MIT-based psychologist Sherry Turkle will be presenting her latest book, ALONE TOGETHER: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other” at Washington College on later this spring. Her groundbreaking work examines how digital technology, from personal computers and robotic devices to everyday life and our current use of iPhones, Facebook, and Skype, has spawned a new form of solitude by changing our relationships to the world and to each other.
Sherry Turkle is Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology and the founder and current director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. Profiles of Professor Turkle have appeared in The New York Times, Scientific American, and Wired Magazine and she is a featured media commentator for CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, and NPR.
The Chestertown Spy had a few questions before Dr. Turkle arrives.
Q: Why did you decide to write this book?
A: I was motivated by three things. First, a new relationship between people and computers. Second, two new technologies that propose themselves as architects of our intimate lives.
Third, this is a book of repentance. I have been studying computers and people for thirty years. I didn’t see several important things. I got some important things wrong. I wanted to go on record about where I had gotten things wrong.
Q: What is the new relationship between people and machines?
A: When I first came to MIT, many decades ago, personal computers (they called them “home computers” then) were just coming on the market. A group of MIT faculty got together to think about how we were going to keep the computers busy. Faculty proposed tax preparation and games. They thought that children would learn to program. Some academics thought that home computers would be used to keep calendars; others insisted this was a dumb idea. In fact, there really weren’t a lot of ideas about how we might keep computers busy. Actually, now we know that once computers connected us to each other, once we became tethered to the network, we really didn’t need to keep computers busy. They keep us busy, very busy.
Q: What do you mean that “technology proposes itself as the architect of our intimacies?”
A: I mean that new technologies are not coy about their aspiration to substitute relationships with technology for relationships with people. First, technology proposes a substitution of virtual life for the other kind through social networking and more generally, through life as an avatar. Second, roboticists propose sociable robots that will substitute for human companionships. For example, they work on elder care bots and nanny bots. I see danger in both of these proposals for substitution.
Technology is seductive when what it offers meet our human vulnerabilities. And as it turns out, we are very vulnerable indeed. We are lonely, but fearful of intimacy. Connectivity offers the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. We can’t get enough of each other, if we can have each other at a distance, in amounts that we can control: the ability to hide from each other even as we are constantly connected to each other. To put it simply, we’d rather text than talk.
When we even contemplate giving the care of children to a robot, we embark on a “forbidden experiment.” The healthy development of a child depends on being
exposed to the full range of human expressions and vocal inflections. It depends on that child feeling love and care of a person who knows how to love and care. None of this is available from a robot. And our elders – and one day we will all be our elders – want to talk about the meaning of their lives with those who understand what a life is. And what things have human meaning – the recollection of a child’s birthday, of a marriage, of the loss of a spouse. Robots can understand none of this.
Q: What do you mean when you say that this is a book of repentance?
A: In my previous work on the Internet, I focused on how it offers new possibilities for experimenting with identity, and particularly in adolescence, the sense of a free space, a kind of identity workshop. This is a time, relatively consequence-free, for doing what adolescents need to do: fall in and out of love with people and ideas. Real life does not always provide this kind of space, but the Internet does. Adults, too, use the Internet as a useful place for experimentation. All of this remains true, but I did not look, for example, at issues of privacy. Because people were not on the grid 24/7, I could not take the measure of what it would mean for teenagers to have the possibility of living all the time in a culture of performances. Now, I think it is important to look at such “discontents,” not to carp on problems or to be negative for the sake of being negative. Rather, discontents with how our technological culture is playing out can point us to what we miss, to what we hold dear and do not want to lose. They point us to our sacred spaces.
Q: What is the “nostalgia of the young” you mention in the book? What are some of the things teens are reaching for?
A: Teenagers talk about the idea of having each others “full attention.” They grew up in a culture of distraction. They remember that their parents were on cell phones when they were pushed on swings as toddlers. Now, their parents text at the dinner table and don’t look up from their BlackBerries when they come for end-of-school day pickup. From the moment this generation met technology, it was the competition. And significantly, young people imagine a world in which information is not taken from them automatically, just as the cost of doing business. One sixteen-year-old told me that when he really wants privacy, he uses a pay phone, “the kind that takes coins . . . and that is really hard to find in Boston!” Another says she feels safe online because “Who would care about me and my little life.” These are not empowering mantras.
