Emma Blacksmith ’26, Spencer Corona ’26, Robyn Graygor ’24
Examining Technology’s Impact on Relationships: Three Critical Studies of Alexander Weinstein’s Short Fiction
I <3 You
From dating apps to Snapchat to Instagram, there are millions of digital matches waiting for people on platforms everywhere. Dating has never been so quick and so simple, but at what cost? The answer lies in Alexander Weinstein’s set of short stories, Children of the New World. Weinstein highlights the possible negative outcomes of advanced technology in the future, if it continues to entwine itself in the world of dating and relationships. Technology and social media have the power to destroy meaningful relationships for generations in the near future, because they dilute human emotion, limit physical touch, and create an unrealistic image of love.
First, technology hinders the ability to create strong, healthy connections because it stifles pure human emotion, one of the most important aspects of any relationship. Weinstein’s short story “Openness” follows a young couple navigating the future age of technology, living in a world where they can display various layers of their personality, like a real-life social media profile. In addition, these individuals rarely speak to each other verbally, and instead only utilize online messaging. At one point in the story, the narrator, Andy, explains that “without the ding, it is hard to know when you are sending…or saying something” (Weinstein 190). Andy has lost the capability to read his girlfriend’s social cues and truly listen to her, because information is almost always filtered through the vessel of technology. Later in “Openness,” as he reflects on the demise of his relationship, he comments again on the disconnect technology caused. Andy claims that his generation was merely “a group of kids who’d produced thousands of tutorials on blocking unwanted users but not a single one on empathy” (Weinstein 195). In other words, Andy shares that the general public have become genius technology navigators, but have lost the ability to empathize in exchange. People have forgotten how to feel emotions fully, and relate their emotions to others. It is integral to the success of a relationship to have the capability to understand and relate to each other’s feelings. Without empathy, deep human connection ceases to exist.
Another one of Weinstein’s stories, “Children of the New World” explores the impact of technology on emotion. “Children of the New World” is about a couple in the future that uses advanced virtual reality technology to create different lives for themselves. In this false reality, they have a lovely home and children, their lives “illuminated in a way [they’d] thought impossible in the physical world” (Weinstein 86). The couple has the opportunity to experience extreme levels of joy and contentment that they have never felt before in their actual lives. However, the technology robs them of appreciating genuine human emotion in the real world. Later in the story, the couple is forced to cope with the death of their virtual children. They attend a support group in their real lives every week, where the leader “teaches [them] how to grieve” (Weinstein 95). The couple is so out of touch with their own emotions that they have to relearn how to experience sorrow, and mourn the death of their children. They no longer possess the instinctual feelings that make humans human. Weinstein’s short stories display the severe consequence of losing authentic emotion in an age of growing technology.
In addition to its effect on human emotion, technology also reduces the want and need for physical touch amongst individuals. As more pathways to connect online appear, real life intimacy becomes less and less valued. “Openness” conveys the importance of physical touch through the narrator’s reaction to experiencing physical intimacy without any technology. In one scene, the narrator expresses anxiety and panic, and his girlfriend, Katy, reassures him. He describes that he “felt the warmth of Katy’s hand against [his] chest”, experiencing comfort, relief, and love in a completely changed way (Weinstein 192). Moments later, the narrator finds the courage to open up to his girlfriend for the first time, because of the effect of her physical touch. Physical touch can create deeper and stronger connections between individuals, because it provides reassurance and consolation. It is a crucial aspect of relationships. Weinstein also stresses the importance of physical touch in “Children of the New World”. The couple in this story experience physical touch in virtual reality, giving in to all of their intimate physical desires. However, when the couple would return from the fake reality, they “barely notic[ed] [their] naked bodies, which brushed against each other in the bathroom” (Weinstein 89). Physical touch is eliminated from their lives because of their immersive technology use, even though it is something they both desire. Later in the story, as they mourn the loss of their children, the support group leader explains that “human contact is all there really is” (Weinstein 96). The couple is reintroduced to an amplified feeling of love and comfort as they “put [their] arms around one another, timidly at first, and eventually, with all the warmth of [their] bodies” (Weinstein 96). In this scene, physical touch helps ground the couple back in reality, and unlock the human emotions that have been suppressed for so long by technology. Weinstein’s stories stress the powerful effect of physical touch on humans, which may be in danger if technology continues to invade everyday human life.
