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Friday, January 14, 2011

MIT Professor Calls For Facing The True Costs Of Technology



Sherry Turkle is no Luddite. She founded and directs the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self and was an early enthusiast for new interactive technologies.

But she started having second thoughts after watching children and the elderly play with robots. She saw that they were easily fooled into believing that robots cared for them, and she argues that in the same way, we are now seduced to believe that online interactions are real relationships.

Turkle believes that technology is diminishing our humanity, but she’s also optimistic about finding a way to put the social networks and smart phones in their proper place.

Sherry Turkle’s new book is, “Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other,” excerpted below.

Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other

By Sherry Turkle

Technology proposes itself as the architect of our intimacies. These days, it suggests substitutions that put the real on the run. The advertising for Second Life, a virtual world where you get to build an avatar, a house, a family, and a social life, basically says, “Finally, a place to love your body, love your friends, and love your life.”1 On Second Life, a lot of people, as represented by their avatars, are richer than they are in first life and a lot younger, thinner, and better dressed. And we are smitten with the idea of sociable robots, which most people first meet in the guise of artificial pets. Zhu Zhu pet hamsters, the “it” toy of the 2009–2010 holiday season, are presented as “better” than any real pet could be. We are told they are lovable and responsive, don’t require cleanup, and will never die.

Technology is seductive when what it offers meets our human vulnerabilities. And as it turns out, we are very vulnerable indeed. We are lonely but fearful of intimacy. Digital connections and the sociable robot may offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. Our networked life allows us to hide from each other, even as we are tethered to each other. We’d rather text than talk. A simple story makes this last point, told in her own words by a harried mother in her late forties: I needed to find a new nanny. When I interview nannies, I like to go to where they live, so that I can see them in their environment, not just in mine. So, I made an appointment to interview Ronnie, who had applied for the job. I show up at her apartment and her housemate answers the door. She is a young woman, around twenty-one, texting on her Black- Berry. Her thumbs are bandaged. I look at them, pained at the tiny thumb splints, and I try to be sympathetic. “That must hurt.” But she just shrugs. She explains that she is still able to text. I tell her I am here to speak with Ronnie; this is her job interview. Could she please knock on Ronnie’s bedroom door? The girl with the bandaged thumbs looks surprised. “Oh no,” she says, “I would never do that. That would be intrusive. I’ll text her.” And so she sent a text message to Ronnie, no more than fifteen feet away. This book, which completes a trilogy on computers and people, asks how we got to this place and whether we are content to be here. In The Second Self, I traced the subjective side of personal computers—not what computers do for us but what they do to us, to our ways of thinking about ourselves, our relationships, our sense of being human. From the start, people used interactive and reactive computers to reflect on the self and think about the difference between machines and people. Were intelligent machines alive? If not, why not? In my studies I found that children were most likely to see this new category of object, the computational object, as “sort of ” alive—a story that has continued to evolve. In Life on the Screen, my focus shifted from how people see computers to how they forge new identities in online spaces. In Alone

Together, I show how technology has taken both of these stories to a new level. Computers no longer wait for humans to project meaning onto them. Now, sociable robots meet our gaze, speak to us, and learn to recognize us. They ask us to take care of them; in response, we imagine that they might care for us in return. Indeed, among the most talked about robotic designs are in the area of care and companionship. In summer 2010, there are enthusiastic reports in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal on robotic teachers, companions, and therapists. And Microsoft demonstrates a virtual human, Milo, that recognizes the people it interacts with and whose personality is sculpted by them. Tellingly, in the video that introduces Milo to the public, a young man begins by playing games with Milo in a virtual garden; by the end of the demonstration, things have heated up—he confides in Milo after being told off
by his parents.

MIT Professor Sherry Turkle. (Peter Urban)

MIT Professor Sherry Turkle. (Peter Urban)

We are challenged to ask what such things augur. Some people are looking for robots to clean rugs and help with the laundry. Others hope for a mechanical bride. As sociable robots propose themselves as substitutes for people, new networked devices offer us machine-mediated relationships with each other, another kind of substitution. We romance the robot and become inseparable from our smartphones. As this happens, we remake ourselves and our relationships with each other through our new intimacy with machines. People talk about Web access on their BlackBerries as “the place for hope” in life, the place where loneliness can be defeated. A woman in her late sixties describes her new iPhone: “It’s like having a little Times Square in my pocketbook. All lights. All the people I could meet.” People are lonely. The network is seductive. But if we are always on, we may deny ourselves the rewards of solitude.

