A?-Social Networks and Virtual? Friends: Richness and Limits in Our Relationship with Technology

A?-Social Networks and Virtual? Friends: Richness and Limits in Our Relationship with Technology

Sherry Turkle. Alone Together. Why we expect more from technology and less from each other . Basic Books, New York 2011.

What kind of relationship will I have with my computer when I have finished reading this article? How many emails do I want to respond to every day? How do I keep pace with technology that requires me to be on-line permanently, always and everywhere--technology that allows parents to send dozens and dozens of messages to their children, or to call them more and more each day? What relationship can I establish with this technology that apparently facilitates socialization by increasing personal contacts exponentially? What evolution has our way of relating to each other undergone, and how has socialization with our neighbor changed thanks to technological development?

Attaching oneself to a hi-tech instrument like a PDA, a cell phone, or a computer, and performing activities that presuppose a permanent on-line connection, are every day situations. They are particular marks of our time, and require a deep reflection about how technology affects and influences our social sphere and relationships.

Sherry Turkle is a psychologist and professor of theSocial Studies of Science and Tecnology at MIT (Boston). After The Second Self (1984) and Life on the Screen (1995), Turkle's latest book examines how the growing development of technology may have multiplied the possibility for relationships and contacts, but also diminished their depth and strength, giving way to greater isolation.

The book is divided into two parts: "The robotic moment. In solitude, new intimacies," and "Networked. In intimacy, new solitudes." Her play on words accurately synthesizes the book's intention: to analyze how technology has tried to resolve the problems of loneliness and family attention, but at the same time provoked a great individual solitude amid the new possibilities for relationships.

In the book's first section, Turkle presents a study carried out with different "robots" in the 80's, 90's, and the first decade of the newmillennium. She examined several robot models that had different levels of performance. They ranged from Tamagotchy and Furby to Paro, Kismet, and Cog. Turkle specifically looked at two areas where a robot's relationship sought, in its own way, to relieve unavoidable situations of loneliness. The first area falls within the sphere of education during childhood, through intelligent toys.The second is in the health sphere with elderly and ill people who have to spend many hours alone.

In both areas, technological development has improved robot performance and managed to create special interfaces surpassing traditional means, or in the case of the ill, medical assistance. The likeness to human beings generates a special relationship that goes well beyond self-projection. It can provide relief for people who feel alone and create the sensation of companionship for the elderly. The problem is, indicates the author, that solitude and the need for relationships, in both cases, has a human root: the lack of attention, affection, and time. A robot could never substitute for another person, because it can not love or accompany anyone in the realsense of the words. It can not offer any gratuitous love, disinterested attention, or unplanned, free and human donation.

In the second part of the book, the author uses interviews and behavioral analyses to evaluate the way that technology has changed relationships between people, especially through internet and email, as well as the possibilities offered by Second Life, mobile devices and social networks. The huge opportunity for personal enrichment and the increase in work efficiency that have made millions of lives easier however have not always had positive effects. The key is found entirely in the way we receive technology in our lives.

Turkle explores the constraints born from always being connected for work--conditions that can generate serious family problems. She analyzes some effects that these new tendencies can have on adolescents. Having grown up fascinated by technology, their identity's formation follows a different process than that of the former generations. They live in a different way, with more freedom from their parents. They invest less time in interpersonal relationships that require a physical or vocal presence (telephone). They prefer sending messages or connecting to social networks because it is easier to control time and emotions in written texts. Messages seem less vulnerable and unpredictable, as well as capable of showing a better, more attractive image.

The problem is that messages and social networks create a "social etiquette" with new rules of relating to each other. These rules from virtual networks in their turn develop a strong pressure on reality: the need to always be available on line in order to be contacted; the tyranny of a virtual profile constructed accurately in order to look better; or the constant update of one's profile. Technology designed to make life easier could paradoxically take possession of our existence. Such cases of relational "stress" among both young and old are not uncommon.

The author certainly does not demonize technological progress. She is aware of its value and the great possibilities it holds. It is now possible for example, to put people who are otherwise alone in contact with each other; to strengthen relationships among people separated by great distances with little free time; or to allow greater efficiency, speed, and multi-tasking in professional environments.

At the same time, she analyzes other problems that are generatedby users themselves. One example is the improper use of technology by adolescents, such as when they create profiles or virtual relationships that are much more "bold" or intimate than in reality, trusting in the anonymity of social networks.

Another example could be the many multitasking adults. Always connected, they allow the net to decide their own existence's priorities. Dedicating less time to their own children or spouse, they remain the victims of sentimental frustration and psychological problems. As an additional problem, they are not in the condition to educate children or to demand from them a healthy use of technology, since they are not good models.

The book's key message is the need to use technology in a way that is appropriate to our human condition, according to age and personal situation. Nonetheless, while placing emphasis most often on the human and personal dimensions, the author does not offer concrete educational suggestions that would allow adults or adolescents to develop a balanced use of technology. Nor does she offer any ethical criteria for cultivating virtual relationships.

Another of the book's limitations lies in its empirical basis. Turkle mentions studies that were completed through dozens of interviews at different schools and universities. She does not, however, explain her method in depth, nor does she describe the representative nature of the sample statistics that are utilized. Additionally, these statistics correspond to studies performed in different time periods with people of widely varying ages. In the book's first section, many interviews were conducted with children between 5 and 13 years old or with aged and ill people. In the second part however, they mainly concern adolescents or adults in work related situations.

The statements made in interviews are surely valid on the statistical-quantitative level. The problem is that they are not homogenous, giving the impression that the research is scattered and not entirely clear. This impression also arises from the mixture of results with conversations that took place in other contexts. It remains dubious for example, what leads one to combine an adolescent's answers in the same category of those given by an employee or university student, and even more with those made by a person with psychological problems.

Another drawback, in my view, is the unwillingness to confront certainbehaviors and relationships established through technology on an ethical level. In reality, many of the statements made by the adolescents and children with absent parents, or those of adults with relational problems or anonymous confessions on the web, point to the need to bring an ethical dimension into the discussion. An openness that goes beyond the physical world seems necessary because concepts such as family, love, and intimacy are in play. The author does not make reference to transcendence, but seems to feel its needwhen she makes a vague reference to the Jewish faith.

Finally, it should be recognized as a general limitation that some of the technological products spoken of with enthusiasm, such as Furby or Second Life, have only had a passing influence. Their loss of commercial strength in the United States and in Europe is a reason to be unsure as to whether they should be treated as phenomena of the past or present.

The book is interesting and accomplishes a relevant analysis of technology's social effects. The author is conscious that it is not possible to be retroactive or to change the role that technology fulfills in our lives. The key is, without a doubt, to better define our essential priorities--but how? This is the real problem, which can serve as a point of departure for future reflections.