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With Tech, We Are Not Where We Want To Be (Or, This Cake Ain't Baked)

By - August 21, 2011

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Last week I finished reading Sherry Turkle’s “Alone Together“, and while I have various disagreements with the work (I typed in more than 70 notes on my Kindle, even with that terribly tiny keyboard), I still found myself nodding in agreement more than I thought I would.

In her book, Turkle explores our relationship with technology, in particular what she calls “sociable robots” (toys like the Aibo or My Real Baby), as well as with email, IM, and shared virtual spaces like Second Life and Facebook.

Turkle is one of the most important sociologists of technology working today, and her new book reads like a personal field notebook, rife with anecdotes about how children and teens, in particular, are responding to these new technological artifacts.

I came to “Alone Together” a skeptic – it was clear from almost the first page that Turkle is troubled by what her field work yielded. Children projecting “life force” onto robots, adults fretting about the morality of robots caring for their failing elders, parents so distracted by their smart phones that they lose connection with their kids. That’s the framing of most of her reviews, and it was the framing I’ll admit I had when I began reading.

The book has a clear posture about our collective abilities to fend off seductive but ultimately damaging technological crutches – and that posture is that as we engage with machines, we’re losing important parts of our humanity. And Turkle is clearly worried about that.

When it comes to our relationship to technology, I tend not to be a worrier. My early marginalia on Turkle’s pages included “false premise!” and “what is the problem here?” and “so is a damn teddy bear!” (that last one in response to Turkle’s fretting about a child’s conception of whether a Tamagotchi is “alive.”)

The reason for my skepticism is simple: As Turkle describes page after page of people losing “true connectedness” in their lives and falling instead for the false thrill of tech, I keep thinking: Our tools have not caught up with our brains, and vice versa. We have shaped technology, and now it is shaping us – sure – but we can keep shaping it till we get the feedback loop right. So far, we simply have not – the music ain’t flowing, so to speak. In our relationship to what Kevin Kelly* calls the technium, we’re awkward pre-teens.

Or put another way, this cake ain’t baked. I mean, think about it. Facebook: Not quite right. Smart phones? Not quite right. Desktop computing? Even though we’ve had nearly three decades of interaction, it’s still not quite right.

One of “Alone Together’s” greatest failings for me – or perhaps it’s a lesson of sorts – was the parade of examples based on technological products which, after an initial period of cultural uptake, have been discarded or marginalized over time. Tamagotchis, Teddy Ruxpins, My Real Babies, Second Life, Blackberries, even, dare I say it, Facebook, are ephemeral in the sweep of a generation or two (or in some cases, in a year or two). We shouldn’t draw stern conclusions from our pre-teen love affairs, so to speak. We are learning, failing, trying again.

However, as the book unfolded, and I thought more personally about the issues Turkle raises, I began to agree with some of her concerns. We’re only on this earth for a short time, and the time we lose to poor relationships with technology is time we can’t get back. When Turkle describes a young parent pushing his child on a swing while checking email on his Blackberry, I saw myself as the CEO of The Standard back in the 1990s, and I winced. I think I was a pretty good Dad to my kids when they were young, but I do mourn the time I lost to my obsession with …. well, not technology, to be honest. But my work, and my career. Then again, for me, anyway, that career has been about technology…

So as I get a bit older, I do feel a need to reflect on how and whether my impulse to connect is impairing my most important relationships. And that’s a fair and good reflection to take.

After reading “Alone Together,” I happened to be watching television late one night with my wife, and while flipping around, we found the last half hour or so of Bladerunner. This 1982 film, based (loosely) on Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”, is both lovely and a bit over the top. Turkle cites it near the end of her book. Its core question is simply this: What is it to be human, and when might machines reach that threshold? And…then what?

As I watched the film for what must have been the hundredth time, I found myself certain that this question will be central to our experience over the next generation or two (not a new thought, of course, but still…). I feel better prepared to debate the answer having read Turkle’s book.

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* NB: I am reading Kevin’s excellent “What Technology Wants” right now. I got about a third of the way through it when it came out, but was not in “deep reading” mode then, and wanted to do it justice. With an extraordinary crew of thinkers, dreamers, and makers, Kevin and I worked together to bring Wired to life from its inception in 1992 to1997, when I left to start The Standard. Turkle devotes the conclusion of her book to what amounts to an argument with Kevin’s premise in “What Technology Wants.” I emailed Kevin and asked him about it. Turns out, the two are close friends, which, of course, I should have known. By disagreeing, debating, conversing, and resolving, we become better people, more connected. More on Kevin’s book soon.

Other books I’ve reviewed recently:

The Information by James Gleick

In the Plex by Steven Levy

The Future of the Internet (And How to Stop It) by Jonathan Zittrain

The Next 100 Years by George Friedman


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4 thoughts on “With Tech, We Are Not Where We Want To Be (Or, This Cake Ain't Baked)

  1. Mark says:

    I have not read the book yet, but regarding your comment about checking your Blackberry while pushing your kid on a swing – isn’t the opposite of her premise true, doesn’t the fact that you can check your e-mail with your kids versus having to be in an office more about a success of technology, an improvement and a chance to strengthen the family core.

    Personally, I have been able to bond with my daughter because technology lets me remote into an office, because technology lets me get my work done before partners across the globe wake up, because technology lets me press a power button to turn off my work and spend time with her instead of commutes and overtime corralled in a cubicle.

    Regarding toys, the imagination of children is a funny thing.

    Overall, I think this topic is interesting, but I feel that maybe for this book a conclusion may have been made before the first draft was written. Again, I would need to read it. Any recommendations on a non-dystopic view of technology?

  2. Andrew says:

    George Orwell said this over 60 years ago (when covering similar ground to Turkle: “Man needs warmth, society, leisure, comfort and security: he also needs solitude, creative work and the sense of wonder. If he recognised this he could use the products of science and industrialism eclectically, applying always the same test: does this make me more human or less human?”

    I wrote a piece for Scots culture magazine One about Orwell and technology a few years back: http://wp.iamone.co.uk/?p=539

    Plus ca change….

  3. John says:

    Mark, it’s a fair observation, but there’s a purity of focus that is important, I think. Also, intent. If work takes you away from your kids, that’s on you. If you bring work with you as you are with your kids, that’s also on you.
    If you want non dystopic, read Kevin’s book, referred to in the post.

  4. Steve says:

    John, when I read “but we can keep shaping it till we get the feedback loop right”, I shook my head (left to right, not up and down). I think that’s the sisyphean promise of technology. If we can just iterate 1 more time, maybe we’ll get it right this time. But, the boulder keeps rolling back downhill — maybe not as far downhill as the last time, but downhill nonetheless.

    Overall, I am a technology optimist, and to use the words of Louis CK — “the world is amazing right now”. But, in our attempt to use technology to enhance human connection, we’re inevitably creating new types of connections, while at the same time diminishing other types of connections. Unfortunately, the new types of connections are often less “human”, while the older, diminished ones are often the more “human” ones.

    In other words, it’s great that I can use Facebook to keep tabs on people I otherwise probably would have lost touch with a long time ago. At the same time, my understanding of what’s going on in their lives is fairly cursory, and yet I have the illusion of knowing what’s going on in their lives. So, maybe I’m less likely to dig more deeply and establish a much more meaningful connection. As a result, the risk is that we have a lot more superficial connections with people, and fewer deep connections.

    If I had to choose between the two types of connections, I would choose a smaller number of deeper connections. For me, that is much more human.