Love’s Labor Outsourced

On Valentine’s Day, The Atlantic’s tech site ran a characteristically thoughtful piece by Evan Selinger examining a new app called Romantimatic. From the app’s website:

Even with the amazing technology we have in our pockets, we can fly through the day without remembering to send a simple “I love you” to the most important person in our lives.

Romantimatic can help.

It can help by automatically reminding you to contact the one you love and providing some helpful pre-set messages to save you the trouble of actually coming up with something to say.

Selinger has his reservations about this sort of “outsourced sentiment,” and he irenically considers the case Romantimatic’s creator makes for his app while exploring the difference between the legitimate use “social training wheels” and the outsourcing of moral and emotional responsibility. I encourage you to read the whole thing.

“What’s really weird,” Selinger concludes, “is that Romantimatic style romance may be a small sign of more ambitious digital outsourcing to come.”

That is exactly right. Increasingly, we are able to outsource what we might think of as ethical and emotional labor to our devices and apps. But should we? I’m sure there are many for whom the answer is a resounding Yes. Why not? To be human is to make use of technological enhancements. Much of our emotional life is already technologically mediated anyway. And so on.

Others, however, might instinctively sense that the answer, at least sometimes, is No. But why exactly? Formulating a cogent and compelling response to that question might take a little work. Here, at least, is a start.

The problem, I think, involves a conflation of intellectual labor with ethical/emotional labor. For better and for worse, we’ve gotten used to the idea of outsourcing intellectual labor to our devices. Take memory, for instance. We’ve long since ceased memorizing phone numbers. Why bother when our phones can store those numbers for us? On a rather narrow and instrumental view of intellectual labor, I can see why few would take issue with it. As long as we find the solution or solve the problem, it seems not to matter how the labor is allocated between minds and machines. To borrow an old distinction, the labor itself seems accidental rather than essential to the goods sought by intellectual labor.

When it comes to our emotional and ethical lives, however, that seems not to be the case. When we think of ethical and emotional labor, it’s harder to separate the labor itself from the good that is sought or the end that is pursued.

For example, someone who pays another person to perform acts of charity on their behalf has undermined part of what might make such acts virtuous. An objective outcome may have been achieved, but at the expense of the subjective experience that would constitute the action as ethically virtuous. In fact, subjective experience, generally speaking, is what we seem to be increasingly tempted to outsource  When it comes to our ethical and emotional lives, however, the labor is essential rather than accidental; it cannot be outsourced without undermining the whole project. The value is in the labor, and so is our humanity.

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Further Reading

Selinger has been covering this field for awhile; here is a related essay.

I touched on some of these issues here.

7 thoughts on “Love’s Labor Outsourced

  1. Interesting. I feel like in our ‘western’ modern culture, the word hypocritical comes to mind when outsourcing emotions and ethics. Maybe that is not the case in all cultures, however. I know of (Arabic and other) civilization in which it is perfectly normal to pay for mourners and weepers at the grave of a loved one. More pay = more grief shown. That is (non technological) outsourcing too, right?

    1. Is this really outsourcing? I’m assuming that those who pay for mourners don’t hire proxies to express grief on their behalf. Isn’t the practice more about creating an emotionally charged atmosphere?

  2. Very nice piece. I am reminded of something Ken Myers said years ago. He questioned whether or not we could love our wives efficiently, or worship efficiently. The thought embedded in this seems to be on the same wave-length as what we question here. Put simply, certain goods take time in the execution, and the labor which fills that time is as much an expression of love as the item given as well.

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