Book Review: Alone Together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other

This review is cross-posted on my Goodreads page, here.

Alone Together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other is not a book about technology. It is a book about people and how they interact with technology. Technology obsession or addiction is a symptom to a larger problem. Sherry Turkle is a MIT professor of social science and the science of technology as well as a licensed psychologist. She began studying people’s relationship to technology in the days before the personal computer was a household item. This book is the third in a trilogy about her work over the years of the personal computing movement. However, this book can stand alone as an assessment of what our love affair with our smartphones and obsession with artificial intelligences says about us.

Most lay-level philosophy of technology books are either so melancholy that we might as well be living in a post-apocalyptic technocratic society where all we can do is lament the bygone days when we were in a technological infancy. Other technology books are so optimistic that you get the uncomfortable sense that the author broke into songs of praise while writing about how technology will save us from our ills. Alone Together is neither doom-and-gloom nor overly optimistic about technology.

When the book does take a melancholy tone, it is not because technology wreaks havoc on our society, but because of the needs that people are trying to meet using technology. It is not so much that technology is the bad guy. Indeed, she argues that robots are not sentient beings. I take that to mean that they, or our smartphones, cannot be morally culpable for how we, as a society, use them. Many people talk about addiction to technology as though it was a drug, but Turkle points out that technology is the mechanism by which people satisfy something else:

Sometimes people try to make life with others resemble simulation. They try to heighten real-life drama or control those around them. It would be fair to say that such efforts do not often end well. Then, in failure, many are tempted to return to what they do well: living their lives on the screen. If there is an addiction here, it is not to technology. It is to the habits of mind that technology allows us to practice. (288)

Those habits of the mind, incidentally, are entrenched through the use of technology. They come from relationships you can control and interactions that are completely mediated. They come from constant stimulation through everything from getting “likes” on Facebooks (a type of recognition and approval) to video games (adrenaline rush) to online erotica to feeling important and productive by multitasking.

Key Themes

It is difficult to summarize Alone Together because Turkle walks the reader through countless studies and interviews. But if there is one narrative strand throughout the work, it is the tension between fear of loneliness and fear of intimacy.

Part One is entitled “The Robotic Movement: In Solitude, New Intimacies.” This section looks at how people respond to artificial intelligence, or robots that are meant to mimic human mannerisms. These robots are designed to give the sense that they are responding to the human who is interacting with it. Turkle provides high tech examples from MIT’s robotics labs as well as lower-tech examples from off-the-shelf robots such as Furbies and Tamagotchis for children. She provides examples from product testing of My Real Baby and Paro the seal as stand-in companions for the elderly. All of these robots, to an extent, give the impression that they are responding to the user’s care. Particularly in the studies with the elderly, they ostensibly provide a remedy for loneliness.

However, in these examples lies another theme in her book: What starts as better than nothing becomes just better. For the elderly having a robot seal that “loves” them is better than nothing. But in her discussions with career adults, some would prefer a robot companion to a real human. Their reasons reveal more about the person than the technology. A robot will not hurt you and a robot will not get sick and die. The robot will always be there, but you also have the freedom to leave the robot at home and be your own person. It is both doing away with the fallenness of other human beings, while enabling self-centeredness and autonomy.

Part one is aptly subtitled “in solitude, new intimacies” because despite how a robot may make the person feel, he or she is still alone in the room. The robot is a substitute that is good enough to satisfy a need for intimacy. “Good enough” in this case means not only that it is “real enough” but also that it does not have the baggage that comes with actual intimacy.

Part Two is entitled “Networked: In Intimacy, New Solitudes.” Unlike artificial intelligence, which is still a futuristic prospect, living networked lives is a present reality. This section looks at the trends in smartphone usage, including the anxiety people feel when they are without their phone. Many people truly fear being “off the grid” (16). Their lives are lived partially in the physical world and partially online. Turkle recounts the “stress” many people, young and old, feel about creating their Facebook profile and maintaining their online interactions. For example, at the time this book was written, Facebook was the hottest social network. Students she interviewed would get nervous if it had been a day (or even a few hours, in some cases) since someone had commented on their wall. They want to appear popular and well-liked, so, in order to construct this identity, they will comment on other people’s wall in hopes that they will comment on theirs.