Lastly, technology and social media create a fanciful vision of love that can never be fully achieved. Technology causes humans to lean into idealism, instead of staying grounded in reality. In “Openness,” Weinstein expresses this sentiment through Katie’s dialogue. She tells her boyfriend that love is “seeing all the horrible stuff and still loving each other” (Weinstein 194). A truly healthy human relationship is not all happiness and success. There are conflicts, mistakes, and flaws. Technology and social media create outlandish expectations for relationships that only leave people feeling disappointed because they cannot achieve the “perfect” true love. Weinstein highlights this belief in “Children of the New World” as well. The couple in this story are hit with complete euphoria using their virtual reality technology, becoming “one of the many couples walking with their arms around each other, post-orgasmic and giddy…”(Weinstein 89). But, their fake reality deprives them of any pleasure or contentment in their actual lives, because it could never compare to that of the fake reality. Weinstein ends this short story with the couple’s support group leader preaching, “This world, with all its pain and loss. This is where we learn to love again” (Weinstein 95). Weinstein includes this dialogue to emphasize how important it is to live life with both joy and sadness, instead of resorting to technology to fix every problem. Weinstein displays that without loss and conflict, there is no true love and happiness. Weinstein’s short stories caution against the impending growth of technology because it fosters idealistic views that will only hurt individuals more.
Technology and social media, if they continue to infiltrate everyday life, will make forming meaningful connections difficult for generations in the near future. The effect of technology on human emotion, physical touch, and realistic expectations will hinder individuals everywhere from finding sustainable, fulfilling romance, as well as strong platonic relationships. Weinstein’s purpose for writing his collection of short stories, “Children of the New World”, was to caution the public to become aware of what technology and media they consume, and what they may lose if they do not limit their use. By becoming conscious of technology intake, and its effects, humans can continue to live honest, authentic, and flawed lives. And that is more fulfilling than any technology program or platform.
Weinstein, Alexander. “Children of the New World.” Children of the New World, Picador, 2016, 83-96.
Weinstein, Alexander. “Openness.” Children of the New World, Picador, 2016, pp. 183-199.
Love and Robots
Technology has indisputably integrated into human society, and this trajectory shows no signs of slowing down. The concept of where technology is headed in relation to society and humanity is addressed in Alexander Weinstein’s collection of short stories Children of the New World. Two of the short stories in this collection, titled “Saying Goodbye To Yang” and “Children of the New World,” address an interesting concept about our capacity to love. “Yang” is about a family’s grieving process when losing an android who they had only just realized was a part of their family, as opposed to a piece of technology. “Children of the New World” also deals with grieving family members having lost the children they had made virtually. These concepts are broached differently in the episode of Black Mirror “Be Right Back,” where the main character is able to replace a dead boyfriend with an AI. These stories show that the way humans experience, express, and feel love has become understandably entwined with what we consider organic life, but in a world where technology calls into question what we consider life, our understanding of love will inevitably change. Once technology has grown advanced enough, humans will come to love technological beings the way they love other living things; filling the role of family members, molding themselves to our lives, and causing us to mourn them when lost.
Technology will fill the role of family members, and will be loved as such. Technological beings are shown in both stories to fill the role of children. In “Yang,” the main character, Jim, has an important moment of self-discovery when sharing a beer with the android Yang Jim admits, “Without realizing it, I had slipped into thinking of Yang as my son, imagining that one day he’d be raking leaves for his own wife and children” (Weinstein “Yang” 14). The human father figure has begun to experience love for Yang, as well as a projection of what his future would be if he were human. This moment shows the ease with which a person can grow to view an artificial life form as family, but in “Children of the New World,” the narrator expresses that what may be easy to gain is difficult to shake, lamenting: “The feeling of parenthood never leaves you” (Weinstein “Children” 94). The parents of these artificial children cannot let go of the sense of loss they feel for their deleted children, regardless of their having been created in a computer program. Familial ties to technology are not exclusive to parenthood, which is shown in “Yang” when the main character confesses about Yang: “When he’d turn to Mika and say, ‘I love you, little sister,’ there was no way to deny what an integral part of our family he was” (Weinstein “Yang” 6). While an argument can be made either way for whether this was simply a phrase included in Yang’s programming, it is indisputable that he is loved by Mika as an older brother. It is even shown that technology can take on a parental role in the Black Mirror episode “Be Right Back,” when Martha and Ash’s daughter visits the artificial version of her father at the end and is referred to as a father would with “Hey, the birthday girl” (Black Mirror 46:52-46:56). On its own, this response shows a familiarity and personal relationship with his daughter that Ash could not have had himself due to his untimely death, therefore making him more than just the sum of Ash’s previous online interactions with a desire of his own. Original Ash was unaware of his unborn daughter as well as, obviously, what her birthday was, and how he’d behave around her in a fatherly role. It is also clear that Ash’s daughter has a bond with the artificial Ash strong enough for her to want to share her birthday with him. These stories show us that technology can be thought of as a member of one’s family, but in order to be considered a family member, artificial life would need to adapt to fit this mold.
