THE BLOG

Apple Selling Computerized Companionship: Are You Buying It?

06/13/2012 11:05 am ET | Updated Aug 13, 2012
  • Caryn Ward Assistant Professor, Medill, Northwestern University

She's not a real friend. I'm just saying.

Of course with the new Apple ads for iPhone 4S, the folks at Apple are selling much more than a phone. The latest television ad with John Malkovich is selling companionship. Call it friendship in a computer chip and her name is Siri.

The most disturbing part of the ads with the erudite actor is that he is always alone, except for his computerized constant companion, Siri. And he's very happy that way.

The ads always show him laughing or enjoying Siri's conversation. She tells him a joke, "Two iPhones walked into a bar... " She also converses about the meaning of life, "Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book... "

To be fair Apple is not the only company selling a friend on your phone. The Android phones have Andrew, the Android butler who invites guests to a party and makes sure they know how to get to the host's home.

Of course a "relationship" with Siri or Andrew is much less complicated than having to talk to a real companion. Siri doesn't get put off when you disagree with her. If you said, "Siri that's stupid" you wouldn't hurt her feelings. If you feel like linguica, as Malkovich does in one of his Siri moments, she won't say she'd rather have tacos. By the way, linguica is a highly spiced Portuguese garlic sausage. I admit I had to look that up. Again that conversation was much easier with Siri. She didn't have to look it up, she knew exactly what it was.

So what? It's just a commercial. Surely Malkovich has people in his life, Siri is not his only "friend". But Apple didn't embark on this ad campaign by accident. It says something about us that the company thinks it can sell us its phone by selling us a picture of life lived happily alone.

And the numbers support Apple. According to the 2010 U.S. Census 27.3 percent of all households consist of someone living alone.

Eric Klinenberg is a sociology professor at New York University who literally wrote the book on living alone. It's called Going Solo. Klinenberg told the New York Times recently, "We need to make a distinction between living alone and being alone."

Let's also make a distinction between real conversation and computerized conversation. Siri isn't the only phone function that keeps people from talking to each other. According to a 2011 study by the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project, people send or receive more than 40 text messages a day on average.

Take a minute to look up from your cell phone next time you're in a crowd. If you do you will see nearly everyone else either talking on their phone or head down, thumbs typing and texting. We are becoming a people who prefer to be alone with our phones even when we're in a crowd. What happened to looking someone in the eye, reading a person's body language?

I would much rather surround myself with noisy, messy, opinionated people who know me and care about me than a "yes" man, or woman, like Siri. Sure she has all the answers but she can't surprise us with an unexpected and thoughtful gesture or gift.

When I think about the rough patches in my life -- the death of a loved one, a pending divorce, a job layoff, tough parenting moments -- I also think of how my friends helped me get through them. Whether it was a shoulder to cry on or a place to live until I could get my act together, the people in my life made sure I didn't have to go through anything alone. I want my children to have people in their lives, not just Siri.

So John Malkovich might be enjoying Siri's company, but I'm not buying it. Malkovich closes one of his Siri commercials with, "I enjoyed this chat immensely. You are very eloquent." Nice sentiments, but he should save it for someone who cares.