Does iPhone’s Siri Thwart Social Intelligence?

A thought occurred to me years ago on one of my maiden strolls through Costco (besides yum, those mini pizzas are good): If I were an evil genius wanting to erode the nutritional wellbeing of a civilization (not to mention the individuality of its citizens), this would be a good first step. Induce mass consumer hypnosis via the big-box store. (Will return to this point in a bit.)

In the half-decade between my son’s junior and my daughter’s freshman years in high school, I witnessed his late-night telephone confabs (on a landline, gasp, when conference calls were a cool innovation) give way to her disembodied “connectivity” with Facebook friends. This glaring (de?)evolution announced itself through our walls: where there was once the sound of my son’s human voice — expressing the dynamic range of emotions endemic to the adolescent — now there was… silence. Save for an occasional giggle or groan from my daughter as she digested the latest posts.

Bear with me before you brand me one of those stuffy oldsters (I’m not that old) pining away for a nostalgic, over-romanticized past. Many thoughtful people have studied this area and harbor similar concerns. Social Intelligence author Daniel Goleman cautions, “This inexorable technocreep is so insidious that no one has yet calculated its social and emotional costs.” In my book I point out, “Humans are biologically designed to be in physical proximity to one another as a way of mutually regulating our inner physical and emotional states. But 21st-century technologies seem intent upon prying us apart with the allure of awesome gadgets that are, ironically, designed and perceived as ‘connecting’ tools. In today’s iTwitterFaceLinkInPod world, blogging, texting, IMing and tweeting are today’s accepted modes of ‘reaching out and touching’ one another, yet studies have found that people become more depressed and lonely the more time they spend ‘interacting with others’ online!”

William Falk, editor-in-chief of my favorite news digest The Week, muses in the Feb. 17th issue that for his daughters, “nearly every waking moment holds the possibility of a status update, a text, an IM, a YouTube link, or other communication from the matrix.” Falk reflects on his own life at that age, hours of which were spent outdoors in whirls of physicality, face-to-face with his buddies and flirting with girls, or alone in his room ruminating on everything and nothing — in the kind of open-ended thought stream of nothing-in-particular (mindlessness) neuroscientists now recognize is as important to the health of our social brains as is mindfulness. Falk is wistful: “Now that their laptops and their smartphones are always pinging, there is less time for that. Someone somewhere always has something to say.”

But we aren’t really saying these somethings to each other — at least in the way that our social brains really get. Here’s the conundrum, particularly for parents hoping to foster vibrant social intelligence in their children: While technology has careened forward and changed our world dramatically, even in just the past twenty years, human beings haven’t much changed — in how we’re built or how we function — in thousands of years! We’re essentially running hypermodern software programs on hardware that wasn’t built for it.

What was our hardware built for? (And by hardware, I mean our incalculably wondrous brains, brains with the capability to conceive computers in their own image!) Our brains… our nervous systems… our entire beings… Illustration of social intelligencewere built for human-to-human connection. We transmit mental states and moods wordlessly, we soothe physiological distress simply through our presence, we convey and receive volumes of critical human data through vocal tone, volume, pitch, and pace. Only seven percent of our communication is the actual words; ninety-three percent is body language, eye movement, vocal inflection and intonation (prosody) and other non-verbal data. That’s a lot of heavy lifting for an emoticon. 😕

In a coming post I’ll detail how the foundations of social intelligence get downloaded from parent (or other caregiver) to infants and young children, but make no mistake: it is a human-to-human situation, and it relies on the adult as the model.

The most potent mode of learning for children of all ages (and adults as well) is imitation. For reasons neuroscience can now illustrate  in neon scannery, humans are designed to take after those around us — in behavior, in attitude, and even in brain circuitry.

Waldorf early education teachers have long known this, which is why they convey through their own speech and actions an atmosphere worthy of the child’s unquestioning imitation. All us parents of kids past puberty have endured that bracing moment when we see our own (not always stellar) mannerisms, attitudes or habits thrown into horrifically bold relief…

Partly for this reason — that children learn and wire their brains based on models — Waldorf teacher Carol Toole raised a concern about electronic playmates for children. Ironically, this was ten years ago, before the massive proliferation of screen-based “learn to read” programs for even the youngest of children. She points out how it undermines the central need of children to learn in the context of relationship and imitation:

The budding orator needs to hear speech that bears the undivided attention, enthusiasm, and interest of the speaker. Studies reveal that language experienced via television or other electronic media does little to increase a child’s vocabulary. Such disembodied speech does not nourish the child in his learning to speak. Even the speech of real and present people, when it is curt and clipped and seeks only to convey information, does not truly nourish.

So Carol, try this on for size:

I’ve had a theory patiently gathering data in the back of my mind, and I will unceremoniously unveil it now: as I hinted at in a recent post on epigenetics and intelligence, I would invite us to consider the possibility that the skyrocketing numbers of children on the autistic spectrum are mirroring in bold relief social impairments of the wider culture.

Autistic individuals fall along a very wide spectrum in terms of functioning level and of symptoms, but all of them have three areas in common:

  • communication problems
  • impaired social relationships
  • unusual patterns of behavior

To me, those describe Siri and her clumsy prosody to a tee. I realize that there is currently a near-universal, breathless enchantment with this silicon seductress, but c’mon. Imagine you just dropped down from another planet, after receiving a primer on how humans interact normally with each other (e.g., they adjust their choice of words and vocal inflection based on the other’s questions) and you encountered Siri. A bit of a head-scratcher, doncha think? In all seriousness, I don’t get a gooey, “Ahhh…” feeling whatsoever when I see that iPhone commercial with the little boy learning from Siri. More like a sinking feeling.

William Falk concludes his editor’s letter by wondering if it’s “silly and backward to wonder how the onslaught of nonstop input — most of it trivial — is altering how we think?” He reports that the intricate “mental maps” people made before the advent of GPS utilized a spacial region of the brain that actually grows with use… and shrinks without use. Less actual gray matter. “If we rely on Facebook et al., ” Falk wonders, “as an interface with reality, what withers? What shrinks?”

If I were an evil genius wanting to erode the social wellbeing of a civilization (not to mention the individuality of its citizens), this would be a good first step. Induce mass relational awkwardness via Siri.

Done and done.


• Goleman, Daniel. Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships. New York: Bantam/Dell, 2006, pg. 7.
• Lewis, Thomas, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon. A General Theory of Love. New York: Random House, 2000.
• Harmon, Amy. “Researchers Find Sad, Lonely World in Cyberspace.” In New York Times: New York Times Company, 1998. This article details the first such study; many have been done since, and they have reached similar conclusions—that the more time someone spends online, the less happy and more depressed he or she is likely to be. Just two hours of surfing the net per week was associated with various forms of anxiety & depression, leading to reclusiveness, and feelings of alienation. And, they were passionate consumers!
Falk, William. “Editor’s letter.” The Week, The Week Publications, NY. February 17, 2012, pg. 5.
• Badenoch, Bonnie. “Mindfulness/Mindlessness.” YouTube, This state when the mind “lets go” relies on the newly recognized default network in the brain; notable discoveries, inventions, and works of creativity have arisen from this state.
• Toole, Carol. “The First Four Years of Childhood.” Renewal: A Journal for Waldorf Education 11, no. 1 (2002): 5-9.

Image 1 by: PictureYouth used under its Creative Commons license.
Image 2 by: pseudoplacebo used under its Creative Commons license.
Image 3 by: Apple, via YouTube.

Marcy Axness, PhD, is the author of
Parenting for Peace: Raising the Next Generation of Peacemakers.

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