Relationships in the Digital Age: Sherry Turkle Sparks a Conversation
1.31.11 | Sherry Turkle, director of MIT’s Initiative on Technology and Self, has tempered her technological optimism since writing about the freedom of creating online identities in “Life on the Screen.”
In her new book, “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other,” Turkle focuses more on how we need to value face-to-face interaction as much as our interaction with social networking, robots and other virtual simulacra.
“Alone Together” (previously discussed here and here) is peppered with interviews (Turkle conducted more than 300 of them for the book) and first-hand observations that put a face to the research. But the face is often one of gloom. As Eric Felten writes in the Wall Street Journal:
Teens may embrace the peculiar sociability that the wireless computer makes possible, Ms. Turkle says, but they do so with unease and ambivalence. To put it in theater terms, they are “on” all the time, expected to respond immediately to every text, every IM, every scribble on their Facebook walls. There is no escape from the pestering, nudging, hectoring, chattering demands of being connected. Many high-schoolers are more exhausted than exhilarated by their virtual lives. “I can’t imagine doing this when I get older,” says one student about the hours he devotes to meeting the demands of his online social life. “How long do I have to continue doing this?”
Felten frames his review by citing how much Holden Caulfied, the anti-hero of J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye,” would have loathed the “phony” superficiality of Facebook. The teenagers that Turkle interviews, to reinforce that point, even dread the immediacy of a phone call:
Mandy, a high-school sophomore, avoids speaking on the phone because it entails conversation, which is dreaded for a number of reasons: “It is almost always too prying, it takes too long.” A 16-year-old at another school abjures the phone because, “on the telephone, too much might show.” A girl named Meredith explains why she prefers texts to phone calls, especially when she is getting bad news: “I didn’t have to be upset in front of someone else.” The students Ms. Turkle interviews tend to prefer having time to compose their thoughts (no doubt a good thing) and the ability to hide that care behind the appearance that their texted words have been tossed off casually. As Ms. Turkle puts it, they prefer “a deliberate performance that can be made to seem spontaneous.”
While Turkle tries to balance her assessment with take-aways such as, “We don’t need to reject or disparage technology. We need to put it in its place,” Wired contributing editor Jonah Lehrer, reviewing the book for The New York Times, focuses on Turkle’s apprehension:
After exploring the often disturbing world of social robots — we treat these objects like people — Turkle abruptly pivots to the online world, in which we have “invented ways of being with people that turn them into something close to objects.” She rejects the thesis she embraced 15 years earlier, as she notes that the online world is no longer a space of freedom and re¬invention. Instead, we have been trapped by Facebook profiles and Googlecache, in which verbs like “delete” and “erase” are mostly metaphorical. Turkle quotes one high school senior who laments the fact that everything he’s written online will always be around, preserved by some omniscient Silicon Valley server. “You can never escape what you did,” he says.
But Turkle isn’t just concerned with the problem of online identity. She seems most upset by the banalities of electronic interaction, as our range of expression is constrained by our gadgets and platforms. We aren’t “happy” anymore: we’re simply a semicolon followed by a parenthesis. Instead of talking on the phone, we send a text; instead of writing wistful letters, we edit our Tumblr blog.
Playing the web’s advocate to Turkle’s skepticism, Lehrer notes that while Turkle’s discomfort with our digital relationships is understandable, people simply won’t give up their digital connections, because they enhance our lives—and even our relationships—too much:
Perhaps this is because, despite our misgivings about the Internet, its effects on real-life relationships seem mostly positive, if minor. A 2007 study at Michigan State University involving 800 undergraduates, for instance, found that Facebook users had more social capital than abstainers, and that the site increased measures of “psychological well-being,” especially in those suffering from low self-esteem. Other studies have found that frequent blogging leads to increased levels of social support and integration and may serve as “the core of building intimate relationships.” One recurring theme to emerge from much of this research is that most people, at least so far, are primarily using the online world to enhance their offline relationships, not supplant them.
Reviewers praise Turkle’s writing for its engaging, readable style, even as she frustrates some with her conclusions. Writing in the Washington Post, novelist Jane Smiley calls the book “vivid, even lurid, in its depictions of where we are headed, but the reader comes away unsure whether Turkle’s anxieties are warranted.”
Navigating a path to a healthy, happy life in this digital age is far from easy or clear, but Turkle’s human perspective emerges clearly in a interview with Stephen Colbert—who suggests trying to reduce the thesis to 140 words or less:
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