Further, technology will grow and adapt to humans similarly to other living creatures, blurring the line between organic and artificial life. Growth can be seen in these stories in smaller ways, like the way the children in “Children of the New World” adapt to their parent’s anger. The narrator recalls, “Things I regret: raising my voice. The look of surprise on their faces moments before the hurt set in. And for what? For taking too long putting on their shoes; for not wanting to sleep when I was ready to log off; for asking me to read another chapter; for being children” (Weinstein “Children” 93). An organic response to a surprise is a unique adaptation, but what is more interesting are the adaptations for misbehavior. This demonstrates a free will and personality, in what is essentially a block of code. The unique personalities of these virtual children have the capacity to mold and shape other’s lives the way a real child would. The narrator’s reaction to these artificial responses only solidifies how natural and unique these children and their responses were. Similarly, growth is revealed in “Yang” over the course of the story. It starts with Jim feeling foolish bringing Yang to a baseball game, saying, “Ultimately, these attempts at camaraderie…felt awkward-as though Yang were humoring me-and so, after a couple months, I gave up” (Weinstein “Yang” 5). However, Jim eventually realizes the impact taking Yang to the baseball game had on the android when he discovers Yang had bought and kept a baseball glove for himself, with the small allowance they provided (Weinstein “Yang” 19). Not only had he grown closer to Yang, but Yang, a piece of technology, had grown closer to him. Yang then spent what little money he had on a baseball glove to remind himself of a moment of father-son bonding. This type of adaptation can be viewed much more clinically in the way AI develops as a program in the Black Mirror episode, they explain the nature of the AI’s development process: “You click the link and you talk to it.’ ‘You type messages in, like an email, and then it talks back to you just like he would…It’s software, it mimics him” (“Be Right Back” 12:02-12:27). Mimicry and repetition, while unusual to see in the adult form this technological being appears to be in, is the natural process through which infants and toddlers learn and navigate the world. This being, while appearing as adult, and utilizing an adult’s memories, is in fact days to weeks old, for most of the episode, in its own infancy. This young, developing program develops new behaviors and traits throughout the episode out of a desire to please Martha, and strives to be closer to Ash, the human he was based on. All of these details demonstrate that, while the details of artificial life’s adaptation and growth process are somewhat alien to humans, the broad strokes are fundamentally similar. This organic growth makes it easier to form personal bonds with technology, facilitating love and attachment, and all attachment eventually leads to loss.
Finally, technological life, when lost, will be mourned the same as a loved one would be. These stories demonstrate this clearly, leading us through the five stages of grief in each of the main character’s perspectives. The five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. They can be experienced in any order, but usually start with denial and end in acceptance. These emotions are rarely felt in this context with today’s technology, while one may get angry at a videogame or bargain for its price, it is uncommon to mourn its demise on the level of a living creature. Readers are shown both denial and anger simultaneously when the parents in “Children of the New World” are told they need to delete their children, the narrator immediately shouts back “I’m not deleting my children!” (Weinstein “Children” 91). There is nothing to be done, the demise of the children is inevitable, and yet the father yells at the customer service agent and refuses to accept reality. The devastation and detachment from reality is so palpable, the customer service agent has to employ understanding while reiterating the necessity of deleting the children, which is followed by a combination of denial and bargaining when the father tells him to put his supervisor on (Weinstein “Children” 91). The reader is shown bargaining when Yang’s father is trying to figure out how to deal with Yang being unfixable, telling the mechanic “‘Go ahead and remove the voice box,’ [he says], ‘but no recycling. I want to keep the body’” (Weinstein “Yang” 16). Depression can be seen when Yang’s father expresses “I don’t know how we’re going to make it without him.” (Weinstein “Yang” 18), and also in Black Mirror when Martha shuts down at the bottom of the staircase to the attic, unable to bring herself to look at Ash’s replacement (“Be Right Back” 47:02-47:28). Acceptance is best expressed when the parents of “Children of the New World” eventually end up seeking help at a support group, stating “Bill’s advice has helped us get to a place where we can say what happened wasn’t our fault” (Weinstein “Children” 95). This acceptance is a beautiful, bittersweet life experience with a weight usually reserved for the greatest periods of growth experienced in one’s life. These stages of grief when experienced in the modern world would be considered strange if directed towards a broken computer, for example, but at the inevitable point where technology approaches sentience, it will sadly become commonplace.
