on February 16, 2011
That was one of my thoughts as I read Sherry Turkle's Alone Together: no matter what robots learn to do, they will never learn to write a book as thoughtful, informative, and intense as Alone Together. They would not know how to pose the questions, let alone use such discernment in addressing them.
It is interesting that Turkle chose to discuss robots in the first part of the book and the Internet in the second part. By presenting the "strange" part first, she gives us a sense of how strange our everyday lives actually are, how far we have moved away from enjoying each other's presence.
Turkle quotes children and adults who hesitate to use the phone because it seems awkward and intrusive; it is much easier, they say, to dash off a text or email. At the same time, Turkle points out, because of this very convenience, people expect quick responses. She describes the anxiety of teenagers when they do not get an immediate reply to their text messages. One girl talks about needing her cell phone for "emergencies"; it turns out that what she means by "emergency" is having a feeling without being able to share it.
Turkle shows how our Internet communications mix the deliberate with the unconsidered. On the one hand, people put great effort even into short email messages. On the other, they "test" ideas and expressions in formation to see how others react. Some create fake online profiles just to try out different sides of their personality. The problem with such experimentation is that it is conditioned almost entirely by online reactions, often reactions of strangers. There is little room to form thoughts independently.
Throughout the book, Turkle brings up the question of solitude. What happens to our solitude when we are able to get responses to anything and are expected to provide responses in turn? What happens to our sense of dissent when everything we say and do online bears a trace? She points out how important privacy is to dissent, for if we have no place where we can think and act unseen, we end up policing ourselves and censoring our own thoughts. We tame and restrain ourselves, knowing that anything we do and say may end up "out there" forever. "But sometimes a citizenry should not simply 'be good,'" Turkle writes. "You have to leave space for dissent, real dissent."
Also, Turkle points out, when we have no privacy we lose the ability to privilege some thoughts and actions over others. She quotes Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, who says that "if you have something you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place." Like many others, he ignores the possibility that there might be privacy without shame or crime. We might want to keep things to ourselves for any number of reasons; when we "put everything out there," that "everything" is somehow trivialized. Turkle quotes a girl who claims there's nothing much to know about her; "I'm kind of boring." Will the loss of privacy lead more people to dismiss themselves as boring?
One of Turkle's most powerful points is that we have come "to take the performance of emotion as emotion enough." Who cares, some might say, if the robot cannot feel? It behaves as though it feels, and that's enough. But is it? I see similar assumptions in education, where test scores are equated with learning, and students' visible activity in class is equated with "engagement." How do you go about defending something that is not tangible, visible, or measurable? It is difficult, but Turkle does it.
Because this book is so informative, because Turkle understands the complexities of technologies, she can make bold statements. She insists that we have the capacity and obligation to question the principles behind new inventions. She suggests that the touch of a human hand is indeed different from a robot's, that a handwritten letter is different from a text, that thinking and remembering have value even when it seems there's no more time for them. I won't give away the ending, but it left me with a surprising sadness, as though in a movie theater, when it's over and the place is dark, and you sit there for a few minutes, stunned, before getting up and walking out into the blink-provoking street.
on January 17, 2011
What I love about this book is that a whole person wrote it. Turkle includes both original research and her everyday experiences as a mother and a friend.
Unlike many books about technology, this book does not try to tell a simple story about it being good or bad. Its goal seems to be to help us live a better life in partnership with technology. Do we really want to give up privacy online? Do we really want to text during family dinners? Do we really want our companionship to be replaced by robotic companionship?
Instead of pretending you must take a side for or against technology, "Alone Together" asks us to look out for ourselves and what is good for us. My favorite idea is that the point is not to get rid of technology but that each individual must stop and think where it fits in his or her life.
"Alone Together" is a great read. The language is sometimes poetic and sometimes funny, but always compelling. Its ideas and questions are powerful and are long-lasting.
Highly recommended for everyone.
on March 20, 2011
'Alone Together' is the third volume in a trilogy produced over three decades by Sherry Turkle, a psychoanalyst based at MIT, the preceding volumes being 'The Second Self' (1984) and 'Life on the Screen' (1995). I read each one soon after publication and found them engrossing, thought-provoking and well-illustrated with illuminating case-studies and insightful observations. The current volume is in two parts: the first develops themes from 'The Second Self' (here related to `sociable robots'), the second from 'Life on the Screen' (which focused on the construction of identities online). Because of the limitations of space, my comments here focus on Part Two. Whereas the earlier volumes were relatively upbeat about the implications of new technologies, the tone of the current volume feels markedly more jaundiced, alerting us to some potential social costs of `social media'.
