Monday, April 15 2024

Sherry Turkle.

Alone Together. Why we expect more from technology and less from each

. 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

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

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

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.


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