Technology as a Form of Vertical Relationships

In “The Challenge of Absent Presence”, Kenneth Gergen argues that our culture is moving from an emphasis on vertical friendships to a focus on horizontal registers (232). In layman’s terms, horizontal relationships are ones that barely scratch the surface of superficiality. A horizontally focused person may have 500 acquaintances, but is very close friends with almost none of them. In today’s terms, this person would have thousands of Instagram followers but few meaningful real life friends. “Relating in the vertical register,” on the other hand, “requires dedicated attention, effort, commitment and sacrifice” (233). Vertical relationships are ones where you would actually enjoy going on a 12 hour road trip together. A vertically focused person does not have a large number of friends, but he is deeply involved with all of the friends he does have.

Gergen argues that technology brings with it an absent presence – a phenomenon where a person is physically present but mentally or socially disengaged (in this case due to the use of technology). This absent presence, he further argues, is what leads to horizontal registers. We are no longer fully present around our friends, so we tend towards horizontal relationships as opposed to vertical ones.

I believe Gergen’s argument is flawed here. He needs to further develop the distinction he makes between dialogic and monologic technologies. Monologic tech activities (listening to music, streaming video, reading) are entirely disengaging, and Gergen is correct to assert that these activities lead to horizontal relationships. Dialogic technology, on the other hand, merely asserts a preference of one relationship over another. Consider the following example. A college student at a party chooses to text her best friend from her hometown instead of conversing with her friends who are physically present.

Gergen would say that this girl is promoting horizontal relationships with those friends that are present, but he would fail to notice that she could potentially be furthering a vertical relationship with the friend back home. I say potentially because it all depends on the situation. If this really is a true friend, then the girl is showing “attention, effort, commitment and sacrifice” by texting her hometown friend instead of socializing. On the other hand, if the friend is merely a common acquaintance then the girl would probably be better served focusing on the friends physically present.


Katz, James E., and Aakhus, Mark, eds. Perpetual Contact : Mobile Communication, Private Talk, Public Performance. Cambridge, GB: Cambridge University Press, 2002. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 10 September 2017.

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