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.

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2 thoughts on “Alone together…

  1. I don’t think technology use is the problem – I think the problem is the way we communicate using technology. Texting and social media. And also the way we are engaged with the internet. We need to give more attention to each other in real time. I feel very pessimistic about how children are growing up.

    1. I agree that it is the way we are using technology, not the technology its self. After writing this post I listened to a Freakonomics podcast, where they were talking about Aziz Ansari’s new book, Modern Romance: An Investigation. I haven’t read it yet, but he said that the idea for the book came from talking to Sherry Turkle. It sounds like he is very much on the same page.

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