Copyright © 2010 by Sherry Turkle

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • http://knol.google.com/k/barry-kort/a-conversation-in-the-garden/3iyoslgwsp412/11# Barry Kort

    Attention is a surrogate for love.

    Ray Bradbury wrote a famous short story entitled, “I Sing the Body Electric,” which was made into a movie for TV entitled, “The Electric Grandmother,” starring Maureen Stapleton as the robot grandmother.

    At the end of the story, when the Electric Grandmother is in Robot Retirement Home, she says to the other robots, “Of course I didn’t actually love them; I’m only robot. I just paid attention to them. There is a difference, isn’t there?”

    How can we tell the difference between love and paying high-grade attention?

  • http://n/a Caroline Mann (Lynchburg, VA)

    I am a psychology professor at Randolph College and discussed this very issue with my students. I was surprised to find that they a) Did not deny they were addicted to technology, and b) Quite a few of them *had* given up facebook and such. Maybe there is a movement starting?

    Also, as part of our “new years resolutions,” my partner and I have disconnected TV and internet at home. Many of our friends seem to genuinely believe we are crazy and radical. Although it has, admittedly, been an adjustment, so far it has pushed us to be more intentional with our time. We’ve played more games together, done more projects, read more books, watched more movies, etc. It’s so easy to “lose time” with technology– because it’s easy, and minimally rewarding, but– like empty calories– upon reflection I find much of technology does not leave me with a lasting sense of fulfillment.

    Of course, I am at work now and have internet here, so it is easier for me to give up internet at home when I have it at work.

    Great conversation y’all are having, though! An important one I hope we can all have more in the future.

  • http://www.facebook.com Christine Mather

    I’m a playwright in residence at Tennessee Repertory Theatre
    and I was struck by how close this came to the views of the
    15 year old character in the play I’m writing:

    Sometimes in school I suddenly zoom in on what’s ahead of me and it looks completely, utterly alien, like not only haven’t I not seen it before but I’ve never seen
    anything like it and I so do not want to see anything like it, you know? Totally fake.
    And I flip open my phone, but that’s fake too-I mean, you have people trying to out lip synch each other, dancing for their webcams and fifty thousand strangers, or bragging how many digital friends they have, or even, barf, how much screen corn they’ve grown. Starving kids-real. Cartoon farms-fake. And this is where I’m supposed to be. This is my age, my network, my infospace.

    ©2010 Christine C. Mather, all rights reserved

    I am, reluctantly, on Facebook. I’ve been told all playwrights must be.

  • http://draxtor.com Draxtor

    How disappointing to reduce Second Life interaction to mere escapism. Avatar interaction can be extremely powerful as I documented with the recent Kansas to Cairo Project, where architecture students from Cairo and Los Angeles found the virtual world very helpful to overcome geographical distances & cultural boundaries. Technology can be used in many different ways, comes down to responsible use & parents are challenged of course more than ever before in our history to make the right choices, just like with watching TV or eating fast food [yummy....]. Immersive environments and avatars are here to stay ;] Deal with it!

  • Liz1388

    Tyrkle’s example of the texting room mate who didn’t want to knock on the bedroom door is not all that compelling. She has no idea what the circumstances are between the two women.

    Perhaps “thumb girl” had a tendency to bother the other too much and the texting was instituted as a solution? Perhaps the potential nanny was doing school work or writing, or whatever, and had asked for no sudden noises?

    I don’t text, but like anything else, it is a tool and I think, something of a fad. I suspect most young people will reduce their use of it as they grow older.

    All that said, I do take to heart the “illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship” and “We are lonely but fearful of intimacy.” Modern American society isn’t structured towards making or holding onto friendships or even family relationships very easy. And so the siren call of Facebook becomes harder to resist.

