February 12, 2021

Credit: Maskot  / Getty Images

*This piece was originally published on September 18th, 2020*

During this pandemic, we may be acutely aware that our love lives and family lives are entwined with the technology that’s all around us. But in fact, machines have been reinventing our relationships since the days of the ancient plow, which likely led to the birth of marriage itself. That’s according to Debora Spar, a professor at Harvard Business School and former president of Barnard College.

Spar, the author of “Work Mate Marry Love: How Machines Shape Our Human Destiny,” takes us on a journey through the technologies - from the steam engine to the refrigerator - that have affected when, how, and with whom we partner up. And we get a glimpse into a future with no master plan for how the technologies we have built will further evolve and change us.

Three Takeaways:

  • We’re all creatures of the technology that has existed in our lifetimes, says Spar. She was able to become a successful working mother because of access to contraception, a car, a washing machine, a refrigerator and other modern conveniences that have assisted in women’s emancipation, she says.
  • Spar believes in the words of the Canadian theorist, Marshall McLuhan who said, “First we build the tools, then they build us.” Inventors seldom predict the unintended and broader consequences of the technologies they create and, once the genie is out of the bottle, there’s no turning back, she argues.
  • When it comes to advanced technologies, including assisted reproduction, Spar says there need to be guidelines and regulations in place to control how we use them and their impact. Without guardrails and government intervention, she warns that social inequalities will be further exacerbated too.

More Reading:

  • Check out this op-ed by Spar in which she writes about the possibility of poly-parenting and technologies that might one day allow multiple people, of the same or different sex, to potentially conceive a child together. As she notes, the technology raises “ethical complexities.”
  • Spar says it was the Industrial Revolution that brought about the creation of the traditional nuclear family. In this article for The Atlantic, David Brooks writes about its fragility and its demise and explains why he thinks, “it’s time to figure out better ways to live together.” Meanwhile, the Institute for Family Studies has a different take on the nuclear family. 
  • A writer for The Seattle Times looks at how our increasingly digital lives have prepared us to handle social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic.

Listener Responses

"I met my husband online through the website Manhunt where we chatted, then through email programs when we emailed each other, then with cellular phones. We called each other for months before we actually met in person." -- Troy, Vancouver, WA

"My hometown used to be mostly made up of farming families, but that is no longer the case.  My generation left the farms—it didn’t make economic sense to stick around. The irony is that most farmers continue to fully embrace the newer technology that is essentially putting some of them out of business and making it more difficult for their children to stay in the field (literally). This has additional, far-reaching consequences on rural communities and the commodification of the land.  I don’t know if my family will still be farming in a generation." -- Elizabeth, Spokane, WA

technology, Machines, Sci and Tech, Marriage, Debora Spar, gender

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