What is the nature of the perfect relationship and can it be recreated in virtual forms?
Is the internet a blessing or a curse? Is face-to-face interaction suffering as a result? Two recent US studies - one at the Stanford Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society, the other at Carnegie Mellon University - suggest that people are turning to computer-mediated communication at the expense of more traditional forms of social engagement.
The Stanford study found that more than a third of the 4,113 adults studied logged on to the internet for more than five hours a day and demonstrated that this group spent time on the internet that might have been spent watching television or socialising. Should this give cause for concern? The internet is arguably a more active, educational and communicative medium than television, and the social sacrifice people are making seems relatively small. However, the new computer-mediated methods of communication are in their infancy. In a couple of years, most of us will connect to the next-generation net through mobile phones or the television, and the nature of the relationships we form electronically will change - they are set to become much more seductive.
Researchers from computer science, sociology, business, consumer science and psychology are increasingly working in this new field, which I call relationship design. In everyday life, our relationships are a mix of good and bad. In an ideal world, relationships involve trust and mutual support, they enhance self-respect and they are fun. These elements are now under investigation by researchers such as myself, who are interested in questions such as "what is trust?", "how are self-efficacy beliefs enhanced?" and "how is fun constructed?" so as to understand and perhaps create the perfect relationship. Sounds spooky? Perhaps, but in reality it does not feel quite so bad. Take Amazing Ally, the new doll from Playmates and one of last Christmas's top-selling toys. Ally contains a high-capacity central processing unit, has 32 megabits of internal voice memory and comes with various forms of intelligence upgrade. She is marketed as a "girl's best friend" on the basis of her ability to get to know a child and to reminisce about play times they have had together. Virtual friends can be found in other forms. Increasingly, intelligent agents that "filter" information from the internet are taking on social attributes, becoming a "friend".
New research on relationship design is set in a rather uncertain context. Will the seductive relationships we build today ruin tomorrow? It is too early to say, although I would welcome wider debate on these issues. For my part, I am well motivated. The work I have done for industry - on identifying factors that give rise to trust - addresses issues that have been neglected elsewhere. I do not understand why, although trust is a devilishly difficult concept to define, presupposing, as it does, so many different types of risk. And I have wondered why there has been huge interest in understanding and constructing relationships and environments that are fun in the virtual world, but relatively little interest in understanding how this could be achieved in the physical world. It troubles me that business seems motivated to make people happy online, but lets them fend for themselves offline. Why do many workers find that their only opportunities to engage in playful behaviour involve isolated sessions with a computer?
So many questions. No doubt this time next year my virtual self will have answered them.
Pamela Briggs is professor of applied cognitive psychology and research director in psychology at the University of Northumbria. She is writing a book Why Computers Are Nicer than People .