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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.
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on August 17, 2016
Sherry Turkle is an ethnographer of technology, which means that she observes people interacting with technology and interviews them about it in order to understand the meaning of that technology to users’ lives. She’s also a psychologist, concerned with holistic human wellbeing. Alone Together relies on her ethnographic observations to understand the ways that new technologies—specifically, companionable robots and the always-connected-wireless world—are affecting interpersonal relationships. Her writing, although not directly citing their work, continues in the tradition of Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman in asking questions like, “How do new technologies affect their users? What are the ideologies inherent to technologies? And how can users consciously choose which ideologies to adopt and promote and which to reject?”

Alone Together is divided into two parts. The first looks at companionable software and hardware and argues that we lose something relationally important and meaningful when we create machines to substitute for people in providing care and companionship, especially for children and the elderly. The section includes discussions on artificial intelligence and machine emotions. Turkle argues that machines cannot “feel” emotions like human beings but rather can only imitate their expression to arouse emotions in us. She asks what that performance of emotion really means in comparison to the human, embodied expression of emotion, especially empathy. Turkle suggest that we should be concerned when we come to prefer the company of technology to that of people and when we rely on technology to assuage our negative feelings of guilt, loneliness, etc., for example in leaving our elderly parents in nursing homes.

The book’s second section explores how the always connected world affects interpersonal relationships. I found this part of the book more meaningful than the first, as the discussion on robotics didn’t touch my life personally much. I suspect the same will be true for many readers. Turkle, a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), lives in an environment on the technological cutting edge that is permeated by robotics to a greater extent than the environments in which many live.

The second section of Alone Together analyzes how texting has replaced in-person communication and phone calls in many contexts. Turkle points out that texting promotes brief factual exchanges but not deeper interaction, allowing texters to create barriers to communication and share selectively. Likewise, Turkle explores Facebook and social media in general as spheres for identity development that allow for some experimentation but that also cause intense anxiety for users as they worry about how others will see them online and how that vision will impact real-world interactions. Facebook becomes for many a place of performance, selective sharing, and tension, rather than of depth and meaningful interaction. The second section of the book also looks at online lives (Second Life, World of Warcraft, etc.) and how those lives provide places of escape from the real world. Turkle shares stories about gamers whose fast paced, exciting digital worlds have replaced aspects of their slower real worlds, including one man prefers his Second Life wife to his physically-present wife and kids. The discussion is disturbing and hit home for me, as I know people who spent years playing WoW.

Alone Together’s overall theme is that we need to consciously consider the effects of new technologies on our lives and then pick and choose what we want to adopt, rather than simply accepting technologies without thinking. Turkle isn’t a Luddite, and this isn’t a book against new technology. Turkle sees the value of new connective technologies and discusses her integration of those technologies into her relationship with her daughter. Rather than an attack on new technology, Turkle’s work provides the basis for personal reflection on what technologies provide, but also on what they take away if we’re not careful. I think that’s an important discussion, which is why I highly recommend Turkle’s work.

A couple caveats to conclude. One of the pitfalls of ethnography as a way of understanding the world is that it necessarily relies on small but deeply-studied groups of people. It’s debatable about how generalizable ethnographic findings are. For example, in the section on robotics, Turkle focuses heavily on her university, MIT, and its work with robots. Living as she does in a highly educated and technologically literate part of the country, some of her findings might not be applicable to those living in areas with limited access to robotics and generally lower education levels. Likewise, although Turkle shares stories from a wide variety of people, she spends quite a bit of time on primary, private high school, and college students, as well as the elderly. Those demographics and their experiences with technology might not be reflective of the wider US population. In the same line of thought, Turkle doesn’t spend much time on how culture might affect technology use. But that wasn’t really her goal, so it’s not a knock on what is an important contribution. It’s just an area for further study.
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on November 24, 2013
I tend to read anything by Sherry Turkle - her thoughts often leave me with more questions than answers, an aspect of reading and learning that I adore! True confessions, I tend to see technological advances as 'progress.' Does it seem to you that we readily (eagerly?) adopt technology into our lives with little consideration for the personal, emotional, relational, and ethical impact? Turkle calls us to slow down, reflect, and consider the impacts of technology particularly our emotional, relational, communicative, and connective lives. What is gained? What is lost? What might be the impacts be? Are the naysayers chicken little, the sky is falling or are there truly some negative aspects of technology adoption that warrant further consideration? Topics explored include: intimacy, solitude, communion, companionship, anxiety, betrayal, connectedness, disconnectedness, multitasking, separation, identity, and personal development.

My favorite chapters: Ch9, Growing Up Tethered discussed young people, their personal development, and the impact of living "in a state of waiting for connection" (p. 171). I laughed out loud at Ch10's No Need to Call describing how annoying(laugh) a telephone call can be given its immediacy and immediate demand for our attention.