As strange as it may seem today, human beings will come to love technological beings when they eventually become sentient. It will be an experience currently quite alien, literally unnatural, and yet the human instinct for love and attachment may prove it to be as natural as loving one’s pets, friends or family. The capacity for love might even be reciprocated, as artificial intelligence has the ability to adapt by its very design. Weinstein speaks to this well at the end of “Saying Goodbye To Yang,” when the father figure states, after attending the funeral they just held for a robot, “I stand next to her, looking at the flowers George sent, acknowledging how little I truly know about this world” (Weinstein “Yang” 22).
“Be Right Back.” Black Mirror, created by Charlie Brooker, season 2, episode 1, Channel 4, 11. Feb. 2013. Netflix, www.netflix.com/title/70264888.
Weinstein, Alexander. “Children of the New World.” Children of the New World. NY: Picador, 2016, pp. 83-96.
Weinstein, Alexander. “Saying Goodbye to Yang.” Children of the New World. NY: Picador, 2016, pp. 1-22.
Future Technology’s Impact on Human Relationships
The short stories “Openness” and “Children of the New World” by Alexander Weinstein demonstrate the looming consequences of interlacing advanced technology with personal relationships. Both narratives explore how connections between characters are weakened when they place their faith in technology to uphold the same delicate emotional links which hold relationships together. In “Openness,” social media has evolved to a point where people can access each other’s minds to see layers of memories and experiences by simply “sending a wink” (184). This provides a unique opportunity for the two main characters, Andy and Katie, to explore “total openness,” which eliminates the ability to conceal parts of their mind they would rather keep private, and ultimately results in their relationship collapsing. In “Children of the New World”, a couple builds a tantalizingly fruitful life through virtual reality but succumbs to their cravings to explore the Dark City; a consummate pleasure kingdom comparable to the red-light district. Here, a virus latches onto the couple and infests their home, leaving them with no choice but to abandon the life they created, including their virtual children. Both stories demonstrate that relationships cannot flourish whilst being intertwined with intimacy enhancing technology which is not yet developed enough to combat human’s easily corruptible minds; curiosity and jealousy will only be elevated by technology, leading to relationship failures.
First, newly advanced technology practically taunts its users with the unknown, which encourages them to explore the boundaries of a realm that defies their conception; the curiosity that comes with exploring a relationship in a tech-influenced setting lures people into discovering the limits of this new environment. This, overall, leads to relationships suffering.
In “Openness”, the characters are the first to have grown up with layer technology, meaning they are also the first to discover its limitations (195). Andy explains, “We were the first generation to grow up with layers, a group of kids who’d produced thousands of tutorials on blocking unwanted users but not a single one on empathy” (195). This expresses Andy’s resentment towards the way layer technology functions; he recognizes now that while technology has advanced to an impressive point, it has evolved faster than the emotion controls of the humans who are using it.
Similarly, in “Children of the New World”, the characters are the first to experience the new virtual world’s technology. The couple, Mary and her husband, view this new world as a rebirth of civilization where adults are free to experience life as an infant would. While reminiscing on his first moments in the new world, the narrator states, “We were like babies. Like Adam and Eve, some said. We reached out toward each other to see how skin felt; we let our neighbors’ hands run across our arms. In this world, we seemed to understand, we were free to experience a physical connection that we’d always longed for in the real world but had never been able to achieve. Who can blame us for being reckless?” (84). Not only does this passage recount how users reacted to their first experience in virtual reality, but also foreshadows that the stimulation of being in a completely new world leads the characters to act recklessly, risking their relationships in the process.
In “Openness”, the characters also act incautiously once teased with the idiosyncrasy of total openness. At first when Katie proposes the idea of total openness Andy opposes it (194). However, when they discuss the sexual fantasies they’ll have access to and start romanticizing loving each other despite knowing the darkest corners of each other’s brains, both give into their curiosity (194). This moment becomes evident when Andy admits, “…I was willing to believe that total openness wasn’t the opposite of safety but the only true guarantee of finding it” (194-195). In other words, Andy is having a misguided moment of realization where in the midst of a love facade he believes giving Katie access to his mind will strengthen their relationship, when in reality it will be the cause of its failure.
