Tuesday, August 2, 2011

An Inconvenient Conversation: Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together

I’ve always been an advocate for technology. As an information professional, my regard and respect for the tools that help us access, analyse and communicate this currency of our knowledge economy are vital to both our existence and success. Personally and professionally, our social networks matter more than ever to our careers. I do believe it is important to adapt and adopt, or be left behind.

That being said, I also believe that the age-old ability to personally connect with ourselves (and with one another) remains imperative to the human experience. A recent stream of events and observations has had me thinking: do our digital tools and connections distract us from caring for those real and most vital relationships? Every so often, I find myself amongst those who tend to sneak a peek at my phone, or email, when I should otherwise be in the moment. I’ve also observed that this addiction has been inherited by the heir to my legacy. My two-year-old once greeted me at the airport gates yelling “Mommy! Black cell phone!” (Well, at least she said my name first.) With any touch screen in her fingers, she goes to work. Even at her tender young age, she knows what all the apps do. What ever happened to just sitting in a sandbox and digging a hole? There’s probably now an app for that.

Of course this behaviour is not quarantined to my household. The epidemic is far more unrestrained outside. I have friends who have informed me that if I do not text, I just won’t reach them. I have others with whom I’ve shared my innermost secrets, via the cold Facebook chat interface. The final straw came when I was recently informed via text messaging that an otherwise seemingly wonderful relationship was ending. (Haven’t been dumped digitally yet? Oh man, you’re missing out! It’s a whole new level of character building worthlessness.) I had to wonder when and how did my important relationships become these aloof, disposable applications? These issues are explored further in MIT technology and society professor Sherry Turkle’s publication Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other (Basic Books, 2010). Turkle examines how technology becoming less a tool to use in our relationships, and more so the relationship. How we have become so used to carrying out our emotional lives via gadgets and social networking it has led to the “emotional dumbing down” of our society. Throughout her work, she illustrates how while technology has allowed us to achieve great things, our “inability to be separated from these compelling machines” has taken us away from our real lives and relationships. While we are more connected then ever, we are also lonelier than ever. 

Author Sherry Turkle
Turkle examines our evolving relationship with artificial intelligence in the first section of her work, The Robotic Moment: In Solitude, New Intimacies. Focusing on the ideas of robots as substitutes for people, she explores the interactions of children with robotic toys and pets. The Furby and My Real Baby allow children to care for and even teach an interactive machine. Turkle examines the intense and immediate connection that children develop for their cyborg friends. The fact that they are not organic does not seem to faze the children: to them the robots are “alive enough.” In fact, some suggest they could be even better than the real thing as they “won’t run away or die.” Turkle moved on from robotic playmates to examine caregivers. Artificial intelligence has been suggested as acceptable alternatives to people as babysitters to the young and caregivers for an aging population. This reserves human resources and lowers the guilt levels in those who cannot find (or will not find) time to visit their ailing relatives.

While robotic technology may promise to keep people safe, it may also be “better than nothing” to an otherwise isolated senior. Turkle stresses how this just won’t do. She explains her scepticism by stating that she believes “sociable technology will always disappoint because it promises what it cannot deliver. It promises friendship but can only deliver performances. Do we really want to be in the business of manufacturing friends that will never be friends?” While a robot can be programmed to keep someone safe enough to care for them, they don’t possess the crucial element of empathy to care about them. “It is easy to become so immersed in technology that we ignore what we know about life,” Turkle says. Does a machine know that the child also loves to go for ice cream? Does it understand the insecurities of childhood, the indignities of old age and all those neurotic idiosyncrasies that make us who we are? Further to not being an appropriate substitute to human touch, Turkle also warns that we are losing the sense of love’s labour. We are no longer taking care of each other; a hardship that is so important to the human experience.

By Sam Gross

The second half, Networked: In Intimacy, New Solitudes, explores something that most of us have experienced. Turkle covers fascinating themes such as the creation of online realities, loneliness and the lost ability to be alone. She acknowledges that electronic messaging and online avatars may be used as communication aids for those who experience anxiety in social situations. However, one wonders when this can be taken too far when we use our Facebook and Second Life to create images to only fantasize about. Perhaps if one were to channel this energy into our actual lives, to strive for self improvement, perhaps we could create what we dream about in the flesh. I find that this aspect of new technology is robbing us of becoming our true selves.

Turkle next continues to explore the breakdown of our emotional relationships. With online relationships and the real life ones managed online, she claims, the technology allow us to control our once unpredictable interactions with others. But it also lets us avoid the pains of real intimacy. She states that since we are “insecure in our relationships and anxious about intimacy, we look to technology for ways to be in relationships and protect ourselves from them at the same time […] we fear the risks and disappointments of relationships with our fellow humans.” This power over our lives and emotions comes with a price. Research has revealed that “Americans [are] increasingly insecure, isolated, and lonely.” By avoiding any pain, we miss out on the best stuff: “Love relationship involves coming to savour the surprises and the rough patches of looking at the world from another’s point of view, shaped by history, biology, trauma, and job.” Virtual relationships cannot provide this.

Strangely, our isolation is not pure either. By always being online we “deny ourselves the rewards of solitude.” We’ve lost the ability to focus, to think, and to just be. This is especially risky for adolescents, as Turkle explains, who, always connected, are missing time to think and discover themselves. This could be the cause for adults acting like children, irresponsible with a need for instant gratification. These are the risks of not knowing oneself. Without an inner sense of self-establishment, we rely on others for constant validation

Whubble, by Jamie Smart

Sherry Turkle presents a compelling, inconvenient and necessary perspective on how, within a very short time period, technology has greatly altered the way we talk to each other. Her discussion is anthropologically centred, exploring how “our tools shape us.” While her argument is significantly one-sided, I do believe it holds great truths. To neutralize the argument, I would say that we are very much self-selecting in this technological revolution. Those who are prone to certain behaviours will practice them regardless of the tools they have at hand. Although I am surprised at how easy the rest of us can still be seduced.

Again, I do stress that for the most part I find the technologies, such as text messages, Skype and Facebook, to be efficient ‘alternatives’ to keeping in touch when you’re otherwise anchored apart. I like how they help us share ideas, tap into the valuable knowledge of our friends and colleagues, all the while keeping us connected. I’ve also found sentimentality in it. I’ve found myself saving messages that mean a lot to me. Overall, I am very thankful we have them.

But instant messaging will never replace catching up with a friend over dinner; no applications can replace watching a child’s face light up in discovery of our natural world; sexting does not come close to the weight of a lover; and a robot will never provide the comfort and joy felt by an aging parent after a visit from their child. Alone Together is a valuable and important book that shows how we should use technology to help us become our best selves. But in real life, not in our best virtual selves.

Laura Warner is a librarian, researcher and aspiring writer living in Toronto. She is currently based in the Canadian Broadcasting Centre’s Music Library.

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