Provocatively, the main refrain is that in an online culture we are always connected (Turkle says `tethered'), but are rarely (meaningfully) connecting. Although (somewhat ironically) one may hear the same sentiment in a current commercial for a well-known matchmaking website, Turkle's nuanced stance `is not romantically nostalgic, not Luddite in the least'; indeed, she remains `cautiously optimistic'. This is a seriously reflective work well-informed by extensive ethnographic studies. The focus on authenticity and intimacy recalls the concerns voiced by Socrates in Plato's 'Phaedrus' about an earlier technological development--publishing one's ideas in written form--in particular the fear that communication at a distance would undermine genuine (face-to-face) human discourse. This has been a recurrent anxiety throughout the history of communication technologies. As the title suggests, this book reveals and explores unresolved tensions and contradictions in our attitudes and behaviour in relation to the latest manifestations of these technologies.
Distance communication in all of its forms (print media, broadcasting, telecommunications, online) tends to facilitate what the sociologists call `weak (or loose) ties'. One sociological argument is that society at large depends on the maintenance of loose ties between distant acquaintances and those we know only indirectly, functioning as a sort of social glue, in addition to the strong ties and commitments that bind us rather more closely to our `immediate' family and `close' friends. As a psychoanalyst, however, the author argues that the personal cost may be that we are coming to rely too much on online communication with relative strangers at the expense of intimacy with, and commitment to the people we know from face-to-face interaction. For instance, her earlier enthusiasm for online worlds as `identity workshops' is tempered by a concern that the mediation of a screen encourages more premeditated behaviour, which has in turn led many teenagers to prefer texting to speaking on the phone because speech `reveals too much'.
Ethnographic approaches are particularly useful in highlighting illuminating instances that may raise broader issues. Although such studies do not enable global generalizations, they can help to frame hypotheses for further research and reflection. This is indeed a book to be read and re-read. Sherry Turkle's timely critique reminds me of Marshall McLuhan's caveat that `we are all robots when uncritically involved with our technologies.' The always accessible style of her writing encourages engagement rather than closure, so that anyone who has paused to reflect on the implications of Facebook for friendship or of mobile phones for solitude is likely to find themselves entering into an imaginary debate with the author, countering the Platonic anxiety that reading is antisocial, and thus reminding us that whatever the apparent affordances of a particular technology, maintaining a well-informed critical perspective can reduce our vulnerabilities.
on January 5, 2013
After seeing Sherry Turkle's incredible TED talk on this topic, I was compelled to read the book associated with the talk. I'm heavily interested in the ways that the Internet and constant connectedness has affected us both as individuals, and also as a society, so I felt this book would be a slam dunk when it comes to exploring those topics. Unfortunately, I felt the book painted a picture of Sherry's thoughts on the topic via a series of well-selected anecdotes, but I felt she was non-committal on her conclusions.
The first half of the book analyzes how robotics are beginning to affect our lives, especially the lives of those who are currently seen as burdens to society, such as the elderly, children, and mentally handicapped. This section did not interest me as much, and I felt the topic could have been better addressed in it's own volume. Addressing robotic encounters in the same volume as connected encounters seems to me obtrusive and unnecessary. My recommendation to purchasers is to skip the first half of the book unless you're specifically interested in that topic.
The second of the book addresses constant connectedness, and paints several pictures of how it has affected our lives. Unfortunately, one gets the feeling that once you've seen 10-15 such stories, you've seen them all. Nevertheless, she persists through several more anecdotes. In fact, this book's. overall structure is an anecdote or two, followed by a somewhat noncommittal discussion of what the anecdote might mean. The overall volume could have been better addressed had it been organized better. She does, however, paint a general picture through the anecdotes that discusses how various people relate to the Internet and social networking.
Overall, however, I appreciated the discussion of the topic, even if it was a little long and left more questions than answers. I suppose I expected that a member of the MIT faculty would have some stronger opinions or perhaps have organized research of this kind into quantifiable observations, however, this is not the case with this book.
If you're looking for a volume that, in an impressionistic way, paints an overall picture of how technology might be making us lonely, unknown and disconnected, than this is the book for you. If you're looking for quantifiable research, this is not going to satisfy. This book is far more anthropology than statistics.
on February 6, 2011
There is much insight to be gained about our relationship with digital technology in reading Alone Together...but it's equally informative to consider some of what's not covered in Turkle's book. When viewed through a broader perspective, perhaps we needn't be as alarmed as one might think after finishing AT.
