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Review: Alone Together by Sherry Turkle

March 27, 2012

Sherry Turkle is a professor of psychology at MIT. She’s spent her entire career looking at the relationships that we have with technology and how these affect our relationships with other people. She has witnessed the dramatic technological progress of the last thirty years, studying its effects on a culture and a society that have changed almost as much. In her latest book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, Turkle pieces together twenty years of research and concludes that because of our insecurity in relationships, we “look to technology for ways to be in relationships and protect ourselves from them at the same time.”

Sherry Turkle (image from the New York Times)

Turkle begins her book by examining our relationships with robots. “What we ask of robots,” Turkle says, “tells us what we need. We need to be heard. We need to be cared for. We need attention. We need to feel loved. Robots can give people these things, or at least, they give people the illusion of these things. What Turkle’s research has shown is that over time, we come to prefer the robots. We increasingly view robots, not as things, but as sentient creatures like us.

This troubles Turkle. In this new relationship, we sow the seeds of our future disconnection from one another. “With robot pets, children can give enough to feel attached, but then they can turn away.” This self-centered view of companionship and friendship exempts children from personal responsibility. Robot toys, Turkle argues, cultivate such attitudes in children, preparing them for a life free from responsibility. She worries that because of robots, we will lower our expectations of all relationships. “In the process,” she writes, “we betray ourselves.”

After tackling robots, Turkle takes on connectivity itself. Anyone who has read my posts on connectivity, texting, and communication will be familiar with some of Turkle’s arguments. Turkle writes: “…when we receive a text or an e-mail, our nervous system responds by giving us a shot of dopamine. We are stimulated by connectivity itself. We learn to require it, even as it depletes us.” (Emphasis mine.) Connectivity is an addiction. And like an addiction, it takes a serious toll on our psychological health.

Alone Together effectively chronicles many of the psychological effects of modern technology and connectivity. Turkle illuminates the central themes of modern life: loneliness, control, communication, and image. The book excels when Turkle sketches out these themes and regales the reader with fascinating interviews and stories culled from her many years of targeted research among children, teens, and the elderly. Her interview with “Luis,” a high-schooler who admitted to having never received a letter in the mail, inspired my Letter Writing Project. (I even discovered that something like the “memory app” I described already exists: MyLifeBits.)

When reading this book, the reader must remember that Turkle is a psychologist who views new technologies as symptomatic of societal problems. She writes of robot companions: “Like all psychological symptoms, it obscures a problem by ‘solving’ it without addressing it. The robot will provide companionship and mask our fears of too-risky intimacies. As dream, robots reveal our for relationships we can control.” Conclusions like this proliferate throughout the book. Turkle has assembled an impressive and persuasive collection of interviews and observational research, but her personal interpretations of this data are often filtered through the prism of developmental psychology. While this doesn’t detract or invalidate Turkle’s opinions, it is but one possible interpretation of many.

At the end of the book, I expected a chapter on how we can deal with these new psychological realities. Turkle offers few prescriptions. Perhaps this is my own fault, since I’ve come to expect such positive reassurances at the close of other, equally scary books. There’s disconnection, but this is idealistic at best (assuming as it does that people will disconnect when they realize the effects connectivity has had on their relationships), and a Luddite impulse at worse. So lacking is the book’s conclusion in real solutions that Turkle may as well have written: “Just deal.” However, as someone who writes daily on the issues surrounding modern technology, I sympathize with Turkle. She’s given us an eloquent and often poignant account of the effects of connectivity and modern technology; it’s up to us, her readers, to construct the solutions, together.

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