Read this book also: Baym, N. K. (2010). Personal connections in the digital age. Cambridge, UK; Malden, MA: Polity.
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on February 19, 2018
This book is more than an examination of the relationship between humans and technology and how each are “shaped” through the other; it is a caution to a society molded around avoiding human interaction and human feeling. Turkle warns that the nature of technology and robotics do not understand and care, they simply “perform care” and understanding. While at times, it seems the argument may be a bit biased as it appears she is so against technology, like in the case of the reporter accusing “species chauvinism” and Turkle stating the technology is no species of its own. She intends to bridge the gap between healthy human interaction and technological innovations, this can be seen in the case of the ELIZA program, which is essentially a therapy bot that learns from its users, yet each study proves that we consistently use robots and technology as a crutch rather than as a tool for efficiency. There is a troubling atmosphere amongst modern society that neglects the complexity of human nature for the convenience of technology because any relationship between human and technology is based in projection. She makes it very clear any relationship between robot and human is actually a relationship between said human and themselves and these robot-human relationships only encourage controlling and selfish behaviors, due to a common frustration with not being in control of others emotion and their willingness to comply. I appreciate this book because it forces us to see the truth of these technological advances and to find the balance before it is too late and we are all left wistfully “pressing our nose up to the window” of human connection.
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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)
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on May 10, 2016
This book will make you take a hard look at the connected life most of us live. Has our technology helped us be more effective at tasks and less so at relationships? It is an interesting read from someone at the heart of the most cutting edge technology in our country with a surprising outcome. As someone who works with college students I found it to be enlightening about them and more so about myself.
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This is really two books, the first half on robots and second half, the better half, on the effects of social media. Through a slippery slope, the author shows that bit by bit we are allowing technology to change who we are fundamentally as human beings, preferring our solipsistic, narcissistic, back and forth toggle to Facebook and back world, over real human intimacy.

Technology allows us to be the center of attention, to control our "friends," and to multi-task in ways that we no longer give full attention to others. Nor do we engage in real friendships. One telling example is a grand-daughter Skyeping her grandmother every day but her grandmother doesn't see that her grand-daughter is texting someone below the Skype screen. Another example is hordes of people at bus and train stations and coffee shops, all huddled together, but "alone" as their heads are down on their smartphones.

Smartphone addiction has created a new type of human, narcissistic, control-obsessed, and unable to be truly alone or truly intimate. A scary, smart, readable book.
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VINE VOICEon February 16, 2011
Sherry Turkle mixes together personal anecdotes, professional research, and philosophical rumination to address the link between technology and human relationships. In the first half of the book, Turkle draws on her work with three successive generations of children to examine the consequences of increased robotic integration on both childhood development and eldercare. The second half of the book tackles how cellular and online social networks are shaping our individual and collective psychology.

Turkle is an adamant skeptic in a time of almost overwhelming technical triumphalism. However, far from being a Luddite or a scold, she takes great pains to carefully tease out the ways in which an unquestioned devotion to the tools of robotics and/or the Internet lessens our ability and willingness to have authentic relationships. What makes this book outstanding isn't the simple acknowledgement that technology has unintended drawbacks, rather, it's the depth of knowledge that she brings to the subject. Turkle doesn't waste the readers' time. She has done the heavy lifting and presents only the questions that are worth asking. It's a refreshing pleasure to read and provides plenty of food for thought.
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on May 1, 2011
This is a fascinating book, well-written and fun to read. In future work, I would be interested to read Ms. Turkle's views on how technology is rewiring human beings and, in particular, her views on some of the new findings from brain science. As a future effort, I also think it would important to explore the views and habits of people who hate technology and who resist engagement with it. My sense is that many of these people have been forced into using facebook or cell phones or whatever and they actually dislike these technologies. They will post up a facebook page because they feel pressured to do so and then they never update it. They have a phone but use it for emergencies only and don't even know how to access its other features. They hate computers and resist discussions of gadgets and technologies, rolling their eyes and saying "I'm bad at technology". I would also be interested to see a gendered analysis of the use of technology as many (but not all) of the technophobes are women.

We also need more analysis of the generational use of technology. My students, who are so-called digital natives, are unable to use Word's advanced features to correct their own grammar. Contrary to the always-tethered model, they are also well able to put down their phones and laptops for real time class discussion. Given this, what does it mean to be a "digital native"? I think that the way that different generations and social groups use technology is quite distinctive and not captured by the generalized discussion in this book.

I also agree that the first part of this book, which deals with robots, was less compelling, although these chapters contain key points, especially about how children and young people today see simulation in starkly different terms than older people. This is a very negative portent for the future and, in this sense, this book is Paul Revere's ride, warning of us of what may be to come.
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on May 17, 2011
I'm usually not a reader, but I believe this book deserves some recognition. Turkle tells a story about us, dwindling into the world of the Internet and eventually getting to the point where we may no longer want to communicate with each other in person.

The story sends a wake up call to all of us who spend hours on Facebook, or Twitter. It accounts stories of how we are in love with texting, smartphones, apps and all the ways of being connected to each other without being connected in person. The first half of the book, goes into robots which I didn't find very interesting, as it does get repetitive like another reviewer said. What I expected to read from the summary of the book was all in the second half of the book.

Find out what technology is doing to our lives, and what it may mean for our future. From the beginning of Artificial Intelligence to Present day technologies of social communication, this book explains where we are headed and we are forced to question what all this new technology is doing to our social lives.
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