Sherry Turkle's research indicates a loop. People design digital machines that make demands on us, their users. But people program digital technology such as robots and games to appeal to vulnerabilities. Turkle is most concerned with demands digital makes on our vulnerabilities, to the extent that some people are so attracted to the digital world that they run the risk of not being able to differentiate between reality 101 and digital illusions.
Even for someone who researches and analyzes the information technology such as myself, there are many eye-opening findings in AT. But the book is limited in scope, despite the fact that it is the cumulation of 30 years work by Turkle. For starters, Turkle's Freudian approach to psychology leads her to focus on the pathological. Zeroing in on the pathological can be informative if it is the start of a path that is linked to more socially integrated behavior. In other words, examination of the pathological mind can yield insights into better integrated minds.
From some of the reactions here, I think there is a pitfall in translating Turkle's findings directly to society at large, without taking into account how better integrated minds react to digital technology. And, I don't fault readers. It's a reasonable reaction and reflects a weakness in the book. "What's wrong with the new and artistic world of computer games? Nothing is wrong with them. But looking to games for amusement is one thing. Looking to them for a life is another," Turkle says on p.226. In other words, the digital world is what each of us collectively make of it. In that regard, it's much like all phenomena.
Turkle's diagnosis of the pathologies of the digital age seem right on. But I think that the illusory relationship with technology is transcended in individuals more integrated in a social setting. In other words, those who are not well integrated into their social settings, are vulnerable to the gravitational pull of the convenient and unambiguous digital world. Those who are better integrated will tend to view digital games as games. That's certainly what I see in my teenage children (who seemingly are anatomically connected to their mobile phones yet somehow achieve leadership in their social activities), in their friends, in my work researching the business side of digital technology, and in those with whom I mix socially.
The fly in AT's ointment is that Turkle's findings are overly dependent on projecting the pathological directly onto the socially integrated. With children, she makes no allowance that they might outgrow their seemingly alarming relationship with digital toys. As pointed out in another review here, she doesn't consider the many beneficial effects of digital technology, nor how well integrated people view the digital world.
I did think of Marshall McLuhan while reading AT, and his assertion that electronic media is controlled to a large degree by the user, in contrast to print, which is controlled by the press owner. AT illustrates that to a degree we are using our control over digital technology to address vulnerabilities. Some are confusing the illusions they perceive while using digital technologies to create alternative worlds that zaps their motivation for living in the real world. I'm sure some are. But I also question how many?
Another shortcoming of AT is the lack of prescriptive remedies. I suspect that the reaction of many is to deny access to the digital, just as many well-intended parents severely limit, or deny TV. It seems to me there are much more effective alternatives.
Turkle's book is worth a read, but bring your skepticism along. Not only are you reading the findings of a Freudian, but one who projects a relatively narrow perspective onto a large canvas.
on March 8, 2011
I was pretty excited to read "Alone Together", but it took me a bit longer to get through than I thought it was going to. For me, the whole first half of the book is just redundant. After interviewing child after child after child about how they think and feel about robots, I was beginning to get a bit bored. It's just short quote after short quote from the children about how they love Furbies, My Real Baby, and other robotic toys. It's mixed in with how the elderly feel about robots, and how they will become more involved in our society in the future, but I just didn't find so much speculating that interesting. I get the point she's trying to make about how future generations may not as clearly see the distinction between "real" and "non real" life forms, but the way she went about it felt too drawn out.
The second half though, I feel is much more relevant and interesting. You see people on their cell phones everywhere all the time, and know that people are getting hooked on the virtual world. It's interesting to read what effect it is having on us and our culture to shy away from real conversations and instead rely on text messages to feel connected.
I would give the first half about a 5 out of 10 as quite a few sections drag, and the second half about an 8. Worth a read, but was a bit disappointed.
on February 25, 2011
We are so familiar with Blackberrys, iPhones, and other devices showing up at dinner or, in my case, in the middle of psychiatric sessions, we hardly blink an eye or click a mouse. It's routine. It's the 21st century. But if I call an old friend on my iPhone while driving to work and talk with her (illegally), the conversation is not the same as if I had deliberately called her from my favorite chair at home. Out split attention always comes at a price.
What I loved about the book as a child psychiatrist myself is her capturing how today's youth hold technology so close it may as well be under the skin. One youth is "waiting to be interrupted right now" by his phone, and all youth are reinventing separation (perhaps being out of range or temporarily in a tunnel under the Big Dig?). Going to college simply means checking for good reception and endless texts, photos, and instant messages go back and forth rather than a single phone call on Sunday evening.
