Alone Together

In this blog I tend to concentrate on the benefits of the internet and the networked culture that it has spawned.  However, the reason why I started the blog was because I was aware that digital life is not without its negatives.  So I was eager to read Sherry Turkle’s new book Alone Together (How we Expect more from Technology and Less from each other). At its centre is the old question of whether technology is deterministic or non-deterministic. Does it control us or are we in charge? A trained psychoanalysist who specialises in technology, Sherry Turkle has been studying the effects of digital objects on humans for 15 years and Alone Together is the result of her interviews.  The first half of Alone Together is concerned mostly with robotics and looks at how they are used to simulate caring. She discusses everything from Furbies to robot caregivers for the elderly. The second half of the Alone Together is what interested me as it looks at the networked culture. The argument about what technology wants is central to this book. Turkle argues that the networked culture is a simulation and the purpose of all simulations is immersion.

Technology traps us

Technology traps us

This comes with a price. The people that she interviews are all connected now. They stay in touch with who they want but they find that they are always waiting for something new. As Turkle says “Moments of more leave us with lives of less”. Central to immersion in the internet is identity. We all like to think that we are our authentic selves on social media but the subjects of Alone Together obviously worry about what they leave out and what they put in on each of their profiles. My own job as a digital marketer revolves around maintaining these different identities. It is like a performance that spills over into real-life. The argument that real life is just as much a performance is not the point. Yes, we all create separate identities (employees, club members, family dynamics etc) but the internet has a new speed that is relentless.

Social Collection Space

Social Collection Space

Technology also effects our ideas of space. In the past we had communal spaces but now we have what Turkle calls “social collection spaces”. I see this every day where I work. Youth hostels used to be traditional communal spaces. Now they are full of young people on small screens connecting with people far away while ignoring those closest to them.  I wonder what part of Ireland these young French and German travellers are experiencing while they are chatting to their schoolfriends back in their hometowns. I remember when I first left home and experienced London – that sense of having to find my feet on my own without the usual supports. It was scary and exhilarating. I was cut off. Do people experience that anymore? There is a downside to missing that experience. In the past communities would spring up when people felt alone and abandoned. There was a shared need. Yes, the internet is full of communities now but they are communities of weak ties. How many of us really depend on all the people in our social media communities?

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Being connected also has an effect on time. The internet gives us the illusion that we have more time by giving us whoever and whatever we want. Being human, this allows us to escape ourselves. In the past we often came to the realisation that no matter where we went, there we were. We had to face ourselves. Not now. Now we can escape by just taking the phone out of our pockets. We check our messages in bed before we go to sleep. When we are not escaping we are doing the other extreme, multitasking.

In the past, doing one thing well was the sign of mastery. Now multitasking is considered a successful attribute.  We measure ourselves by the number of emails answered, by the speed of work. We click harder, faster, despite the fact that we know it does not make us better. We get that illusion of creating more time. It reminds me of that old saying “Doing the wrong thing with more intensity rarely improves the situation”. We can be busy fools, chasing wifi signals. All the time we look longingly at slow movements. We want to switch off but feel guilty. We desperately seek time to think, to reflect. When we do switch off we feel naked. Alone Together makes the suggestion that we are the internet’s killer app.

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We want connection and the internet promises us it. Young people desperately seek it from parents who are there in space but not present. We also fear real connection. Intimate and authentic connection requires vulnerability. That seems too dangerous now. We send our kids out with mobiles so we can get in touch with them should that vulnerability turn into trouble. We never let them deal with boredom. When I left home, I often had to navigate through those situations. I gained independence that way. I took chances.  I searched for things that I did not know I wanted until I found them. I made mistakes.

Turkle uses the example of phone calls to demonstrate how we fear vulnerability. Given the choice most of us will text or email or IM. We can edit our responses that way.  Everything carries that strange premeditation that promises time but delivers only confusion. Phone calls are reserved for special or stressful interactions. Phones do not allow us to hide or to wait for empty silences to pass. We need to use those complex signallings to fully understand each other. In my own family we laugh about our peculiar way of saying goodbye on the phone (Goodbye, good luck, g’luck, g’luck now, g’luck…) but very few people learn how to close off a conversation comfortably anymore. Everything is an arrangement to meet at a later time.

Letter writing is another example of the change. I was a prolific letter writer growing up. I had cousins around the world that I wrote to and each of them would get a hand crafted missive every few months written specifically for them. I blog now, but I blog for everyone. The audience is different and the expectations of interaction are different and so the content is different. It feels the same to me, but on reflection, it is not.

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Young people are growing up with the tyranny of everything being online about them now. I grew up not having to worry about being forgotten. Turkle points out that networked technology feels private. We sit in silence on our little screens but the whole public is there too. She refers to a Peter Pan shadow of data that follows us around now. There are obvious privacy issues with this but Turkle being a psychoanalysist, argues that it is more than the issue of having to hide wrong doings. It is healthy for young people to need a private space where they can dissent. Democratic societies need it. I found it sad to hear one young person look back to a past that never existed for them ” I miss those days even though I wasn’t alive”.

Despite this Turkle is optimistic about the future. She is quick to dismiss the addiction model to explain these new behaviours. That is too easy and it is not a helpful analogy. We cannot switch off the internet. It is essential for employment, play and learning about the world around us. There is no going back to Thoreau’s Walden. The way she explains it we have agreed to an experiment in which we are the human subjects. We have to realise that this experiment is in its early stages and we have a part to play in it besides mindless consumption. The best thing we can do is start to take the time to reflect on how it is effecting us.

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Two studies stood out for me in Alone Together and made me stop and think. The first was an ongoing study by the University of Michigan since the 1970s measuring empathy scores of their students. It appears there is a 40% drop in students who classify themselves as caring about others.  Also, studies of life loggers are showing that there is a tendency to lose the curiosity we have about the details of our lives. Everything is recorded, tagged and archived but it feels like we are missing the point of it somewhat. Neither of these findings bode well for the future and I found reading Alone Together to be a sad experience. It did make me reflect on my own digital media use and that has to be a good thing.

Further Reading

What Technology Wants – Kevin Kelly

Total Recall: How the E-Memory Revolution Will Change Everything – C. Gordon Bell & Jim Gemmell, 2009

The Shallows : What the Internet is doing to our Brains – Nicholas Carr, 2010

Empathy: College Students don’t have as much as they used to