From Andrew Keen's "PUBLIC AND PRIVATE" column on The Barnes & Noble Review
Sherry Turkle's new book, Alone Together, ends in mourning. In
October 2009, the author, an MIT professor of the Social Studies of Science and
Technology, went to her local synagogue for Yiskor, the special Yom Kippur
service that remembers the dead. There she heard the rabbi deliver a sermon
about the importance of talking to the deceased and communicating four messages
to 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 other
human beings, whether they belong to our past or our present. Our "knowledge
of mortality" and our "experience of the life cycle" is conveyed
in just such simple messages: "I'm sorry. Thank you. I forgive you. I love
you." They are the most intimate words we can say to another. Without
them, 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 adapted
for the movies by Ridley Scott as Blade
Runner. 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 herded
toward what she ominously calls "the robotic moment", a place in
which we will rely on machines to shape our regret, gratitude, forgiveness, and
"People disappoint; robots
will not" -- so she explains the great seduction of devices that behave
like human beings. Today, she warns us, we are becoming so "immersed in
technology that we ignore what we know about life." Indeed, this epochal
robotic moment may have already arrived while an increasingly wired human race
has been too busy texting, tweeting and friending to notice.
As Alone Together, based on interviews with hundreds of subjects over 15 years of research, illustrates, this ignorance about the creeping mechanical translation of our human instincts is afflicting old and young alike. When Turkle introduces 76-year old Andy to "My Real Baby", a simulated human infant, he is delighted: "Now I have something to do when I have nothing to do," Andy confesses. Seven-year-old Brooke yearns to talk to a robot called Cog so that she become the machine's dedicated tutor. And Turkle considers the robot-makers, too -- from Norbert Weiner, the inventor of cybernetics who believed it was "conceptually possible" to send a person over an electric wire, to Aaron Edsinger, the inventor of a device called "Domo" which, according to Turkle, "really can have a conversation."
But is the nature of conversation
itself being altered by its new forms?
Turkle talks to high school students who are sending 6,000 text messages
a day, thereby predicating their whole identity on electronic communications. "If
Facebook were deleted, I'd be deleted," one 16-year-old student confesses
to Turkle. Such fascination with social media is fostering what Turkle -- a
psychoanalytically trained psychologist -- calls a "hyper-otherdirectedness"
in its proponents, a "collaborative self" that no longer has the
ability to be alone and privately reflect on its emotions.
As an elegy for the death of
intimacy, Alone Together -- for all
its noble intentions -- fails, for the most part, to establish a really close
relationship with the reader, in part because of its medium. The 348-page,
richly footnoted tome has the form of
a conventional academic book, but its message belongs to a deeply layered piece
of philosophy or even fiction. So while
I loved Turkle's introduction, her conclusion, and, in particular, her deeply
moving epilogue, the rest of the occasionally repetitive and unstructured
narrative could have done with a bit more rabbi and a bit less academic
But that's a quibble. Alone Together is a major empirical and theoretical work that illuminates the crisis of humanity at the dawn of the digital century. Turkle has laid down a gauntlet for the rest of us to pick up. One can only hope that rabbis, novelists, and other engineers of the human soul will do so, translating Turkle's vitally important message into more urgent and intimate forms.
As the digital age sparks increasing debate about what new technologies and increased connectivity are doing to our brains, comes this chilling examination of what our iPods and iPads are doing to our relationships from MIT professor Turkle (Simulation and Its Discontents). In this third in a trilogy that explores the relationship between humans and technology, Turkle argues that people are increasingly functioning without face-to-face contact. For all the talk of convenience and connection derived from texting, e-mailing, and social networking, Turkle reaffirms that what humans still instinctively need is each other, and she encounters dissatisfaction and alienation among users: teenagers whose identities are shaped not by self-exploration but by how they are perceived by the online collective, mothers who feel texting makes communicating with their children more frequent yet less substantive, Facebook users who feel shallow status updates devalue the true intimacies of friendships. Turkle 's prescient book makes a strong case that what was meant to be a way to facilitate communications has pushed people closer to their machines and further away from each other. (Jan.)
Clinical psychologist—and sociologist of the Internet—Turkle (social studies of science & technology, MIT; Simulation and Its Discontents) presents a cautionary tale about what she calls the "robotic moment," i.e., our current state of technological connection and societal disconnection that makes us willing to consider robots for true companionship. She tells two stories—of her research observing people with interactive but still rudimentary machines like Furbies and Paros and her experiences interviewing people (including many adolescents) about their digital habits and tools (e.g., texting, IM'ing, and Facebook). Although she tries to conclude on an up note, insisting we still have time to think carefully about how we use computers and connect to one another in an always-connected world, her tales of seniors ready to accept robot companions and kids seeking attention from parents addicted to their own Blackberries make for sobering reading. VERDICT Turkle's findings are engaging and her conclusions thoughtful (she's been called "Margaret Mead in cyberspace"). Her book is best for serious readers because those seeking livelier popular science writing might find her style here a bit dry.—Sarah Statz Cords, The Reader's Advisor Online, Middleton, WI
A clinical psychologist takes a critical and sometimes disturbing look at the psycho-social dangers of mixing technology and human intimacy.
Turkle (Social Studies of Science and Technology/MIT; Simulation and Its Discontents, 2009, etc.) paints a bleak picture of a robotically enhanced future in which humans become increasingly emotionally dependent on technology. As this dependency on technology for meaningful social interaction increases, writes the author, the more humans will lose their ability to have authentic and meaningful relationships with one another. Turkle begins her study with possibly the creepiest findings from her fieldwork: the ongoing development and acceptance of "sex robots," and the zeal of the scientific community's crackpots who'd like to exalt robots to equal relational status with human beings. Essentially this means programming robots as not only a sexual supplement to humans' sex lives but also as an actual surrogate for an intimate bedfellow. From there, the author's examples of a society gone technologically wild can only seem tame: children getting robotic pets and cell phones before they hit puberty; insecure teens seeking a new self through avatars and virtual-reality games; young Facebookers afraid of the permanency and nakedness of their information on the Internet. Turkle advances the notion that Internet-based social networking and communication via texting and e-mail can only lead to alienation and awkwardness when facing inevitable person-to-person confrontations. But the author is careful not to blame technology and its handlers for corrupting the easily corruptible. Many of the technological slaves that Turkle profiles are—one hopes—exceptional examples. The author seems confident that human instinct will eventually intervene and prompt us into evasive action as soon as technology begins to increasingly dominate our lives. This cautious optimism is admirable, but it can't quite brighten the dystopic pallor the book ultimately casts on the future of human relationships.
Despite the dry, clinical writing, Turkle provides potentially valuable social research.
…perceptive…[Turkle] has spent decades examining how people interact with computers and other devices…and by situating her findings in historical perspective, she is able to lend contextual ballast to her case studies.
The New York Times
"Turkle's prescient book makes a strong case that what was meant to be a way to facilitate communications has pushed people closer to their machines and further away from each other." Publishers Weekly Starred Review