Expecting? Intimate life and human-machine interaction
I am deeply interested in human-machine interaction in intimate life and how this results in a new sort of human-machine intimacy. Today I stumbled upon the new Facebook feature which allows users to add “I’m expecting” under the family members section, announcing a pregnancy to others. This shows up under ‘family members’ on the profile page and allows a space for a name (optional), and a drop down menu that lists “Expected:child” among the list of other possible family relations (by adding this, one can also ‘friend’ the unborn child). While announcing a pregnancy on a social media site is nothing surprising – it’s a great way to tell a lot of people all at one time – I think there is something more worth examining here – how new and expecting parents relate to their infants via mediated forms.
An increasing number of sites now handle the most intimate aspects of our lives. This includes romantic love, which I have written on in the past, but also parent-child relationships. In these ways, New Media continues finding ways in which to rationalize emotional work. The “I’m expecting” feature on Facebook not only announces the pregnancy, but it provides the parents new ways in which to think about the child. Beyond simply bringing parents together in a community, this feature adds the unborn child to the family before it comes into the world. As much as the saying “It’s not official until it’s on Facebook” can be argued to be true, in this sense giving the child an identity on one’s page gives it identity and membership into the family before it is born. Similarly, applications on blogs and Facebook pages also count down to the due date of the child, updating mother and friends along the way of what the baby is doing or experiencing based on gestational age – can he see yet? Does she have fingers and toes yet? One friend of mine kept a public blog, with each entry written to her daughter, before her daughter was born. Another friend of mine created a Facebook page for her infant and wrote on it as if writing from the infant’s perspective, while also sharing photos. An interesting New York Times piece (which I need to find and link here!!) discussed the online identities of children – including online identities that develop before the child is able to communicate online for him/herself.
What leads people to seek to bond with their infants and unborn children in these ways? What does this tell us about human-machine interactions in the age of New Media? While I don’t believe the social aspects and sharing aspects of such behaviors should be overlooked, what interests me is the bonding aspect of new media when it is used in this way. Not only does the public/social simultaneously exist as an intimate interaction in this context – a seeming contradiction in itself – but these human machine interactions also make visible the new ways of knowing (to borrow from Sherry Turkle’s terminology here) that are made possible through new media: new ways of knowing ourselves and knew ways of relating intimately with others. Many of these actions are about establishing the personhood of the new baby – either as a member of the family, or in the case of the parents blogging from the perspective of their infant, establishing the infant as someone with thoughts and opinions to share – albeit the thoughts as they are interpreted by the parents. Through these mediated forms, parents are finding new ways to connect with their not-yet-born children. In this sense, I see this as another example of machines being integrated and accepted in the aspects of human life that once seemed least likely to be mediated – family life and parent-child bonding. This is only one way in which we can seek to understand an increasingly cybernetic society and the new desires that will emerge with it.