I’ve never been able to predict the ways in which a seemingly random scenario can give rise to a life-long friend. When I think of the times I’ve had to move out of a house or lost a dream job or thrown something in to start again, I also think about the people that have sustained me. There’s my friend Sam, a publicist with a wicked sense of humour that I met once during a film festival and proceeded to hang out with every weekend we lived in the same city. I crossed paths with Kim during a backpacking trip in my 20s. I can talk to her about anything despite the fact that she resides halfway across the world. And there’s fiery, whip-smart Joanna, who I bonded with during tram rides to a dull-grey corporate workplace. That workplace didn’t last. Our friendship has.
The best platonic relationships are often accidental feats of circumstance and chemistry. Like great romance, they contain an element of mystique. On paper, there’s no guarantee that two misfits with disparate traits should be in each other’s lives forever. Happily, that’s often how it works out.
Given that algorithms influence everything from how we vote to the clothes we buy, it isn’t surprising that friendship may be technology’s next frontier. The platform We 3, founded by Canadian entrepreneur Julian Ilson, aims to solve our culture’s loneliness epidemic by connecting you with, as it puts it, two “shockingly compatible” people who live around you. Have a friend who’d rather drink at a bar than come with you to Crossfit? There’s pplkpr (pronounced “people keeper”). It’s an app that tracks and analyses the emotional responses you have to the people you hang out with via a smartwatch, weeding out friends who might be a negative influence.
Pplkpr, which started out as an art project, strives to optimise our social lives. But last year, Gmail, attempted to automate the very way we communicate with Smart Reply. The feature lets you respond to every query — from the serious (your friend’s getting divorced) to the frivolous (your friend shares a cat video) with a relentlessly chipper “thanks for sharing!” or “sounds good to me!”
Technology might hope to turn human interaction into a seamless exchange between shiny, happy people — as fuss-free as ordering Uber Eats or flicking through Netflix. But more disturbing, still, is the way the language of finance is colonising the way we talk about friendship. “Small investments in our everyday relationships can offer huge benefits when we most need them,” writes Tim Herrera in a May 2019 New York Times article. The piece goes on to cite Scott Galloway’s The Algebra of Happiness, a book that compares the rewards that stem from maintaining friendships to accruing compound interest.
Sure, tools for dealing with that pal that bails on you last-minute or makes barbed comments about your appearance sound useful. But it’s telling that this rise of friendship-as-a-service is part of the same late capitalist culture that’s less interested in shoring up the bonds between us than dividing us into individualist bubbles.
It’s one that advocates for staying in rather than going out while privatising the spaces with which we might commune with each other. It sells us weighted blankets and face masks for comfort while decimating our social safety nets. And it tells us that problems that are a consequence of human messiness and vulnerability are our fault because we’ve failed to live optimised lives.
That’s something I’ve never had to explain to Sam or Kim or Joanna. Our friendship is testament to all the ways in which this just isn’t true and never will be — despite the algorithms that insist otherwise.
Neha Kale is a freelance writer. You can follow Neha on Twitter @Neha_Kale.