Alone Together

Sherry Turkle’s new book, Alone Together, ends in mourning. InOctober 2009, the author, an MIT professor of the Social Studies of Science andTechnology, went to her local synagogue for Yiskor, the special Yom Kippurservice that remembers the dead. There she heard the rabbi deliver a sermonabout the importance of talking to the deceased and communicating four messagesto them: “I’m sorry. Thank you. I forgive you. I love you.”

“That is what makes us human, over time,over distance,” Turkle says of our ability to talk sincerely to otherhuman beings, whether they belong to our past or our present. Our “knowledgeof mortality” and our “experience of the life cycle” is conveyedin just such simple messages: “I’m sorry. Thank you. I forgive you. I loveyou.” They are the most intimate words we can say to another. Withoutthem, she suggests, we are machines akin to the robots in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,which imagines a future in which robots and humans are indistinguishable.

Dick’s classic story was adaptedfor the movies by Ridley Scott as BladeRunner. But in this age of Facebook, Twitter and increasingly “intelligent”robots with names like Kismet and Paro, Turkle tells us, Blade Runner has been adapted by all of us: we are being herdedtoward what she ominously calls “the robotic moment”, a place inwhich we will rely on machines to shape our regret, gratitude, forgiveness, andlove.

“People disappoint; robotswill not”—so she explains the great seduction of devices that behavelike human beings. Today, she warns us, we are becoming so “immersed intechnology that we ignore what we know about life.” Indeed, this epochalrobotic moment may have already arrived while an increasingly wired human racehas been too busy texting, tweeting and friending to notice.

As Alone Together, based on interviews with hundreds of subjects over15 years of research, illustrates, this ignorance about the creeping mechanicaltranslation of our human instincts is afflicting old and young alike. WhenTurkle introduces 76-year old Andy to “My Real Baby”, a simulatedhuman infant, he is delighted: “Now I have something to do when I havenothing to do,” Andy confesses. Seven-year-old Brooke yearns to talk to arobot called Cog so that she become the machine’s dedicated tutor. And Turkleconsiders the robot-makers, too—from Norbert Weiner, the inventor ofcybernetics who believed it was “conceptually possible” to send aperson over an electric wire, to Aaron Edsinger, the inventor of a devicecalled “Domo” which, according to Turkle, “really can have aconversation.”

But is the nature of conversationitself being altered by its new forms? Turkle talks to high school students who are sending 6,000 text messagesa day, thereby predicating their whole identity on electronic communications. “IfFacebook were deleted, I’d be deleted,” one 16-year-old student confessesto Turkle. Such fascination with social media is fostering what Turkle—apsychoanalytically trained psychologist—calls a “hyper-otherdirectedness”in its proponents, a “collaborative self” that no longer has theability to be alone and privately reflect on its emotions.

As an elegy for the death ofintimacy, Alone Together—for allits noble intentions—fails, for the most part, to establish a really closerelationship with the reader, in part because of its medium. The 348-page,richly footnoted tome has the form ofa conventional academic book, but its message belongs to a deeply layered pieceof philosophy or even fiction. So whileI loved Turkle’s introduction, her conclusion, and, in particular, her deeplymoving epilogue, the rest of the occasionally repetitive and unstructurednarrative could have done with a bit more rabbi and a bit less academicpsychologist.

But that’s a quibble. Alone Together is a major empirical andtheoretical work that illuminates the crisis of humanity at the dawn of the digitalcentury. Turkle has laid down a gauntlet for the rest of us to pick up. One canonly hope that rabbis, novelists, and other engineers of the human soul will doso, translating Turkle’s vitally important message into more urgent andintimate forms.