Human and robot hands reach out to each other

Book review: ‘Out of Touch’ by Michelle Drouin

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A behavioural scientist and professor of psychology looks at the ways in which technology can help and hinder us in our quest for more human connection.

How do we survive an ‘intimacy famine’? This is Michelle Drouin’s central question in ‘Out of Touch’ (MIT Press, £22.50, ISBN 9780262046671), a short, intensely readable book that spans topics such as marriage, pandemic isolation, and ageing. The ground it covers is well worn and, though it showcases interesting elements of the psychology of intimacy, it provides few new insights for a reader familiar with technology.

Across seven chapters, Drouin draws the reader into a conversation with her engaging tone. She is especially strong when discussing psychology and psychological research, making dense subject matter easily digestible. And there is plenty to keep us engaged: thought experiments, questions, self-reflection exercises.

It is clear that Drouin feels passionately about preventing loneliness. Much of the book centres on how people come to feel disconnected, be that alone or in relationships. In one moving anecdote, she reminisces on the life of her grandmother, describing how conversational partners like Hanson Robotics’ Sophia, dubbed ‘the world’s first robot citizen’, could help the elderly and vulnerable with isolation.

Drouin also offers a huge amount of advice. She includes ‘survival tips’ at the end of each chapter that are far sharper in tone than the rest of the book. “And if you don’t want to talk to or have sex with your partner, then you should probably go to counselling. Or find a new partner,” she advises. This left me wondering: is ‘Out of Touch’ a self-help book, a primer on the psychology of intimacy, or a book about tech? The answer is really all three.

Unfortunately, as a book about technology, ‘Out of Touch’ struggles. Mentions of new technology, media and artificial intelligence are fairly superficial. Though Drouin does mention a few apps such as Replika, these usually form a small addition to a much longer and more nuanced point about behavioural psychology. Take for example the chapter on marriage and marital sex. Here, sexual technology only makes an appearance in the last three paragraphs. When Drouin herself admits that sex tech has the potential to change the way we experience sexual intimacy, this feels limited.

As a self-help book, ‘Out of Touch’ also has little to say to me, an unmarried woman of colour who is quite sceptical of traditional models of the family. I understand that one person can’t include everything, but Drouin’s book feels noticeably limited in its target audience. For example, in discussions of dating outside our traditional circles using apps such as Hinge, questions of intersectionality are relegated to a single sentence describing ‘sexual minorities’. When so much space is afforded to whether men really do find educated women intimidating, I found myself wishing for a more expansive conversation. Technologists are increasingly writing about intersectionality, and by omitting this discussion in a book about interconnectedness, ‘Out of Touch’ feels a bit behind the times.

Overall, though, ‘Out of Touch’ is a useful foray into thinking about why we might feel lonely, and why our phones might help with that. Drouin’s presentation of the psychology of intimacy is particularly good, and some readers will find comfort and hope in the advice she gives. That said, for many audiences, it remains limited in scope. 

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