Q: Parents often model the very same behaviors that upset them in their children (such as constant distraction by texts, BlackBerries, etc.) Why is that? And what can they do to set examples of healthy/productive relationships with technology for their children?
A: The most important thing is for parents to recognize that they are teaching their children the very things that upset them. Parents and children are in this together. There are moments of opportunity for families; moments that they need to put the technology away. These include: no phones or texting during meals. No phones or texting when parents pick up children at school – a child is looking to make eye contact with a waiting parent! Children complain so much about this. No phones or texting when you take your children to the playground. It is painful to watch children trying to show off for parents who are engrossed in their cell phones. Children are even nostalgic for the “good old days” when parents used to read to them without the cell phone by their side or watch football games or Disney movies without having the BlackBerry handy. Children crave “full attention.” Different kinds of conversations happen when children feel they have their parents’ full attention.
Q: You speak of mobile technology as taking us beyond a “second self” to a “new state of the self itself.” What are some of its characteristics?
A: People have new confusions about when they are alone and when they are together. They are confused about intimacy and solitude. We talk about getting “rid” of our e-mails, as though these notes were so much excess baggage. Tethered to technology, we are shaken when that world “unplugged” does not signify, does not satisfy. After an evening of avatar-to-avatar talk in a networked game, we feel, at one moment, in possession of a full social life, and in the next, curiously isolated, in tenuous complicity with strangers. We build a following on Facebook and wonder to what degree our followers are friends. We recreate ourselves as online personae in games or in a virtual world and give ourselves new bodies, homes, jobs, and romances. Yet, suddenly, in the half-light of virtual community, we may feel utterly alone. We are not sure who to count on. Virtual friendships and worlds offer connection with uncertain claims to commitment. People are lonely. Connectivity is seductive.
Q: You portray teenagers as “conversation avoidant.” Is that a problem?
A: Teenagers would rather text than talk. They feel that calls would reveal too much. They want the control that comes with texting or being able to “compose” an instant message. This means that they are learning how to “perform” – in a profile, as an avatar, but not respond to the easy give and take of conversation. Adults, too, choose keyboards over the human voice. In corporations, among friends, within academic departments, people readily admit that they would rather leave a voice mail or send an e-mail than talk face-to-face. Here, we use technologies to “dial down” human contact, to titrate its nature and extent. People are comforted by being in touch with a lot of people whom they also keep at bay.
Q: Do our new technologies foster new anxieties?
A: Yes, there are specific new anxieties of disconnection, a kind of panic. In interviews with young and old, I find people genuinely terrified of being cut off from the “grid.” People say that the loss of a cell phone can “feel like a death.” One says that without that phone, “I felt like I had lost my mind.” A danger even to ourselves, we insist on our right to send text messages from our moving cars and object to rules that would limit the practice.
We measure success by calls made, e-mails answered, texts replied to, contacts reached. And here, we confront a paradox. We insist that our world is increasingly complex, yet we have created a communications culture that has decreased the time available for us to sit and think, uninterrupted. And we communicate with each other in ways that ask for almost instantaneous responses; we don’t allow ourselves the space to explain complicated problems.
We turn to technology to help us find time. But we end up spending more time with technology and less with each other. And there, again, is the vicious circle. Technology makes us busier than ever and so we seek online relationships that seem to have less emotional risk and can be customized to our wants. These are the new things, the new kinds of relationships that we are beginning to sort out. It is time to start a conversation.
Q: You focus on the lives of teenagers. How does cell phone culture change their development?
A: Connectivity helps adolescents deal with the difficulties of separation. When you leave home with a cell phone you are not as cut off as previous generations. Separation can be worked through in smaller steps. But now you may find yourself texting your parents fifteen times a day. You become comfortable with a grown up “on tap.” And your friends, too, are always around. You come to enjoy the feeling of never having to be alone.
