to allow for the entity of the relationship to affect one’s life (“compromise” required).

The time of your life becomes a three-pronged entity, consisting of the time of your life, of your partner’s life, and of the relationship’s life.

And, sometimes, that’s just too much for people to handle.

How can we preserve our self, our time, with all these other factors?

By turning away from the human — by turning to technology.

Sherry Turkle, a clinical psychologist and founder of MIT’s Initiative on Technology and Self, describes how with the rise of technological advancements in robotics and communications, humans have willingly foregone human interaction, preferring instead simple, easy, non-demanding relations with robots to satiate their desires. In her essay “Alone Together,” which is an excerpt of a book of the same name, Turkle examines how technological advancements in new media have enabled alternative means to “messy” human relations. New media — phones, computers, and the virtual connections they establish — offer an easy out from us engaging with each other and our individual complexities and vulnerabilities. Hence, we are “alone together”: “We are lonely but fearful of intimacy. Digital connections may offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. Our networked life allows us to hide from each other, even as we are tethered to each other. We’d rather text than talk.”

She concludes the essay, “Technology reshapes the landscape of our emotional lives, but is it offering us the lives we want to lead?… Are we comfortable with virtual environments that propose themselves not as places for recreation but as new worlds to live in? What do we have, now that we have what we say we want — now that we have what technology makes easy?”

Virtual connections have become the Derridian supplement as substitute.

A programmable robot-girlfriend, who satisfies your every need with no demands of her own? A relationship that you are fully in control of, with no need to make yourself emotionally vulnerable? Who, because she has no emotional or psychological history or time of her own, never has desires or needs that conflict with your own?

A second self as inauthentic as you have become.

These types of relationships — even online relationships with other “avatars” that you can disconnect from at a click of a button — placate us through the illusion that we are perfect creatures in complete control of our bodies and minds.

Instead of facing the risk of losing the other (human) — to death, or to increasingly noticeable gulf of differences that have separated, rather than bonded, two people over time — a relation to a non-human thing removes the unknown — aka “life”— from the relation.

To which Alice, in the midst of yet another evening meal with Cardboard Dana, says “DUH.”

The “objects” of our affection are, to evoke D.W. Winnicott, transitional objects that we never transition away from — because, in the realm of 21st century human relations, we no longer need to. With the object, especially the robotic or technological object time — separation, death — is not a factor. (Buffy-Bot, anyone?) That “thing” will go on living forever — and exactly in the way you want it to.