Alone together…

This is the sixth post in a series, sharing some books I’ve been reading recently. This post is about the following book:

alone together

Alone Together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other.” By Sherry Turkle.

A bit of a summary:

Turkle paints an interesting picture of our social lives and how these have altered with our reliance on digital technologies. She says that the lines are blurring between the technology and humans – “We seem determined to give human qualities to objects and content to treat each other as things.”  We are becoming increasingly reliant on technology to combat loneliness and provide companionship without the pitfalls of face to face relationships but, Turkle says, technology is a poor substitute for real, human contact.

Part One: The Robotic Moment

Turkle explores examples such as a baby seal for the elderly and Furbies for children. Such creatures, Turkle says, are altering our ways of relating to others – for example, “With robot pets, children can give enough to feel attached, but then they can turn away.  They are learning a way of feeling connected in which they have permission to think only of themselves.”

We are also starting to perceive robots to have human qualities and act like they are real, feeling various emotions usually reserved for ‘real-life’ communications with people and pets. We might be using such technologies for our own selfish gains too, in caring for the elderly and children, palming off our responsibilities to robots.

Turkle suggests that this might have rather sad implications – “Sociable robotics may augur the sanctioning of ‘relationships’ that make us feel connected although we are alone.”  And “As we learn to get the ‘most’ out of robots, we may lower our expectations of all relationships.” However, such robots do allow us to avoid the ‘messiness’ of real human relationships, for better or worse.

Part Two: Networked

This section explores the effects we might experience from spending such vast amounts of time on devices. Turkle talks about multitasking and the way in which we attempt to maintain online relationships as well as ‘real-life’ ones. This, Turkle says, has adversely affected our face-to face interactions as we are always a bit distracted. Because of changes in social norms and etiquette, where it is OK to txt in a meeting or when you’re with family and friends,  “we have found ways of spending more time with friends and family in which we hardly give them any attention at all.”

Our sense of self might also suffer – “When part of your life is lived in virtual places…a vexed relationships develops between what is true and what is ‘true here,’ true in simulation.” We share small snips of what makes us who we are on social media and create characters that may or may not represent ourselves sufficiently on online games. Such games and interactions, Turkle believes, actually make us lonelier – “We defend connectivity as a way to be close, even as we effectively hide from each other.”

Not only our sense of self is in jeopardy, but our understanding of what makes a meaningful relationship. We might think that our online life gives us more, when in fact it may make us less fulfilled by our real-life interactions. We also like to construct an online persona that is perfect and refine our communications online to the nth degree. In real life this just isn’t possible, so is inevitably more difficult.

Time is another important theme that comes up. Interviewees lament the fact their job takes over their life, they can’t escape constant communication, they lack the time to see their friends in real-life

In summary, Turkle says “…we expect more from technology and less from each other.  This puts us at the center of a perfect storm.  Overwhelmed, we have been drawn to connections that seem low risk and always at hand….  If convenience and control continue to be our priorities, we shall be tempted by sociable robots, where, like gamblers at their slot machines, we are promised excitement programmed in, just enough to keep us in the game.” We have adopted technology to help us with our vulnerabilities, but this has had the opposite effect on us and we have forgotten what is important in our relationships and as an individual.

My response to/thinking about this text:

On reading this book, I wondered whether we get too caught up in dichotomies of technology being good or evil. I wonder whether, if we saw it as just a tool, we would adopt technology in a balanced manner, whereby we pick the applications that suit us and our own needs. Perhaps it comes back to being discerning, critical and analytical, and using technology to meet our needs when it is fit for purpose – “We don’t need to reject or disparage technology.  We need to put it in its place.” A text is great to ask someone to pick up a bottle of milk, but not so great to break up with someone. And the same applies the other way – it would be much less convenient to find the person and ask them face to face to pick up a bottle of milk on the way home.

Having said this, the stories about robots comforting elderly people, playing with children and so on were fairly disturbing for me. I dare say it is very easy to opt out of real life responsibility if you are that way inclined. If you had strong moral and ethical values you would never do this though, you would visit the elderly family member yourself. Again, it comes back to fit for purpose and using technology as a cognitive exercise.


EEEK! Did you know that about the internet?!

This is the fifth post in a series, sharing some reading I’ve been doing lately. This post is about the following book:


The filter bubble: How the new personalised web is changing what we read and how we think.” By Eli Pariser.


A bit of a summary:

Pariser writes about how sites like Google and Facebook (amongst others) filter out results that their algorithms deem irrelevant to you.  There is no longer a single Google – if two people search for the same thing, we will both get different results, depending on our previous online activity. These algorithms are called ‘personalisation’ and allow vast swathes of content to be personalised to you. This can be incredibly useful when you want to narrow down a search for a fact or a local restaurant’s name and so forth, but can have the effect of narrowing your view of the world. Instead of seeing a wide variety of ideas you tend to see your own views echoed back at you.

All these combined personalising algorithms are called the Filter Bubble – an online world that is totally unique to you. The effect of this is that we don’t come across enough ideas that rub us up the wrong way, challenge our ideas and spark creativity. It also means that “by illustrating some possibilities and blocking our others, the filter bubble has a hand in your decisions. And in turn, it shapes who you become.” Which is, Pariser says, a single identity which doesn’t differentiate between the ‘you’ in different contexts, times and aspirational versions of yourself.

Pariser also discusses the way in which this information about you is translated into money, through sharing your data with advertisers. In addition to this, Pariser talks to us about the kind of content we tend to see, which may be more sex, drugs and rock and roll than important world issues. This taints our view of the world – “if television gives us a ‘mean world,’ the filter bubble gives us an ‘emotional world’.” And who is deciding what we should see? Not a human with ethics (or lack thereof) but a program. The problem is, Pariser says, not so much that certain ideas are hidden from us, but that we have no control over what is hidden and what isn’t, so we don’t know what is hidden.

Pariser concludes the book with some predictions for the future and some recommendations that basically put some of the control back in citizens’ hands.

My response to/thinking about this text:

Firstly, I was glad Pariser had written a book that made sense to a non-techie pleb like me! After reading this book, I must say the thing that concerned me the most was the idea that someone should be curating all the worthwhile stuff to read on the internet. Who is this someone? How do they decide what is noteworthy and what is not? Is this the same for everyone, throughout the globe? It was then that I came across Pariser’s site “Upworthy” which aims to “help people find important content that is as fun to share as a FAIL video of some idiot surfing off his roof.” I hoped that Pariser himself wasn’t the one to do the curating and he’s not, it’s a collaborative effort of, on the day of writing, about 4 people. I guess the idea just needs to catch on, to harness great diversity in ideas and opinions.

I also wonder whether it is really just about being aware of this and being a little bit clever about our internet usage and carefully crafting your digital footprint.  I know people don’t like techie things being called tools, but isn’t it just like knowing when to read Woman’s Day versus Time magazine, as well as seeking out broad perspectives?