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Lost in the loneliness of anti-social networks.

A Fortnightly Review of

Alone Together:
Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other
by Sherry Turkle
$28.95 384 pages Basic Books.

By Roger Berkowitz.

THE UNMANNED DRONES DROPPING laser-guided bombs in Pakistan do what they are told. But now the military is pursuing ethically programmed robots that could make autonomous decisions about when and when not to fire. As roboethicist Ronald Arkin has argued, these robots might very well act more humanely than humans.  This may not be a high bar, as our moral sense is easily impaired by anger or numbed by fear amidst the fog of war. Unlike humans, robots can be programmed to painstakingly follow a moral or legal code. The appeal of military robots is not simply that they are a useful tool like a gun or a tank; the appeal is that robots are actually better than humans at being humane.

Being humane and being human are not the same. Humans make mistakes, they are irrational, and they are befuddled by feelings. Humans are, for want of a better word, irremediably human and thus frequently inhumane. Our humanity – that human dignity that names our special claim to be the greatest species in existence – is also a mark of our inadequacy. We are merely human, and that seems to be the problem.

We humans have been uncomfortable with our humanity for millennia. We have worked to increase our life expectancy, to limit our human tendency to violent warfare, and to discipline our all-too-human desires. None of this, it seems, has made us less human.

THERE IS REASON TO worry, however, that the exponential advances in technology that we are currently experiencing may augur changes in human beings that would transform the very experience of being human. Sherry Turkle’s incisive and provocative new book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, vividly articulates the ways that our embrace of technology evidences our discomfort and dissatisfaction with our human selves. Modern technologies, she writes, are powerfully enabling us to realize our age-old aspiration of overcoming our humanity. It is amidst her exploration of this profound worry that Turkle asks us to slow down, stop, and think about whether we are making a terrible mistake.

This is not a book about technology. While one will learn a lot about cutting edge robotics and social networking, Turkle is not interested in what technologies can do or in predicting what they will become. She is interested in us, the human beings who use technology. What is it, she asks, that we humans seek in our love affair with technology?

Turkle’s answer is that we are lonely and vulnerable and that we turn to social technologies today for the friendship, companionship, and love that we are not getting from other humans. Robots are surprisingly adept at replacing human friends, companions, and lovers. And social networks seduce because they offer control over friendships that face-to-face relationships do not.

IN THE STUDIES THAT form the backbone of Turkle’s book, real-life humans often prefer the companionship offered by robots and networks of “friends” to the complicated relationships with real people. These friendships and relationships with machines are one-sided, diminished, and superficial; and yet, they are apparently satisfying – frequently more satisfying than real relationships. The trend is unmistakable: if we don’t consciously change our ways, she says, we will end up in the not-too-distant future devoid of the rich and mature relationships that mark us as human.

Alone Together is based on decades of research, and most specifically on ethnographic studies of over 450 people, 300 children and 150 adults. The book is divided into two parts. The first half addresses our “robotic moment,” the rise of sociable robots that threatens to cheapen and eventually replace human friendships. The second part looks at the increasing appeal of online life – a life lived in the internet, accessed through phones, computers, and other devices. What unites the robotic moment and online life is that both robotic relationships and virtual realities are increasingly seen as more satisfying than real friends and real life.

The chapters on robotic relationships move from studies of children playing with robotic toys such as Furby and My Real Baby to elderly persons comforted by caring robotic companions to David Levy’s argument that in the not distant future “love with robots will be as normal as love with other humans.” The scope of Turkle’s attention is justified because in each case she demonstrates how even simple and low-tech robots are able to substitute for human companionship and friendship. The point is not just that robots will be acceptable substitutes for those who can’t find love elsewhere; rather, Turkle confronts the argument – one she worries is coming true – that for many of us, robots will be better lovers and life partners than other humans.

Unreal: My Real Babies.

TURKLE OFFERS COUNTLESS EXAMPLES of smart, thoughtful people who come to crave and value robotic companionships, often more so than human friendships. Andy, in a nursing home, renames his robotic doll after his ex-wife and talks with “her.” While he knows she is a robot and admits that some people may think him crazy, he insists that his robotic wife is a comfort and that she creates “a space for conversation, even confession.” Edna, a great grandmother, is given a robotic baby to play with while she is playing with her real two-year-old great-granddaughter. She immediately takes to the robot and proceeds to ignore the real child. And Aaron Edsinger, a computer scientist who designed the robot Domo, feels Domo’s attention, senses Domo’s desire, and finds it pleasurable to be touched by Domo, “even if he knows that the robot doesn’t ‘want’ to touch him.” The point of these and many other stories Turkle recounts is that for the vulnerable, and also for the sophisticated, the knowledge that they are conversing with, caring for, and playing with a machine does not prevent them from experiencing the wonder of attachment, friendship, and even love.

That we now manufacture robots designed to replace human caregivers is, Turkle suggests, a “turning point” in our world. It is the moment at which we not only ask technology just to be a tool in our work, but also “to perform what used to be ‘love’s labor’: taking care of each other.” We are now outsourcing love and care to robots and machines that can “perform” these emotional states, but cannot actually love or care themselves. As generations of humans are raised by and with robotic caregivers, robotic lovers, and robotic friends, Turkle worries that the expectation of human friendship will be diminished.

It is no doubt the case that many human caregivers and lovers “perform” their care and love without actually caring and loving. From fake orgasms to canned expressions of sympathy, human friends too can seem mechanical. And yet, in relationships with people, we have to work. We “learn to tolerate disappointment and ambiguity. And we learn that to sustain realistic relationships, one must accept others in their complexity.”  But with robotic friends as companions and partners, the work of human relationships fades away. There is a real danger, Turkle writes, that the rise of robotic companions will lower our expectations of human relationships, that we reduce relationships and come to see this reduction as the norm. She is clearly shaken by her research and she asks us to confront the implications of this loss.

