Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other
Posted by nliakos on January 16, 2013
by Sherry Turkle (Basic Books, 2011)
Sherry Turkle is a psychologist at MIT who has been studying and writing about people’s use of technology and how people are affected by technology since the 1980s. Her latest book is like two books in one. The first part, “The Robotic Movement: In Solitude, New Intimacies,” is about social robots–those designed as children’s toys (Furby, My Real Baby, AIBO…) and those potentially used as companions for the elderly and disabled (Paro, My Real Baby…). Turkle acquires the robots and takes them to schools and homes, sometimes lending them out for several weeks; then she interviews the children and adults about their “interaction” with the robots. She is disturbed by how easily people seem to be taken in by the robots’ performance of understanding and emotion (as if they are “wired” to respond to certain expressions or actions). Even people (both children and adults) who understand clearly that the robots are machines (like the robots’ designer, in at least one case) respond to them as if they were alive… or at least “alive enough”. Children worry that their grandparents, given these robots, might choose the robots over them–and indeed, Turkle describes a scene in which this actually happens.
In the second part, “Networked: In Intimacy, New Solitudes,” Turkle focuses on people who are always connected (she actually prefers the word tethered, which has a much different association)–primarily teenagers, but also adults and older people. She reports on interviews with many people who describe their inability to resist when they receive a text message: teenagers who send text messages hundreds of times every day and parents who ignore their children for their BlackBerries. (She notes that for a child, having a parent physically near but constantly occupied on their mobile device or computer is probably more devastating than the parent’s physical absence.) She interviews high school students who wrench themselves away from their phones in order to give themselves a real life…. but this is very hard, because their social life revolves around their online life. Off-line, they may lose their social position. Online, they are trapped by Facebook and their smartphones, unable to disconnect. They also feel forced to spend a lot of time creating and improving their online profiles in order to present themselves in a particular (“cool”) way.
Reading the book, I wondered how these people ever get anything done. When do these kids do their homework? work at part-time jobs? play sports or do anything else they enjoy? I don’t have a smart phone, and for the first time, I felt glad that I don’t.