Her subtle and rich discussion of adolescents and technology is a must read. Adolescents can wander far from home in a suburb and still know parents are looking for them because the phone rings, even though the teen may not answer. And they may choose to text, and not to talk, to avoid the intimacy of spontaneity. Similarly, she describes how teens can easily ring one friend after another to find someone who picks up. Remind me again, what is being alone?
The book is a major contribution to teasing out just how much technology is changing who we, and our children, are. I found the second major section of the book ("Networked") far more relevant to my life than the first, which primarily concerns robots. Some readers--- perhaps those routinely interrupted by their Blackberrys -- may want to begin with the second section.
Alone Together is the mother of all wake-up calls about how technology and who we are evolve together. It's not just 'the world' that has changed. No one has observed this with a finer eye than Sherry Turkle.
on January 20, 2011
ATTENTION ALL PARENTS, SENIORS, TEACHERS, CIVIC-RELIGIOUS-HEALTH LEADERS, STUDENTS, and all other guardians of learning! THIS IS A MUST READ. Another excellent book from Professor Sherry Turkle! One with vision. I remain an ardent fan of her work. She has consistently informed, enlightened, and inspired through her clear writing style and depth.
Sherry Turkle's new book is timely, provocative, research-solid, and elegantly written from mind and heart. It should be required reading for all interested in the never-ending confluence of technologies and human nature. Its humanistic undercurrent sensibly counters the far-reaching consequences of our technological imperative, and in so doing raises profound questions of identity, epistemology, and ethics.
What makes her book particularly rich is its documentation of many voices - from young children to young adults, adults to elderly - who find solace in the company of "sociable robots" to compensate for missing human interaction. Her message is resounding: Let's return to Real Life - natural, animal, and human - that is all around us. For our present and future, the stakes are indeed high.
Now, more than ever, we need to challenge the disturbing authority of the hyperreal (that dimension we tend to uncritically embrace when simulation assumes more "reality" than the real). This memorable book is a prominent and worthy voice in raising the crucial questions. Without hesitation, I recommend this book to ALL, ESPECIALLY PARENTS.
on May 13, 2011
Sherry Turkle's, Alone Together, has a wide agenda relating to human--technology interfaces, relationships, congruities and, quite often, dismal vulnerabilities of the mechanical, technological and human kind. It's a cocktail of technological history, research findings, personal experiences, reflections and discussion that is overwhelmingly rueful about technology's influences in our lives. The subtitle of the book--Why we expect more from technology and less from each other?--is as intriguing as it is loaded. The assumption seems to be that "we" do indeed expect more from technology than we do of each other and that the very essence of humanity is under threat or question as a result. These are dark considerations and are arguably further grist brought to the sceptics' mill.
Alone Together is divided into two main sections: PART ONE--THE ROBOTIC MOMENT--IN SOLITUDE, NEW INTIMACIES and PART TWO--NETWORKED--IN INTIMACY, NEW SOLITUDES. Clearly, there's an observable and obvious tension here. This book is about the affordances of technology (how these cut both ways, positively and negatively, depending on who and what is involved, and under which particular circumstances) and competing priorities. To generalise, each of Turkle's anecdotes, data snippets and theoretical musings serve to demonstrate that technology, media and our artefacts empower and enhance but they also reverse and obsolesce simultaneously. There is nothing new here and we shouldn't be shocked or surprised; McLuhan's four laws of media gave us the necessary heads up 30 years ago!
In Part 1, Turkle reviews her research into how children and adults use and relate to robots and other sociable technological devices. Turkle discusses "artificial emotion" and is justifiably concerned about children "getting comfortable with the idea that a robot's companionship is even close to a replacement for a person." (65) She continues: "Dependence on a robot presents itself as risk free. But when one becomes accustomed to "companionship" without demands, life with people may seem overwhelming. Dependence on a person is risky--it makes us subject to rejection--but it also opens us to deeply knowing another." (66)
The topic of the cost of technological immersion is explored and expanded in Part 2. The benefits of continual connectivity are well-rehearsed but again Turkle is somewhat regretful. She admits: "I check my e-mail first thing in the morning and before going to bed at night. I have come to learn that informing myself about new professional problems and demands is not a good way to start or end my day, but my practice unhappily continues." (154) Me too.
