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.
* 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