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Alone Together: The Great Irony of Modern Communication: A Review Article

T. David Gordon

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, by Sherry Turkle. New York: Basic Books, 2011, xvii + 360 pages, $28.95.

Sherry Turkle has written a thorough and interesting analysis of our curious relationship with electronic and digital technologies. The entire book examines the paradox contained in the sub-title: That we expect (even long for) human relationships with our technologies, while contenting ourselves with sub-human relationships with humans. As she says in the preface, “I leave my story at a point of disturbing symmetry: we seem determined to give human qualities to objects and content to treat each other as things” (xiv).

This is no mere editorial or screed. Turkle is Professor of Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, a licensed clinical psychologist, the director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, the editor of two books, and the author of four other books. Turkle studied under the late Joseph Weizenbaum in the mid-1970s when he was working on his famous ELIZA program. This particular volume functions as the third part of a trilogy that includes Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (1997) and The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit (2005). It is the result of a fifteen-year study that included interviews with over 450 individuals. The book is 360 pages long, and includes 290 footnotes spread across forty-one small-type pages. The book is divided into two parts, and the two parts disclose the paradox that constitutes the book’s thesis. Part One (chapters 1–7) is entitled “The Robotic Moment: In Solitude, New Intimacies” and Part Two (chapters 8–14) is entitled “Networked: In Intimacy, New Solitudes.”

When Turkle refers to ours as “the robotic moment,” she qualifies that she does “not mean that companionate robots are common among us; it refers to our state of emotional—and I would say philosophical—readiness” (9). She traces the development of social/companionate robots since Weizenbaum’s ELIZA, discussing Tamagotchis, Furbies, Paros, My Real Baby, AIBO, Cog, Kismet, Domo, and Mertz. Her observations of these devices and our usage of them lead to her basic conclusion that “now, instead of simply taking on difficult or dangerous jobs for us, robots would try to be our friends” (xii). “The robot, for some,” says Turkle “is not merely ‘better than nothing,’ but better than something, better than a human for some purposes” (7). Robots are now being developed to care for the young and the elderly, and some of each appear to be content with the circumstance. One elderly woman said of her robotic dog, “It is better than a real dog ... It won’t do dangerous things, and it won’t betray you ... Also, it won’t die suddenly and abandon you and make you very sad” (10). Indeed, the fifth-graders Turkle studied “worried that their grandparents might prefer robots to their company” (118), and in one case she observed such an event: “Edna’s attention remains on My Real Baby. The atmosphere is quiet, even surreal: a great grandmother entranced by a robot baby, a neglected two-year-old, a shocked mother, and researchers nervously coughing in discomfort” (117). And though the young people did not like being overlooked by (great) grandparents or parents, many of them also preferred robots to people, as one young girl said: “In some ways Cog would be better than a person-friend because a robot would never try to hurt your feelings” (93). After fifteen years of observation, Turkle noted, “children want to connect with these machines, to teach them and befriend them. And they want the robots to like, even love, them” (86). Indeed, both young and old alike, while acknowledging verbally that these robots are just machines, continued to cover and make excuses for their obvious mistakes, a trait that Turkle refers to as “complicity” (131).

Turkle is not an alarmist, but she writes the book with genuine concern over what she perceives as a profoundly de-humanizing tendency to expect and desire robots to replace human companionship: “Many roboticists are enthusiastic about having robots tend to our children and our aging parents, for instance. Are these psychologically, socially, and ethically acceptable propositions? What are our responsibilities here?” (17). Turkle shares the concern of one young girl who said, “Don’t we have people for these jobs?” (76). Towards the conclusion of Part One, Turkle says, “My Real Baby was marketed as a robot that could teach your child ‘socialization.’ I am skeptical. I believe that sociable technology will always disappoint because it promises what it cannot deliver ... A machine taken as a friend demeans what we mean by friendship” (101).