For Turkle, THE TETHERED SELF is always on, connected and conflicted: "Networked, we are together, but so lessened are our expectations of each other that we feel utterly alone. And there is a risk that we come to see others as objects to be accessed--and only for the parts we find useful, comforting, or amusing." (154) Further, "These days, being connected depends not on our distance from each other but from available communications technology. ... In fact, being alone can start to seem like a precondition for being together because it is easier to communicate if you can focus, without interruption, on your screen." (155)
Turkle's distress, disdain and fear of technology then turns variously towards the use of laptops by students ("I notice, along with several of my colleagues, that the students whose laptops are open in class do not do as well as the others." (163)), email, instant messaging, Facebook, MySpace and Skype ("I have downloaded Skype and am ready for its unforgiving stare." (297)). Overall, she concludes, "... the connected life encourages us to treat those we meet online in something of the same way we treat objects--with dispatch." (168)
So, why is it that we expect more from technology and less from each other? The answer to this question needs to be pieced together carefully and is Janus-faced. Technology connects and provides essential and necessary distance from potentially prying parents (173) and peers. (174) Technology is non-judgemental and value-free, and functions as a refuge for those who feel cast off. (178) It can also allow young people to explore and craft identity. Yet, social media can be sites of cruelty and pressure; they can be superficial and performance-based only. Texts demand answers and phone calls are perceived as invasive and time-consuming. In short, social media can overwhelm, isolate, reduce, fudge, separate, perturb, preoccupy, betray and beguile. "We go online because we are busy but end up spending more time with technology and less with each other. We defend connectivity as a way to be close, even as we effectively hide from each other." (281)
For Turkle, "... we transgress not because we try to build the new but because we don't allow ourselves to consider what it disrupts or diminishes. We are not in trouble because of invention but because we think it will solve everything." (284)
The question of what we might do if Turkle is right about expecting less of each other is vexing. Turkle sees the need--prompted by the disturbing presence and effects of technology--to ask how it might serve our human purposes and even reconsider what these purposes might (or ought to) be. (285). She concludes: "We don't need to reject or disparage technology. We need to put it in its place." (295) Yes, Amen to that.
For me, Turkle's book goes to show one thing above all else. We're living increasingly in a world that's lost its bearings. In the absence of a grounded, principled moral and ethical compass, humanity has allowed technology to fill a large void we've created and sustain for ourselves--often unwittingly. What we now need is apology, thanksgiving, forgiveness and love. (cf. 304)
on September 23, 2011
Sherry Turkle is a psychologist who joined the MIT faculty 30 years ago to study computer culture. She came to the position with a background in people and no background in or understanding of computers or technology. For thirty years she has been studying and observing people, particularly students and young people, as they relate to, adapt to, experiment with, use and incorporate computer technology and social media in their everyday lives.
"Alone Together" is a 300-page report of her observations presented in laborious (and repetitive) detail. It is honest and straightforward, contains valuable anecdotes and insights, but could have been written in 30 pages instead of 300. The thesis of "Alone Together" is that as we continue to expect more from technology, we expect less from each other. An alternate title for the text would have been "The Robotic Moment", for what seems to tie all the anecdotes in 300+ pages together for Ms. Turkle personally is her impression that the segment of society that she has been studying for 30 years has reached a point in its accommodation of computers and digital technology where it is on the threshold of being willing to accept robots as caring (dare we say loving?) partners and companions. No surprise, I suppose, in light of the fact that her home base for the past 30 years has been on the doorstep of MIT's Media Lab. She opens the book with this concern, weaves it through 300+ pages of observations, and closes with the same concern.
Which is not to say that she doesn't report on other things, including the short attention spans of young people, their preference for texting rather than talking, and her observations about the functionality, function and psychological impact of social media sites on the web. Just that her report reads like you might expect an academic report to read, as a collection of observations devoid of any direction, conclusions or recommendations until the last paragraph on the last page of the last chapter, where she concludes that "we have reached a point of inflection, where we can see the costs and start to take action."
Her recommendation and advice in this concluding paragraph is that we need to begin to throttle or scale back our headlong dive into the pool of electronic connectedness by adopting rules of behavior like "no cell phones at dinner, on the playground, in the car, or in company." It is Ms. Turkle's assertion that "our brains are rewired every time we use a phone to surf or search or multitask", and that "it is time to look again toward the virtues of solitude, deliberateness, and living fully in the moment."
I don't disagree with Ms. Turkle's remarks about the virtues of solitude, deliberateness and living fully in the moment, or with her recommendations about limiting use of cell phones. I just don't think we needed 300 pages of anecdotes to get to this conclusion.