Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less From Each Other
© 2011 Sherry Turkle
Alone Together has been on my to-read list since it was released, though it’s taken me years to actually read it. It took so long because I have a wariness of reading books which I know I’ll agree with beforehand, unless I’m in need of more thorough information about a subject – but recent citations of this book have brought it front and center and coaxed me into reading it. Sherry Turkle has been studying human-machine interactions since the computer age began entry into consumer products, from a psychological point of view. Alone Together builds on her previous thoughts on the subject (produced in the eighties and nineties) to suggest that we have grown accustomed to treating things as people, and people as things
I had my doubts about finishing this book at the start, because the first half proved to focus mostly on human-robot interactions, from the primitive (children and their Speak-n-Spells) to the elaborate, of people finding comfort in the ‘company’ of robotic dogs with programming designed to simulate personality and liveliness. Turks takes readers then through the changing relationships of the early internet age, as people created new identities for themselves online, and began having relationships – friendly, romantic, adversarial – with other ethereal identities. Many people who found their ‘real’ lives less than fulfilling (because of their appearance, their poverty, their location) began disconnecting from one to immerse themselves in the others.
There was an important difference between online relationships and “IRL” ones, however: online relationships were far more convenient. A conversation could be ended by closing a window; an identity could be altered at will. This posed interesting questions and concerns, especially to those who developed deep friendships with personalities they only knew from behind the screen; how could they know if the person they’d been hearing the woes of was real, or just a character being played by someone else for curiosity‘s sake, or to express their own problems in another guise? How much could these relationships be counted on when the parties could simply disappear without a trace?
When smartphones and social media entered our lives, the odd nature of online relationships increasingly began to define our real ones. Now it was our family and friends whose messages we felt free to ignore; it was our real-life profiles that we were putting on display. Ignoring flashing IMs on a computer screen when we’re trying to focus on something else is one thing; ignoring people we’re with to continually dip into another world is quite another. Turkle suggests that never-present behavior like this has grown to be endemic, as she records the frustrations of teenagers who have fought for their parents’ attention their entire lives.
There’s a lot of unpack in a book like this, which is disturbing throughout. The unsettling content begins with lonely seniors finding some ersatz version companionship in robotic pets, whirring dogs and synthetic babies who ‘need’ their attention and make them feel both useful and connected to something. It returns in full in the latter third of the book, when Turkle focuses on smartphones. I’ve mentioned the teens lifelong struggle to pull their parents away from their phones, but the kids themselves often report to Turkle how overwhelming their own phones are to them. They may receive a hundred messages an hour, all of which demand a response, and one of them asked aloud – not of anyone, merely voicing his exhaustion — “How long do I have to do this?”
A book like this is valuable, I think, for making us aware of our own attentive flightiness. Social media isn’t going anywhere, and here’s no question it adds to people’s lives. But those who are at all concerned about the way technology molds our minds, or those who are interested in living with intention, rather than simply being passive in letting technology shape our behavior rather than the other way around will find it helpful, if sometimes discouraging.