Alone Together

Alone Together

Sherry Turkle, The Abby Rockefeller Mauze Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT and founder and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and the Self, has devoted her life’s work to studying the effects of technology on human relationships.

When Turkle spoke at Calvin College’s January series, a colleague of mine wondered aloud if she was “an alarmist,” and others in the audience who came to the microphone seemed to agree. When new technology first arrives on the scene, her detractors said, don’t they always prophesy doom and gloom? And are you, Professor Turkle, not just more of the same?

Is Turkle an alarmist, a prophet of doom, or an incisive seer? Her latest book, Alone Together, is a difficult and at times depressing read. It is not difficult because of complex subject matter or writing style; it is emotionally difficult because we recognize our own selves and lives in the conclusions she draws. Sometimes the picture is so gloomy that you just have to put the book down for a while.

And yet, you will find yourself picking it up again, because you know that what Turkle wants to tell us is important and painfully relevant to how we live and work today.

Turkle tackles every area that you can think of where technology is omnipresent in our lives. In part one, “The Robotic Moment,” she discusses Furbies, Tamagotchis, My Real Baby, the Singularity Movement, robots used in studies at MIT (“Kismet” and “Cog”), and most frightfully, robots already used by nursing home residents to provide companionship (a creature named “Paro” that reads and “responds” to human emotions), plus “sociable robots” being developed with the promise of companionship and none of the demands of intimacy or give-and-take. In part two, chapter by chapter, she examines the new social constructs of the gaming world, Second Life, and other virtual worlds; social media such as Facebook, MySpace, and chat rooms; the cell phone and all it connects us to; the unique world of texting; the decline of the telephone call and how that affects relationship; and other online realities we know all too well.

By the end of each chapter, when she pulls her observations together and summarizes what she has learned through countless interviews, you know she is right. You know that her thesis is sound and that she has gathered plenty of qualitative evidence.

Technology is changing the way we interact with each other, changing the face of human relationships, and shaping our view of our selves. And, in many instances, we are largely unaware of what is happening. Even when we are aware, we don’t seem to have the power or willpower to do anything about how our lives are being changed. And so the future is upon us now, its machines set in ongoing motion.

What, exactly, has been set in motion? Turkle describes many realities, and her book needs to be read thoroughly to fully understand how these changes ultimately affect the landscape of human relationships. In this review, I am going to touch on just some of them.

Turkle begins with her hypothesis that we are being shaped by technology more than it is shaping us, and then asks us rhetorically if that is really what we want to happen. As she puts it in her introduction, “Technology reshapes the landscape of our emotional lives, but is it offering us the lives that we want to lead?” (17).

She then holds a mirror up to our lives. She shows us how we turn to technology to find time, but then find ourselves busier than ever before. Our online lives take on lives of their own. We multitask continually (and with pride that we can do so much), but find that multitasking is not efficient after all; it only brings us the illusion that it is (163). She helps us understand that we not only multitask, we “multi-life.” And finally, here is something we have known all along: our cell phone life brings us into a world of “continual partial attention,” and all the technology we carry keeps us in a state of continual distraction (161).

Still, we feel both lost without our cell phones and driven by them, checking and sending texts, going online, playing games. We find ourselves connected all day, but not sure whether we have communicated. We even find ourselves checking e-mail as the last thing we do before we can turn to sleep. Sadly, I can’t deny that for myself, and I know countless others who do.

There are other realities. Teens are continually connected, not only to their friends, but also to their parents. These important years spent becoming independent have a different face now. Kids feel tethered to their parents, and parents feel they are always “on duty.” Some teens even expressed how they couldn’t even figure out what they felt about something until they had texted their peers to learn how to feel. They admitted that they truly did not know their own feelings, thoughts, or emotions until they had checked in with their network of friends, an example of connectivity at the cost of knowing what oneself thinks or believes.

