Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Immediacy versus immensity. What does it mean to be only a couple of key strokes away from speaking to anyone on the planet? We still struggle to find an adequate metaphor for the impact of technology on daily life today.
I am reminded of when I arrived in Germany as a foreign exchange student in 1978, Before I left, I could not find my destination, Göttingen, on any map that I owned or could find in the local library. Furthermore, my correspondence with the university was entirely in German, a language that I had studied but not yet mastered. When my flight arrived in Frankfurt, I was entirely at the mercy of the stationmaster to get on the right train to reach my destination. Today, answers to all such travel questions can be found on any smart phone; one need not be fluent in German to understand them fully; and, anywhere along the way, you can call your parents (or kids) to help sort everything out. Talk about a reduction in uncertainty!
The effect of changes in technology on us as individuals and on today’s culture is the subject of Sherry Turkle’s book, Alone Together. Turkle explores the immediacy of technology in part one—The Robotic Moment: In Solitude, New Intimacies—and the immensity of technology in part two—Networked: In Intimacy, New Solitudes (vii). While these parts could easily have been themes in separate books, Turkle’s interest in the changing perceptions of intimacy and solitude clearly binds them together. Alone Together is part of a trilogy (The Second Self, Alone Together, and Life on the Screen; 4) focused on the cultural effect of technology.
Turkle’s 14 chapters are equally divided between analysis of the individual response to robots—
- Nearest Neighbors
- Alive Enough
- True Companions
- Love’s Labor Lost
—and the response to life tethered to cell and computer networks—
- Always On
- Growing Up Tethered
- No Need to Call
- Reduction and Betrayal
- True Confessions
- The Nostalgia of the Young (vii-viii).
Throughout the book, Turkle anticipated my anxieties about technology and offering a balanced assessment. She writes:
“we are so enmeshed in our connections that we neglect each other. We don’t need to reject or disparage technology. We need to put it in its place” (295)
In other words, technology is a tool that can be used for either good or evil.
Turkle’s focus on the individual response to technology is no accident. Turkle describes herself as: “the Abby Rockefeller Mauze Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, the founder and director of the MIT initiative on Technology and Self, and a licensed clinical psychologist.” Her background as a psychologist shows through clearly in her choice of topics to discuss and in her extensive use of case studies to authenticate her points. An economist or sociologist might easily have focused more on questions of productivity and institutional change, but Turkle never goes there. Here the focus is on responses by individuals to technology—no military drones, no self-driving cars, no targeted advertising, no robotic assembly lines, no wiz bang. Turkle’s perspective is reflective, fresh. Her special concern is for children.
Let me focus a minute on Turkle’s two parts: robotics and networking.
Robotics. As a member of the MIT faculty, Turkle has special access to the MIT robotics lab where her work focuses on social robots, especially robotic toys like Tamagotchi, Furbi, Merlin, My Real Baby, Cog, Kismit, and so on. Turkle writes:
“Technology is seductive when what it offers meets our human vulnerabilities. And as it turns out, we are very vulnerable indeed. We are lonely but fearful of intimacy. Digital connections and the sociable robot may offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship.” (1)
Unlike Barbie, who invites you to project your issues and emotions on the doll in a kind of Rorshach test, these toys interact, talk, and appear to learn with you—what Turkle describes as a “new psychology of engagement” (38). In other words, the relationship possible with these robots is much more complex than that with traditional toys. For example, citing Baird, she asks:
“How long can you hold the object [a toy, an animal, or a robot] upside down before your emotions make you turn it back?” (45)
With a toy, no one cares if you abuse it; with a gerbil, abuse is seen as cruel and is discouraged by most adults; but with a robot, like Furby, that complains, how do you respond—do you feel an ethical dilemma? Why? Turkle observes: “We are at the point of seeing digital objects as both creatures and machines.” (46)
As part of her research, Turkle lent these robotic toys to children and adults and then return after two weeks to interview them about their experiences and to retrieve the toys. Frequently, the interviews would be postponed as the recipients—even the adults—did not want to give up the toys. Occasionally, this issue posed an embarrassment, such as when a grandmother obviously preferred a robot, My Real Baby, to spending time with their own grandchildren (118). This happened so often that Turkle stopped trying to retrieve the robots after the interviews.
Networking. The immensity of telephone and computer networks can be intimating. Not only do we have the ability to contact anyone, anywhere on earth; we never really leave home. Turkle writes:
“When I grew up the idea of ‘global village’ was an abstraction. My daughter lives something concrete. Emotionally, socially, wherever she goes, she never leaves home.” (156)
This level of connectedness poses a challenge for adolescents who have a developmental need to separate themselves from their parents (174).
Especially in American culture, individual autonomy is a cultural icon. In my own experience as a foreign student, the current level of connection made possible through cell phones and the internet was unthinkable. During my year in Germany, for example, my primary way of communicating with my parents was to write letters. Telephone calls were so expensive that my gift for Christmas from my host family was a call home. My remoteness during the year disrupted a number of relationships, particularly with my parents, but I was well-prepared for this separation having worked summers as a camp counselor in high school and attended college out of state. By contrast, my own kids have had cell phones since high school and are seldom out of touch with their mother for more than a few days; they are more normally in touch several times a day.
Turkle talks about kids using texting to validate emotions even before they are fully aware of them. In effect, they poll their friends on how they should feel about things or test out emotions before fully investing in them (175-177). To my ears, this sounds like co-dependency. She writes:
“in the psychoanalytical tradition, one speaks about narcissism not to indicate people who love themselves, but a personality so fragile that it needs constant support. It cannot tolerate the complex demands of other people but tries to relate to them by distorting who they are and splitting off what it needs, what it can use.” (177)
So here we have a niche for technology—to insulate people from the push and pull of normal, complex human interaction. What is perhaps surprising is that kids that text constantly are often texting their own parents (178)—which suggests a heightened need for a mature and informed parenting style precisely when mature adults are becoming scarcer than exits in a movie fire!
Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together is hugely interesting, informative, and accessible read. College professors looking for insight in discussing the role of technology should consider this book. I would certainly consider reading the other books in this trilogy.
 At one point the year after I returned home I visited relatives and attended a dinner party. No one felt comfortable talking with me. Finally, I learned why—my farm relatives could not imagine that a world traveler, such as myself, would find talking to them interesting to speak with. Once we got over that point, things picked up and returned to a more normal interaction.