What’s wrong with technology? For one thing, it’s slowly but surely destroying our ability to have meaningful human relationships. At least, that’s what sociologist and MIT professor Sherry Turkle says. She’s been tracking the effects of technology on human interactions for close to 30 years, and she’s worried.
In her compelling new book Alone Together, Turkle says our online lives, which barely existed when she wrote Life on the Screen in 1995, have become all-too-comfortable substitutes for direct human interaction. When today’s wired teens and 20-somethings bring their online behavior into adulthood, the implications for the workplace, and for society as a whole, could be huge.
To find out what’s so compelling about Twitter and texting, Turkle interviewed hundreds of people (mostly young). “These days, insecure in our relationships and anxious about intimacy, we look to technology for ways to be in relationships and protect ourselves from them at the same time,” she writes. “We fear the risks and disappointments from relationships with our fellow humans. We expect more from technology and less from each other.”
The Stress of Interacting
Teens — and some adults — tell Turkle that the telephone is utterly obsolete. “The telephone demands our full attention, but we don’t want to give it,” she observes. As one executive told her, “It promises more than I’m willing to deliver.” He’d much rather rely on email, where he can stop and think before responding. But for teens, even email is too intimate. They’d much rather text back and forth, creating a connection that’s neither too meaningful nor too stressful.
One girl tells Turkle she hates the phone because it’s so awkward to say goodbye. That, Turkle says, means technology “is seductive when what it offers meets our human vulnerabilities. And, as it turns out, we are very vulnerable indeed.”
Turkle took her book’s title from an experience that anyone who has ever traveled to a conference can relate to. She found herself “alone together” when she stepped out of the meeting hall and saw that the people milling around in the hallways were all staring at smartphone screens. They’d made the trip to connect with fellow humans, but all they really wanted to do was send texts. They were there, but not there.
Such behavior has also found its way into the workplace where “(in) corporations, among friends, and within academic departments, people readily admit that they would rather leave a voicemail or send an email than talk face to face.”
In a long section on robotics, she expresses fascination with the way people are willing to project emotions onto toys and robots, yet another way they can enjoy risk-free relationships. As slaves to technology and glowing screens, “we are all cyborgs now,” Turkle declares. And resistance is futile.
What, then, will the workplace of the future be like? And what will romantic relationships evolve into when intimacy is so easily avoided with the help of an iPhone? Turkle isn’t a Luddite. It’s not the tools that worry her. It’s the way we’ve chosen to use them to avoid the harder parts of being human. And if she’s worried now, imagine how worried she’s going to be in 10 or 20 years.
Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, by Sherry Turkle, paperback, 384 pages. Published by Basic Books.