Alone Together

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less From Each Other
© 2011 Sherry Turkle
384 pages

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. 


About smellincoffee

Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
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8 Responses to Alone Together

  1. mudpuddle says:

    this seems a legitimate concern… it's difficult to observe one's own behavior, but i definitely notice my attention being split between humans and the computer… sometimes relating to the Mrs. is irritating when i'm typing something to another user; but it's not only computers: also when i'm reading or working on bicycles or even thinking… like the last post i commented on: i believe the author has something to say, but it's hard to go along with them completely; they might be exaggerating for effect.

  2. Brian Joseph says:

    Thus sounds so fascinating and so important. The book sounds Iike it tackles some of the most profound issues of our time. Personally, I am not unaware of all the problems that technology has generated. However, I think that in balance, it all has been a net positive for the world.

  3. CyberKitten says:

    This has been on my 'Watch List' for a while now… Just finished something in the same ballpark: The End of Absence by Michael Harris.

  4. I am too scared of this book to read it. Some day.

  5. Stephen says:

    I can understand the feeling…

  6. Stephen says:

    Oooh! That one has been on MY watch list for a while. I spotted it as a library display in another city and it took me forever to turn it up on Amazon because I couldn't quite remember the title.

  7. Stephen says:

    Definitely! I've only had my smartphone for about a year, but it's become a work tool, my mobile computer, my mp3 player, my portable library..

  8. Stephen says:

    This is true, mudpuddle. While I was reading, I tried to compare smartphone use in company with reading in company. It's quite common for my roomates and I to just in the same room and all be reading at the same time. In a sense we're in different places — one is in the old west, one is in in a Pennsylvanian hamlet, and I'm who knows where — but we're also together. Yet that feels different from times when the three of us are engaged in online activities. Maybe because we bob in and out more online than we do in books?

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