  • JackPrague

    Let’s not kid ourselves — anyone who drives to work, cooks on a stove, or opens a book, is addicted to technology. Lightning fast communication is as much of a technological game changer for humanity as the ability to cultivate crops.

    Of course there’s cornmeal and then there’s high fructose corn syrup. Even the invention of moveable type meant cheap books so that more people knew how to start revolutions and make bombs. There are good and bad aspects of any tech advance, and this is just like every other single advance humanity has made. On the up-side this advance also allows people to discuss and examine those actions as a society. Socrates once said, “The unexamined life is not worth living” and all this technology can lead to us ignoring problems, but it also allows us to examine the hell out of ourselves.

    How the tech is used is a choice made by a person. I would say that, we think WE are all grown up, but we’re not. The ability to make wise choices about our own lives seem to be the issue raised here. If a parent is ignoring their child to text — they’re a crummy parent because of the ignoring, not the texting.

    Personally, Facebook, twitter, and texting have brought me closer to the people I care about, most of whom live 3,000 miles away from me at the moment. Even when it comes to more intimate relations, I text my girlfriend at work, and it’s just like passing mash notes in class except it isn’t on college ruled paper. I found out about this article because a college friend I’m lucky to see in person once a year posted this on Facebook.

    I agree with Ms. Turkle on the fallacy of imposing nonexistent emotions on a robot and the dangers of AI. I too have watched ever single episode of BSG. I say that jokingly, but really there is a HUGE difference between AI and using technology to legitimately connect with others.

    In the end I also agree that technology is seductive. That’s why people read books — it’s another communications technology that eschews direct personal interaction. It moves slower perhaps, and may not allow for broad communal discussion and commenting like either Facebook or this forum … but man I still love a good book.

  • Nick from Massachusetts


    Yes, Try being a single guy, seeing an attractive woman coming towards you and you want to make eye contact and say hello but she is buried in her black berry or text messaging…..

    What do you do to get their attention? If you interrupt her date with technology, she is annoyed.

    It was easier for my parents before all of this came out.

  • Mark Taylor

    I have learned several things since I have been watching my wife, who frequently visits Second Life. While there, she works with a globally disbursed team to market trainable, virtual “dogs” that have capabilities of machine learning. It is true that Second Life is a fantasy environment, but the friendships she has developed are real.
    Many of the people with whom she interacts suffer from chronic illness or disability in real life, but are able to maintain a healthy network of relationships in Second Life.

  • Curiouser

    I like Barry’s question (or Electric Grandmother’s, rather). I’ll take a stab at an answer:

    I would hope that love is or would be a little more critical and less servile than rapt attention.
    Isn’t there something a little too slavish, obsequious, and, indeed, unrealistic about being paid “high-grade attention?”

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of unconditional and even delusional love, but I’m also a big fan of James Baldwin’s brand of tough love. He once wrote, “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

    I love a love that is bound to improve me as a person rather than just pay me heed for paying me heed’s sake.

  • Thomas

    I just listened to Robin Young’s interview with Sherry Turkle about her new book “Alone Together” and it really hit home for me. I’ve been thinking these things for a long time. I am a server and have observed for many years now the growing trend of cell phone use in restaurants. There are people who sit down and before you can even greet them are on their phone talking to someone. There are people who answer their phone right in the middle of you talking to them. There are couples that come in and pull out their phones and start texting instead of talking with one another, which begs the question: Why did you go out to dinner together? The social divide that this technology is making in our society is not only destructive to genuine interpersonal connections with other people and to personal solitude, it is just downright rude. When someone is talking to you and you answer your phone, you’re ignoring the person right in front of you. There used to be a time when, if people had a guest at their house and they answered the phone, they would say, “excuse me” or, “I’m sorry I have to take this.” Now people just answer their phone like it’s nothing and don’t even apologize. Cell phones are a slippery slope. I have seen a coworker walk up to her phone, look at it and say forlornly, “Why isn’t anyone texting me?”, when there are live people right in front of her to visit with. We’ve gotten to a point in society where we’d rather interface with a screen than talk to a person face to face.

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