When Google said that not sharing photographs of your friends made you “kind of a terrible person” at this year’s I/O keynote, I bristled. The idea that its new Google Photos app would automatically suggest I share pictures with specific people sounded dystopian, especially because so much of the keynote seemed geared toward getting Google’s AI systems to help maintain relationships. Want to answer an email without even thinking about it? Inbox’s suggested responses are rolling out all over Gmail. Has a special moment with somebody slipped your mind? Google might organize photos from it into a book and suggest you have it printed.
Google is far from the first company to do this; Facebook suggests pictures to share and reminds you of friends’ birthdays all the time, for example. It’s easy to describe these features as creepy false intimacy, or say that they’re making us socially lazy, relieving us of the burden of paying attention to people. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve decided that I’m all right with an AI helping manage my connections with other people — because otherwise, a lot of those connections wouldn’t exist at all.
I don’t know if I’m a terrible person per se, but I may be the world’s worst relative. I have an extended network of aunts, uncles, cousins, and family friends that I would probably like but don’t know very well, and almost never see face-to-face. They’re the kind of relationships that some people I know maintain with family newsletters, emailed photos, and holiday cards. But I have never figured out how to handle any of these things.
I am the world’s worst relative
I grew up convinced that people wrote holiday greetings and thank-you notes out of heartfelt desire, and that each one had to reflect a unique and personal connection. I may no longer think this, but I’m still afraid that I seem obviously insincere. I’ll start writing a message, realize I haven’t spoken to the recipient in years and have no idea what’s happening in their life, ramble some incoherent pleasantries, put the pen down to rethink my strategy, and find the card on a dusty bookcase six months later.
But several years ago, I stumbled across online conversations around emotional labor: the everyday work of maintaining human relationships. It’s something that people often think of as a natural instinct, especially a feminine one, and consequently don’t consider real work. In fact, the idea that this is work might seem insulting. But to me, it’s been a huge relief. If I can acknowledge that something is a skilled task and not a measure of my humanity, I don’t have to think I’m a terrible person for finding it difficult, whatever Google says.
It also makes using tools to compensate feel a lot more palatable. I don’t use Facebook’s automatic birthday reminders to keep track of people whose birthdays I actually celebrate, for example, but they’re a great sort of amnesty. I can talk to somebody without having to apologize for not doing so earlier, pretending our relationship is closer than it is, or appearing to put in the kind of investment that will make them feel guilty for not getting in touch. With something like Google Photos, I’d be happy to have simple family albums that don’t feel like they were painstakingly curated for me — or having it intelligently suggest things to add myself.
I still hate suggested email responses, because it feels like my inbox is impersonating me. I’ve got close relationships where I do want every interaction to feel organic. And there are larger privacy questions about a company like Google understanding my life better than I do.
But philosophically, I’m okay with an AI figuring out where my weak ties are and giving me a clear and explicit way to strengthen them — which is something Google doesn’t do much of yet, but feels like an obvious goal. I’ve had decades to figure out how to maintain a social network, and I’ve almost completely failed at it. If I have a choice between leaning on technology and being a total recluse, I’ll trust the machine.