Today this game is played on places like Twitter, where the aspiration is to increase the ratio of “followers”/ “following”. In other words, the goal is to have more people following you than you follow. One way to manipulate this ratio is to start by following everyone possible. Twitter etiquette is that if someone follows you, you follow them back. Once you have a large number of followers, you un-follow some to maintain the ratio. It is a game of identity craft where everyone wants to (appear to) be a celebrity.

Turkle spends a chapter on communication. Many of the students she interviewed don’t like talking on the phone, but prefer texting or messaging because it gives them more control. In assessing some of her interviews, Turkle says that the phone is too much but “Texting offers just the right amount of access, just the right amount of control. She is a modern Goldilocks: for her, texting puts people not too close, not too far, but at just the right distance. The world is now full of modern Goldilockses, people who take comfort in being in touch with a lot of people whom they also keep at bay” (15). Turkle says that the machine dream to be never alone but always in control is impossible with face-to-face interactions, and difficult when talking on the phone. But is made possible through digital life (157).

The concept of identity craft is not new. Charles Taylor wrote about this in Sources of Self (1992). Identity craft is a distinctly modern task that arises from several factors, including our lack of moral foundation and lack of common culture. Turkle points out that we are simply reworking our identities with the materials on hand (158). This explains the cell phone addiction studies which showed that really people were addicted to social networking sites, not to the cell phone, per se. This also explains the anxiety when a person, for whatever reason, is without their smartphone. They have become dependent upon constant connection, and in order to stay connected in what are often shallow, utilitarian relationships, many of them are distressed over maintaining their carefully crafted identity so that they will receive the affirmation they crave.

Reflection

There are many aspects in Alone Together that make me think of technology as the new religion or idol of our times. I had just finished reading a short academic piece by Sean Desmond Healy entitled Boredom, Self, and Culture which traces the emergence of hyperboredom as a prolific condition in our modern times. As in so many of these history-of-ideas pieces, Healy says that hyperboredom comes out of a sense of meaninglessness that emerged from the modern fragmentation of our common moral foundation. Technology serves as a kind of false-solution in that it provides as a diversion from hyperboredom and its twin, anxiety.

In Alone Together, Turkle discusses people’s vulnerabilities. In a world of meaninglessness, people create their own meaning by consuming themselves with online identities, archiving their lives, creating robot companions, living in a fantasy game, etc. Photos, robots, and video games are problems in-and-of themselves, but when people seek them out in a kind of obsessive compulsive cycle of needing to check email or text alerts or Facebook in order to allay anxieties, technology becomes something far more than a tool. It becomes something around which we can all come together and orient our lives. It becomes our god.

I appreciate that this book does not call for abandoning the smartphone or the internet, but for putting technology back in its place. Technology can be a good tool, but taken too far, it begins to control us rather than us controlling it. This comes out of what Turkle calls an over optimistic narrative about technology. In reality, technology is not the panacea for all of life’s ills, but one would think so given the way some technophiles talk. She calls for getting back to the virtues of solitude, deliberateness, and living fully in the moment. I would add the Aristotelean idea of temperance to that list.

A key idea of Turkle’s based on this book and some interviews she had done since its publication is that of having sacred spaces, places where technology cannot enter, such as the dinner table or the carpool lane. One of Turkle’s experiences exemplifies the problem:

When I recently travelled to a memorial service for a close friend, the program, on heavy cream-colored card stock, listed the afternoon’s speakers, told who would play what music, and displayed photographs of my friend as a young woman and in her prime. Several around me used the program’s stiff, protective wings to hide their cell phones as they sent text messages during the service. One of the texting mourners, a woman in her late sixties, came over to chat with me after the service. Matter-of-factly, she offered, ‘I couldn’t stand to sit that long without getting on my phone.’ The point of the service was to take a moment. This woman had been schooled by a technology she’d had for less than a decade to find this close to impossible. (295)

 

I agree with Turkle that we need to learn to have appropriate boundaries with our devices. I find it odd that the people at the funeral did not even consider the irony of their actions. A funeral is to remind us of our mortality and to live our lives. When all is said and done, do we really want to have spent eight hours per day staring into our phone rather than living life?