Sherry Turkle.

THE SECOND HALF OF Alone Together moves from social robots to the social internet, the web of texting, Facebook, instant messaging, and other connective media through which we are increasingly living our lives and building our friendships. In example after example, Turkle recounts how children, teens, and even adults are opting to live their lives in a tethered state, one in which the traditional boundaries that mark individuality and personality disappear.

Young people today have an aversion to phones and even to email. They prefer texting and instant messaging, both of which allow for instantaneous communication that avoids the uncertainty and spontaneity of a live conversation. Turkle’s argument is that the choice of technologically-mediated friendships enables fragile and vulnerable individuals to regulate and plan their self-presentations in the world. The screen separates the speakers, she writes, offering an “illusion of privacy” and the “chance to write yourself into the person you want to be and to imagine others as you wish them to be, constructing them for your purposes.” Texting, in other words, offers at least the illusion of control and protection.

One high school student, Julia, tells of how she texts her friends as soon as she starts to have a feeling. It is through the process of texting that Julia comes to figure out her feelings. In Turkle’s formula, Julia only forms her thoughts and feelings by sending out her proto-feelings and proto-thoughts for comments. If David Riesman noted the turn from an inner-directed to an other-directed self in his 1950 study The Lonely Crowd, Turkle argues that today, “cell phone in hand, other directedness is raised to a higher power.” When Ricki, fifteen, seeks to have a feeling, she texts her friends and if one friend doesn’t help, she texts another. The young person’s buddy list on their phones has become, Turkle observes, “a list of ‘spare parts’ for her fragile adolescent self.”  The texting persona is one that is so fragile that it needs constant support—the kind of support provided by superficial friends through short and supportive texts. What the texting self cannot tolerate is the “complex demands of other people.” Instead, the young people Turkle studies seek to manage their contacts to give themselves just the right support that they can use to compose their selves.

The promise of control is a powerful stimulus for the technological tether, and yet Turkle worries that it comes at an even greater cost. What is lost in the tethered life is the sacred space of solitude, those moments and those spaces where one can reflect and think on one’s own.

Solitude, as Hannah Arendt argues, is not the same thing as loneliness. In contrast to loneliness – the experience of the absence of being with others – solitude demands that one actually be alone; and yet, in the being alone of solitude, there is the possibility for the activity of thinking. Alone with myself, I can collect my thoughts, mull things over, and talk with myself. The space of solitude – the space for conversing with myself – is the necessary prerequisite for the activity of thinking. Indeed, it is solitude that nurtures and fosters thoughtfulness and thus prepares individuals for the possibility of political action.

Some today celebrate the loss of solitude and the rise of the wiki-like hive mentality of the web. They scorn the myth of the autonomous individual who thinks and acts as an independent and rational being. And they are right to be skeptical of the classic stereotype of an independent person. At the same time, when one is always on, always connected, the time for reflection and thought that distinguishes us from a computer and makes us human is compressed. As Turkle convincingly shows, when we avoid face-to-face conversations and embrace the control promised by technological messaging, something less than a conversation becomes a conversation in which full engagement is neither expected nor desired. We get what we seem to want, a preponderance of weak ties. And what we lose is stillness and solitude.

Turkle counsels that we must not let technology determine our fate and that we humans must ask whether or not technology serves our human purposes. That is an important question, maybe the most important question we face today. Her book is a provocation towards the kind of human and engaged conversations that she rightly insists that we nurture.


Roger Berkowitz is director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Ethical and Political Thinking and associate professor of political studies and human rights at Bard College. The Gift of Science: Leibniz and the Modern Legal Tradition, his first book, was recently republished in paperback.

Prof. Berkowitz has written on this topic previously in the Fortnightly Review: see The Wonders of Man in the Age of Simulations. The Arendt Center’s 2010 Conference, Human Being in an Inhuman Age featured both Ray Kurzweil and Sherry Turkle.

More: Romancing the screen. Roger Scruton on Facebook, Second Life, and avatars in love.

One Comment

  1. Sherry Turkle – Alone Together

    1. loneliness – homo laborans, maximizing productivity in the post-modern society, no time and space to contemplate with others
    2. technology – virtual information consumerism (vs. materialistic consumersim), another means to ignore real-life challenges in the quadruple crunch of financial, climate change, energy and environmental crisis

    1. I think it is mainly a lack of space and time in homo laborans everyday life. No time to care of the other, the other’s feelings and needs. Intelligent animals use some societal construct to build capacity and increase resilience in crisis situations. Humans in industrialized cultures seem to have lost this capacity.

    There is also a lack of space, where people can find each other, exchange, which integrates all levels and kinds of people of society (young, old, poor, rich, disabled, different cultures, different viewpoints, and all the others). Integration is the opposite of exclusion.

    2. technology is an escape from space and time, for thinking about real world problems, maximizing individuality and personal utility and needs for of care and feeling. social networks is another type of useful communication platform, as is shown during the present democratization process in the Arab world. in that sens the Internet and social media is of vital importance. but it is wrong to expect social media and virtual robots as a replacement of the real other. there is deception, because in this parallel and virtual world there is no real responsible, trustfull friendship and sharing of everyday problems and feelings.

    To summarize: society needs time and space to come together, learning from each others experiences, positive and negative to come up with solutions to real life challenges

    Wednesday, 13 April 2011 at 12:47 | Permalink

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