How to be thoughtful without thinking, new app promises stronger relationships
The latest trend for the digitally immersed is having an artificial intelligence (AI) assistant app teach how to be a more thoughtful human. ‘Monaru’ is a start-up app that intends to overcome the disconnection that has resulted from constant availability, by suggesting thoughtful gestures to stay in touch with friends and family (Mascarenhas). But what are the consequences of having an app be the new relationship therapist?
For 20$ a month, the Monaru app, a self-described “full-service AI assistant” examines the users’ personal relationships and provides suggestions on how to engage in a more thoughtful way. Instead of answering basic algorithmic questions upon registration the user must first complete a phone conversation with a real human, discussing the most important people in their lives and the nature of the relationships. Co-Founder Patrick Finlay explained this approach stating, ““We’re building the automation as we go”… explaining how they mix human and computer intelligence by cultivating a bank of suggestions that surface per each user’s criteria, but are reviewed by humans before being sent along.” (Frank). The app then allows the user to determine the frequency of receiving suggestions and rank the relationships in order of desired focus (Frank). The app essentially takes the thought process out of being thoughtful and targets busy individuals who lack the time to invest in their relationships.
Platforms are redefining our relationships:
Monaru is one of the latest examples of digital platforms promising to solve problems created by our technology-driven culture – but can the problem really also be the solution? Similarly to an array of relationship and mindfulness apps, Monaru focuses on the fear of loneliness as a primary point of persuasion. Cinga’s 2018 U.S. loneliness index revealed in a 2018 study that only 53% of Americans have meaningful in-person social interactions on a daily basis (Pollack). Additionally, a meta-analytic review of loneliness revealed that social isolation has a comparable influence on mortality as other well-established factors such as smoking (Holt-Lunstad). These are all attention-grabbing facts that Monaru focuses on in order to support their claim, “To have a better friend you need to be one.” (Monaru). The idea that an app can teach how to be a better friend highlights a greater social issue; that platforms are changing our understanding of social relationships. Traditionally, friendship can be seen as, “a relation between individuals”. However, with the influence of social networking platforms and relationship apps such as Monaru, this now turns into a, “relation between multiple actors, not only human individuals but also nonhuman software actors” (Bucher). Digital platforms are thereby not only changing the way in which we interact with people in our lives but also changing the meaning of relationships as a whole. So far, platforms have enabled us to meet new people, connect and communicate with people, essentially offering new channels for pre-existing notions of social interactions. Monaru however, takes this a step further in telling us how to build up our relationships, by taking a very human element of thoughtfulness and replacing it with an AI-assisted algorithm.
The affordances of AI replacing human thought:
So what exactly brings people to pay 20$ a month, to have an app run their relationships? Perceived affordances play a big role in platform user behavior. Norman defines affordances as, “the perceived and actual properties of the thing, primarily those fundamental properties that determine just how the thing could possibly be used” (Bucher et al.). An app such as Manuro has the promise of overcoming loneliness through a quick and easy way to build lasting, strong relationships. Other elements that drive purchasing decisions include the perceived value of satisfaction, the availability of free alternatives, and the apparent value for money (Hsu et al). The natural question that arises here, is if society has reached a point in which we are so used to receiving everything on-demand, that paying $20 a month to receive thoughtful suggestions, trumps investing time and thought into our relationships? Relying on an app to suggest gestures and activities does not necessarily teach thoughtfulness but rather encourages further technological dependence. In the long term, this could have detrimental consequences for social and relationship building skills, by naturally promoting a cycle of loneliness instead of breaking it. Letting platforms guide all aspects of daily life under the premise of convenience not only leads to a potential deterioration of thought and emotion but also lets your platforms know you better than you know yourself.
How well do you really want an app to know you?
Traditionally, when seeking help for personal growth and mindfulness in a therapy setting, there is an expectation of privacy and confidentiality; the same cannot be expected from new media platforms. As Gitelman points out, “if data are subject to us, we are also subject to data” (Gitelman). This means that if an app provides a user with tailored information, it has deduced this information from analyzing the users’ data. In the case of Manuro, it is not just the users’ personal data that must be provided, but also information on all the people with whom the user has close relationships. In the era of Big Data, consumer apps result in the most personalized and traceable form of data. This valuable form of data arises as the apps contain information on; “consumers’ “digital” lives (e.g. internet browsing preferences), but also into their “real” lives (e.g. location data, interests, satisfaction of needs)”(Buck). By using apps and platforms that infiltrate and direct all aspect of daily life, from travel, to food, to relationships, the personal data that accumulates paints an all-encompassing, highly traceable image of the user. The price to pay for the conveniences platforms offer is therefore not only a purchase price or a monthly fee but rather that of having a device know about all aspects of a users life.
Technology has already isolated us under the pretense of being constantly connected and receiving everything on-demand, when in reality real human contact decreases. Taking this a step further and allowing an AI app to be a guide for successful relationships raises a series of issues, all of which convolute to the problem of technology infiltrating and continuously changing human behavior and social norms.
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Frank, Michael. “Want to Be a Better Spouse? These Apps Teach Thoughtfulness.” The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones & Company, 11 Sept. 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/want-to-be-a-better-spouse-these-apps-teach-thoughtfulness-11568223031.
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Mascarenhas, Natasha. “Loneliness In Tech: Nothing Beats Vulnerability, Even If It’s Tech Generated.” Crunchbase News, 10 Sept. 2019, https://news.crunchbase.com/news/loneliness-in-tech-nothing-beats-vulnerability-even-if-its-tech-generated/.
Monaru. “Effortless Thoughtfulness.” https://www.monaru.io/.
Polack, Ellie. “New Cigna Study Reveals Loneliness at Epidemic Levels in America.” Multivu, https://www.multivu.com/players/English/8294451-cigna-us-loneliness-survey/.