Alone together

June 6, 2011

Sherry Turkle

A few years ago, a friend and I read an article in the New York Times challenging readers to take a “digital vacation” away from their communications devices.  If you’re anything like most Americans today, you’re glued to at least a cell phone, but probably quite more, like a smartphone or iPad.  Permanently connected and infinitely accessible, we’re tethered to networks that bring use closer to friends, family and strangers despite barriers of distance or social obligation.  For many of us, we marvel at the possibilities and appreciate the moments that connect us with those whom we treasure most.  Increasingly, though, and for many that are tethered to the workplace by Blackberry and email, it’s really just a pain.

Dave and I were terribly unsuccessful in our attempts to eliminate communications devices from our lives every Sunday, lasting only a month before just giving up.  Oddly, it wasn’t because we needed to reach out to others, it was because we felt the pressure to be plugged in was simply too great.  We were missing out on something, we were sure of it.  What if friends wanted to go out?  What if there was a breaking news story that we weren’t even remotely involved in but obviously HAD to know about?  Were we letting friends down by not being available all the time?  I think we were pretty surprised at the feelings raised by this challenge.

I’ve always been an advocate of technology as a means to connect people through communication.  Whether it’s breaking down social, geographic or economic barriers, information communications technologies (ICTs) have provided enormous benefits to society.  But, what I came to LSE to study is how these technologies have changed the way we converse with one another, not just the media we use to do it.

Sherry Turkle, Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, spoke at LSE this week on the topic and it prompted me to write a little more about it.  I read her book, Alone Together, this spring and enjoyed her qualitative research through interviews and analysis of personal communications in the United States.  She was once noted as an evangelist of the positive power of ICTs in society, but today says something is “amiss” and we would be wise to take a closer look at how shifts in conversation are affecting society as a whole.  It is a collection of corrections to the “heroic narratives” of the Internet – “the effusions of digital evangelists who confuse technological advance with human progress.”

We insist that our world is increasingly complex, yet we have created a communications culture that has decreased the time available for us to sit and think uninterrupted.  As we communicate in ways that ask for almost instantaneous responses, we don’t allow sufficient space to consider complicated problems. (176)

Avoidance of the telephone because it’s “too intimate”, demands to answer complex questions via email with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’, punting of sensitive discussion in favour of passive action on social networks and texting – all of these trends are thoroughly discussed by Turkle and given appropriate substantiation from interviews with teens and businessmen and parents alike.

At times, I’ve read aloud paragraphs to friends sitting nearby and each has related their own stories of frustration and remorse at how they used to, or would like to, communicate.  It’s as if we’ve placed this collective pressure on each other to communicate as a means of satisfaction instead of proper discourse; confusing frequency and rapidity for progress and quality of discussion. Turkle interviewed a high school student in New Jersey (emphasis my own):

“If I’m upset, right as I feel upset, I text a couple of my friends … just because I know that they’ll be there and they can comfort me. If something exciting happens, I know that they’ll be there to be excited with me, and stuff like that. So I definitely feel emotions when I’m texting, as I’m texting…. Even before I get upset and I know that I have that feeling that I’m gonna start crying, yeah, I’ll pull up my friend … uh, my phone … and say like … I’ll tell them what I’m feeling, and, like, I need to talk to them, or see them.”

After Julia sends out a text, she is uncomfortable until she gets one back: “I am always looking for a text that says, ‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ or ‘Oh, that’s great.’” Without this feedback, she says, “It’s hard to calm down.”

Julia describes how painful it is to text about “feelings” and get no response: “I get mad. Even if I e-mail someone, I want the response, like, right away.  I want them to be, like, right there answering me. And sometimes I’m like, ‘Uh! Why can’t you just answer me?’ . . . I wait, like, depending on what it is, I wait like an hour if they don’t answer me, and I’ll text them again. ‘Are you mad? Are you there? Is everything okay?’” Her anxiety is palpable. (184)

What is this altered discourse doing to our ability to relate to one another and form relationships based on intimate conversation and trust - especially in a world in which our conversations and sharing are mediated on a platform whose creator believes that privacy is a discourse of the past?  This desire to alleviate pain and fear with reciprocated concern from friends is obviously not new, but if the first reaction in times of difficulty is to reach to others for superficial expressions of concern instead of coping internally and finding the strength within, what is that doing to our sense of self?

I, like Turkle, am not a technological determinist and do not believe that technology is forcing us to change the way we communicate - it’s simply enabling us to give in to our basic human impulses without regard for the larger picture.  We sacrifice internal deliberation and self-awareness for the immediate satisfaction provided by constant communication with others.  Examples are everywhere, from business to friends to relationships.

While the social pressures of giving up these devices and networks is not realistic for many of us, we can change the way we communicate and do what we can to engage others in less fragmented forms of discussion in favour of more meaningful expressions of friendship and connectedness. Perhaps that should be the challenge after all - don’t give it up, just change the way you use it.

Updated: The podcast of her lecture is now available.

More from Professor Turkle: TEDx Talk at UIUC - A very brief version of the talk she gave at LSE

Andrew Keen interviews Turkle - Well-known cyber-skeptic Andrew Keen questions Turkle on privacy

Who Am We? - Wired magazine article on faceted identities from 1996

Photo: Jean-Baptiste Labrune (on Flickr!)