In Part Two, Turkle discusses how the network has altered our social structures in similarly dehumanizing ways, referring to “the unsettling isolations of the tethered self” (155), and citing research that “portrays Americans as increasingly insecure, isolated, and lonely” (157). In this section, she discusses social networks such as Second Life and Facebook, and the communications technologies of instant messaging, texting, and cellphones. Even though young people show traits of virtual addiction to their digital technologies (Turkle is aware that multi-tasking “feels good because the body rewards it with neurochemicals that induce a multi-tasking ‘high,’” 163), they also share candidly with Turkle their misgivings and anxieties about them. They are very aware that they are, as Turkle says, “always on” (151, and Turkle also refers to “the anxiety of always,” 260), constantly producing and managing their digital personae, fearful that they will project a “self” that others will not like and fearful that they cannot erase from these websites mistakes that can injure them both now and in their futures. As one young woman said to her, “I feel that my childhood has been stolen by the Internet. I shouldn’t have to be thinking about these things” (247). Many young people also appear to be aware of the addictive tendencies of these technologies: “I think of a sixteen-year-old who tells me, ‘Technology is bad because people are not as strong as its pull’ ” (227).

Turkle shares the concerns others have expressed about the tendency of social networking sites to become a substitute for real human community. For many of the individuals she studied and interviewed, the online “life” was as important as their actual life: “Pete says that his online marriage is an essential part of his ‘life mix.’ ... He makes it clear that he spends time ‘in physical life’ with friends and family. But he says that Second Life ‘is my preferred way of being with people’ ” (160–61). Many log on to anonymous “confessional” sites to acknowledge their transgressions without actually having to do anything about them face-to-face with anyone: “I ask her if online confession makes it easier not to apologize. Her answer is immediate: ‘Oh, I definitely think so. This is my way to make my peace ... and move on.’ I am taken aback because I did not expect such a ready response” (233).

Perhaps the most surprising result of Turkle’s interviews was the intensity with which her subjects (both adult and youth) avoid/evade landline telephones and, increasingly, even cellphones (many use their cellphones exclusively for texting). They regard telephones as intrusive, and express anxiety that they will not know what to say or how to end the conversation, so they prefer texting or IM-ing, where they can compose what they wish to say without the anxiety of immediacy. Referring to this tendency, Turkle expresses again the paradox that constitutes her thesis: “We work so hard to give expressive voices to our robots but are content not to use our own” (207).

Though trained in psychoanalysis, Turkle writes as a true media ecologist, observing “not what computers do for us but what they do to us, to our ways of thinking about ourselves, our relationships, our sense of being human” (2, emphases mine). “We make our technologies, and they, in turn, shape us” (19). “Technologies live in complex ecologies. The meaning of any one depends on what others are available” (188). Turkle’s voice is joined to that of Maggie Jackson (Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, 2009), Winifred Gallagher (Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, 2009), Mark Bauerlein (The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone under Thirty), 2008), and Nicholas Carr (The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, 2010).

We can no longer afford the conceit that our helpful and powerful technologies—for all their help and all their power—come without remarkable human costs. “But these days, our problems with the Net are becoming too distracting to ignore ... The ties we form through the Internet are not, in the end, the ties that bind. But they are ties that preoccupy. We text each other at family dinners, while we jog, while we drive, as we push our children on swings in the park. We don’t want to intrude on each other, so instead we constantly intrude on each other, but not in ‘real time’” (294, 280). If there are any solutions, they will not be easy: “This is hard and will take work. Simple love of technology is not going to help. Nor is a Luddite impulse” (294). What Turkle suggests, instead, is what she calls “realtechnik” (294f.), as we assess the results of the networked life and “begin with very simple things ... Talk to colleagues down the hall, no cell phones at dinner, on the playground, in the car, or in company” (296).

Turkle is evidently a humanist, but she does not disclose whether she is a theistic humanist or a secular one (she does make passing reference to her Jewish heritage). Readers of Ordained Servant, therefore, will not find a theology of technology here nor a theological critique of our current technologies. But readers will find here many insights about how and “why we expect more from technology and less from ourselves.” Tolle, lege.

T. David Gordon is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America serving as Professor of Religion and Greek at Grove City College, Grove City, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant Online, January 2013.

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