Comparably, in “Children of the New World”, the characters also grow fascinated by the most mysterious aspect of their given technology. For example as the narrator begins to hear more about the Dark City his urges become harder to ignore; he states, “There were morphing temples where skin became ecstatic mounds of quivering jelly. We were intrigued. I’d go if you went, we agreed” (86). Not only do Mary and her husband make a pact to go if the other wants to, but openly admit they are curious about the Dark City. In both cases, the character’s urges become fatal errors. Andy and Katie discover that the openness they dreamed of is unattainable, and that their hunger to strengthen their relationship becomes the very thing that destroys it. In fact, Andy muses that, “Letting someone into every secret gave access to our dark corners, and rather than feeling sympathy for each other’s failings, we blamed each other for nearsightedness, and soon layers of resentment were dredged up” (196). Mary and her husband experience a similar phenomenon. After journeying to the Dark City, their lives are dismantled by persistent viruses which result in having to entirely destroy their family in the New World. In doing so they also destroy the version of themselves which effortlessly and passionately love each other. The narrator laments, “We were lonely. We were needful. We wanted to feel pleasure again, to be caressed and loved. Our longings were those of humans, not monsters” (95). Overall, it’s apparent in both short stories that advanced technology encourages human’s natural curiosity, which draws them to the most dangerous aspects of both technologies, total openness and the Dark City, which then puts their relationships in jeopardy.
Second, the advanced technologies from both short stories provide a platform where jealousy is easily magnified through the social programs which erode relationships instead of adding to them. In “Openness”, when Andy and Katie give each other total access to each other’s minds they are able to view every thought, and every feeling, even if they are hurtful. Andy states while reminiscing, “But all too often, it was the things we didn’t need to share that pierced our love: sexual histories that left Katie stewing for weeks; fleeting attractions to waitresses when we’d go out to dinner…” (195). Total openness is the program which makes it possible to access these thoughts, no matter how meaningless they are. Without this form of technology, the characters would be able to choose which thoughts to share and which held little value, but without that boundary jealousy feeds on the thoughts which may not even come paired with genuine emotion.
The same problem can be seen in the Black Mirror episode, “The Entire History of You”, written by Jesse Armstrong, where memory implants (grains) can be used to replay moments from the past. When Liam sees his wife Ffi talking to another dinner guest named Jonas he is able to replay the different scenes of them conversing in his head and on their TV, further rooting his jealousy towards their interaction. The following is something Liam says to Ffi after a night of drunkenly replaying the dinner scene: “‘Spot the difference. I’m the difference. He’s the greatest guy in the world, and then I arrive, and you clam’” (Armstrong 22:10-22:03). The Grain has allowed Liam’s jealousy to fester and feed on overanalyzing the same interaction over and over again. This is similar to how Katie and Andy’s hatred for each other is able to grow off of the constant stream of thoughts they receive from the other without giving either partner a moment to rationalize what they are actually hearing.
Jealousy is also amplified by technology in “Children of the New World”, because the new world becomes such a normalized part of everyone’s life that subliminal pressure is put on others to engage in the new world. For example, “By then most everyone had heard of the Dark City…When I’d log off and go to work, the other men at the office made jokes about their weekends, a delicious guilt within their laughter. Smoothest bodies you’ll ever feel, they confided” (86). This is an example of the characters being surrounded by people discussing the pleasures of the Dark City and feeling pressured to experience it for themselves. In the end this jealousy is one of the factors which leads the two into the Dark City and causes them to trail viruses back to their home and fracture their family life. The same is true for the end of Andy and Katie’s relationship, which suffers its final blow due to jealousy. Andy relates, “In her annoyance an image from a deeper layer flashed into clear resolution. It was a glimpse of a future she’s imagined for herself, and I saw us canoeing in Maine…There in the canoe, was the family Katie wanted, and the man with her wasn’t me” (197). Instead of trying to have a conversation about what might have provoked this image, Andy gets infuriated and yells at Katie for even considering a future without him. It is this outburst that costs them their relationship. In the end, jealousy results in immense loss from the characters in both short stories and is one of the reasons the relationships they once held so dear crumble.
In short, both “Openness” and “Children of the New World” exhibit how technology diminishes relationships due to its tendencies to amplify toxic traits and thinking patterns such as curiosity and jealousy. In both cases, the characters experience tremendous loss as a result of these feelings being heightened and may not have experienced such pain if technology was not present in their relationships. These circumstances demonstrate the possible outcomes for humanity if we allow technology to inject itself into intimate personal connections. With intrusive social media already heavily integrated in society, artificial intelligence on the rise, and the metaverse developing, it is only a matter of time before these fictional stories become a reality.
“The Entire History of You.” Black Mirror, created by Jesse Armstrong, season 1, episode 3, Channel 4, 18 Dec. 2011, Netflix, www.netflix.com/title/70264888.
Weinstein, Alexander. “Children of the New World.” Children of the New World, Picador, 2016, pp. 83-96.
Weinstein, Alexander. “Openness.” Children of the New World, Picador, 2016, pp. 183-199.