Our connectivity offers support and a constant stream of information. It also brings misunderstanding and hurt, and an e-mail that was misunderstood requires many more to process the damage. A constant flood of e-mail and Facebook postings overwhelms us. And of course there is anxiety, with too much to do and not enough time to do it all. We answer countless e-mails at work, and then go home to do it all over again.

We create realities on Facebook and Second Life that are not really who we are at all, but personas we would like to be, in worlds we would like to inhabit. Social media (Facebook, Second Life, chatting, and more) ultimately leaves us further disconnected from others, and equally disturbing, cast off from our deepest sense of ourselves.

“Our machine dream,” says Turkle, “is to never be alone but always in control” (157). The machine dream of always being in control changes us. We think we are in control of our connectivity, but in the end, it leads to inner lives that do not feel as satisfying, intimate, or even demanding as real-life human relationship is.

Why is this so? In authentic human relationship, we are never really in control. To be in relationship means to be vulnerable, to take risks, to give and take. Networked, we give only what we want to give.

Or do we? Are we giving more of ourselves than we would like to admit? Have we become something that we probably do not want for ourselves? We have become a people who are always tethered, always plugged in, always on.

In her January Series address, Turkle took some time to explain what this does to our emotional selves. Our constant connectivity means that we no longer know how to be alone. Since we are always on, we have no time to think, discover, be still, reflect, or regroup. Furthermore, we are afraid to be alone, so we keep our phone on, with us, at all times. Yet, we feel lonelier than ever before. We are alone, together.

I see this reality in my students. I see them being alone, together, every day. They have their laptops on their laps, their phones on vibrate, and their thumbs busy. They will interrupt any face-to-face time with friends to take a call. The call is more important than the friend. That’s an unspoken rule, and everyone lives by it.

My students text, chat, blog, tweet, and communicate all day long, but it seems to me that many of them are lonelier and more disconnected from one another than ever before. They long for human interaction that is genuine, face-to-face, and meaningful. This longing was completely evident in the fictional short story I assigned to them. They wrote of lost worlds and fictional scenarios where people no longer spoke to each other at all, where all communication occurred via some kind of technology or machine, their stories reverberated with longing, walls, and loneliness. I wondered as I read their accounts: is this the kind of world in which my students sometimes find themselves?

I believe it is. And I believe that what is happening in my students’ lives is happening everywhere. The texts we send and receive, the chat rooms we inhabit, the Facebook lives and avatars we construct that are not real, the constant feeling that we are never finished with anything often leaves us feeling empty, drained, searching for more.

But this is not new. Every change, every new technology, brings with it some kind of loss or disconnect. For example, in postwar America, women who had contributed meaningfully to the war effort found themselves cast off and purposeless once they returned to the home. When families found themselves sending both mom and dad to work, a boon for the economy, kids were left to their own devices, alone in their homes. When television arrived, people read less and isolated themselves more in their homes.

Does Turkle really have a point here? Doesn’t all technology, furthermore all change, bring it own set of problems and negatives? Or should we listen carefully when she says, “We make our technologies, and they, in turn, shape us. So, of every technology we must ask, Does it serve our human purposes?—a question that causes us to reconsider what these purposes are” (19).

Of course there is much good that comes of technology; Turkle directs us to those benefits in the closing chapters of her book. Still, she reminds us continually, if we embrace everything about our technological world without discerning the directions it will take us in, we risk too much.

This is why I believe that anyone who uses technology or works with people who do (and by now, that is almost everyone) should read Alone Together. Turkle says that we need not reject technology, but “shape it in ways that honor what we hold dear” (19). As Christians, we need to think deeply about what we “hold dear” and about what God would have us do in terms of using technology wisely and well.

As Christian educators, parents, and students, we need to walk into this brave new world with eyes wide open, weighing the good, counting the risks, doing what we can to redirect where redirection is needed, and recognizing what we stand to lose if we do not claim what could so easily be lost in this new world: all the lovely ways that God gives, all the good things he provides, that allow us to sustain and nurture human relationship.