Having technology always around makes it possible to go from feeling a feeling and deciding to share it (“I have a feeling; I want to make a call”) to using the technology as part of feeling one’s feelings. (“I want to have a feeling; I need to send a text.”) Technology enables an emotional style in which we don’t credit our feelings until they are communicated. Put otherwise, there is every opportunity to form a thought by sending out for comments. In this, what is not being cultivated is the ability to be alone, to reflect on one’s emotions in solitude, to gather oneself.
Q: Do you see new political dangers in the online life?
A: Unfortunately, I do. Teenagers are always on the network, always leaving a trace. It has taken a generation for people to begin to understand that on the Internet, the words “delete” and “erase” are metaphorical. The Internet never forgets. Over time (and I say this with much anxiety) living with an electronic shadow begins to feel so natural that it seems to disappear until a moment of crisis – a lawsuit, a scandal, an investigation. Then, we are caught short, turn around, and see that we have been the instruments of our own surveillance.
For many, the idea that “you don’t need privacy if you have nothing to hide” is a mantra for our times. Internet gurus instruct us that the way to deal with our lack of privacy is to “just be good.” But sometimes a citizenry should not simply “be good.” You have to leave space for dissent, real dissent. In democracy, perhaps we all need to begin with the assumption that everyone has something to hide, a zone of private action and reflection, a zone that needs to be protected no matter what our techno-enthusiasms.
To me, opening up a conversation about privacy and civil society is not romantically nostalgic, not Luddite in the least. It seems like part of a healthy process of democracy defining its sacred spaces.
Q: Do you think we are addicted to the Internet?
A: No matter how much the metaphor of addiction may seem to fit our circumstance, we can ill afford the luxury of using it. It does not serve us well. To end addiction, you have to discard the substance. And we know that we are not going to “get rid” of the Internet. We are not going to “get rid” of social networking. We will not go “cold turkey” or forbid cell phones to our children. Addiction—with its one solution that we know we won’t use—makes us feel hopeless, passive.
We will find new paths, but a first step will surely be to not consider ourselves passive victims of a bad substance, but to acknowledge that in our use of networked technology, we have incurred some costs that we don’t want to pay. We are not in trouble because of invention but because we think it will solve everything. As we consider all this, we will not find a “solution” or a simple answer. But we cannot assume that the life technology makes easy is how we want to live. There is time to make the corrections.
Q: Apart from addiction, are there other fallacies in our current thinking about the Net?
A: There is one other obvious fallacy. Because we grew up with the Net, we assume that the Net is grown up. We tend to see what we have now as the technology in its maturity. This is a dangerous habit of thought. We need to remember that we are in very early days. The “tethered” life of always-on and always-on-us mobile technologies speaks to our vulnerabilities, our insecurities and desires for continual validation. But we don’t have to respond to everything that talks to us this way. Every technology provides an opportunity to ask, “Does it serve our human purposes?” a question that causes us to reconsider what these purposes are.
Q: Why do you think some people are drawn to the idea of robots as viable options for childcare or tending to the elderly? Do you think we’ll start to see this phenomenon any time soon?
A: There are already ambitious research programs to develop elder care bots and nanny bots. The fantasy is that we will somehow “offload” or “outsource” those things that we are finding hard to keep up with as a society. Child care for working mothers. Elder care for senior citizens. We have not invested in these. When people talk to me about their fantasies about robots, they talk about how people have disappointed them. I don’t see robots as a solution – for robots cannot give us the love and care we need and deserve – but I see our preoccupation with “caring machines” as a symptom for how we have disappointed each other. That is what needs to be addressed.
Q: Does your work on the topics of Alone Together continue?
A: Yes, because the story continues and in ever more urgent ways. I’ve spent fifteen years working on Alone Together. To study mobile culture, mostly over the past five years, I’ve interviewed 450 people (300 children and 150 adults). I found that they have more in common than they think. To study, people and sociable robots, over the last fifteen years, I’ve studied more than 250 people, children and adults. I find that children and adults have more in common than they think. We often accuse children of behavior on their phones that we as adults are modeling for them (texting at meals, texting while driving, interrupting conversations to take calls). I’m interested in how we can work on building families that can face the challenges of digital culture together.