Alone Together: How We Use Technology to Keep Us Apart

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.

alone together book coverIn 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.

Risk-Free Relationships?

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.

8 Responses to “Alone Together: How We Use Technology to Keep Us Apart”

  1. One of these days – just one – I’ll expect an extrovert to stop telling introverts how they “should” be behaving and enjoying life. If joeschmoe enjoys texting his girlfriend on downtime and janedoe is mad that he isn’t noticing her cleavage and new shoes that she wore to the event because she expected more to the event than the event itself, I’m on joe’s side on this one. There are reasons we all choose to communicate how we do, if you find that indifference or not being valued enough for “showing up”, bleh, get some friends like yourself – goodness knows the extroverts are the norm. When they start complaining about society, wow. They might not be happy until each one of us has a billboard on every major highway with every contact method we have listed on it lol
    TLDR – go away people persons, robots are ready to take over

    • Plinko, your characterization of this article, or the book that is discussed, in unfair and inaccurate. According to this article, technology is causing people to lose the ability to have meaningful relationships. This is a scientific statement of fact that is either true or false. It is not judgmental and it is not critical. If the statement is true, if people are losing the ability to have meaningful relationships and if this loss of ability is caused by technology, then one might reasonably respond, “so what?”. People can disagree on the answer to the “so what?” question.

      If the book makes a solid case that tells us that the loss is occurring, then it is an important book, since the ability to have meaningful relationships is critically important for developing children into good, strong adults, and it is also critically important for the systems of participatory democracy and self government that perserve and promote liberty and justice, worldwide.

      Even an extreme introvert has a vested interest in the preservation of liberty and justice and in the bringing up of the good, strong men and women who will inherit the world that we leave them. It is for them that most of us do what we do.

  2. That’s my exact retort is the “so what”. It’s not ok to put out scientific studies that computers are wrong or that people who live indoors aren’t living to the fullest. These creature comforts that people use to the distaste of onlookers are absolutely being judged.

    What reason is there to study something that you think is going right? This author believes they see wrong and we are supposed to buy into it because they spent 30 years watching. Watching is exactly what introverts participate in. That makes the whole idea weird that to say that I can stare at you and wag fingers but when you stare back at me, you aren’t living correctly which is written all over this title and certainly does support being “alone together”. Just because others are alone while texting and this person was alone watching them, it’s the other party at fault in their eyes, the reason is because they came for different reasons than the other people. The other people use the event as a supplement not a cure all. They had lives outside the event even if they were online lives.

    I, for one don’t “fear the risks and disappointments from relationships with our fellow humans”, instead I have noted them in broad daylight. This has nothing to do with rearing children or the degradation of society than record players that kids were alone with for hours or television had on society. Pick the electronic poison to blame.

    If society gets more distant, maybe there will be less public shootings when people aren’t clumped together in hives. Maybe there will be parents doing their work from home without their children in schools and instead doing online studies with good teachers instead of just teachers that live in the state. The parents and children could have lunch together if more things were electronic that could be. Did you know there is a 1/40 chance of being in a car accident each time you enter a vehicle? Is it logical to drive to work daily. Is it logical to drive children to their friends’ houses when they could interact digitally. I can think of so many things technology brings to us that it would take me a long time to blubber on about here but many of them could benefit children in ways that you don’t see.

    When I think of the internet and what it brought to us, I can’t imagine for one second that human interaction trumps a free library of information and sharing. This author is judging that being online or interacting remotely isn’t the “right” way or else they wouldn’t have a book. That’s where I see the judgement and the tone being I’m right and you are wrong. I equate it to an extrovert telling introverts what to do, you view it your own way.

  3. Ok, I guess I’m not going to stop giving you reasons less physical interaction will aid children.

    Can you do any of these things through a computer screen with each other.

    Push someone, kick someone, hit someone, pass them drugs/alcohol or try to peer pressure them into doing them, judge them for what they look like if you can’t see them – be that disability, race, speed impediment, acne, the brand name of their clothing, the style of their hair, their name, can you take them into a back alley and do adult things to them, anyone ever get pregnant online yet or passed lice to each other, anyone ever pass a cold online or any communicable disease.

    Long live technology, the savior of children – eventually 🙂

  4. Plinko, I like your comments and I like this conversation. It is an example of how technology brings people together in ways that would not otherwise be possible. Since you are apparently using a pseudonym to conceal your identity, it also exemplifies one of the features of online interactions that I and some other think is harmful: anonymity. But whether anonymity is good or bad is also debatable.

    Perhaps you would agree that the emergence of the Internet and related technologies has promoted “meaningful relationships” in some ways and has caused harm to “meaningful relationships” in other ways. Perhaps you would agree that an author who writes a book that discusses the ways that harm is being done has given us a book that is worth reading. AFAIK, the author of that book would agree with you that technology has also promoted “meaningful relationships” in the ways that you list.

    My own opinion is undecided. I see both harm and good done, and I do not know whether, on balance, the net effect has been harmful or beneficial. What I like so much about this article is that it reports on a book that takes a close look at the societal effect of technology, and I have long thought that we technologists should face squarely the issue of whether the gizmos that we bring into existence are beneficial to the people who become addicted to using them.

  5. Yes, excess does exist. You have that point for certain. There’s a term they call “WOW wive”s where families are ignored when people spend too much time in MMORPGs. It’s difficult for me to make any thoughts about the entire book without reading it instead I speculate on the premise.

    The conversation is interesting, I suppose that’s why they wrote the book at the heart of it but we have to be careful when we claim impending doom without viewing the good things too.

    As for why I like anonymity online – it’s purely to offer unbridled honesty as if someone were in my head and I expect the same of others. You won’t get a bunch of yes-men on the internet, that’s part of the charm sometimes is being able to play devil’s advocate lol

    Since we are on a job hunting site and I’m hunting without telling my supervisor daily, it also helps not to put my real name out here or for any future employers to read my personal views that they may or may not agree with as something to deny me employment for. I will keep my personal views out of their workplace unless it’s something legally that I won’t perform like storing credit card numbers with CCV and charging them after the transactions.

  6. Plink, thank you for the good, if brief, conversation. You are able to express strong feelings while being respectful and reasonable about opposing views. This is exceptional. You can converse with me via email by clicking my name. Bye.

  7. Thirty minutes ago, I saw someone sitting on a motorcycle in a McDonald’s parking lot that I was walking through. I looked carefully to see whether the person was just sitting there or was using a digital device and, concluding that he/she was just sitting there, said, “Seeing you sitting there reminds me of my younger days.” Before finishing, I realized that I had been wrong; the person was using a digital device that was being held against the fuel tank. The person did not say anything, and did not look up or at me and did not acknowledge my existence in any way. I knew that I had been heard, both because I spoke loudly and because there was some slight movement of the eyes, as if the person was irritated by the interruption.

    Upon experiencing this, I said, “Well, your unfriendliness certainly does NOT remind me of my younger days. Have a good day.”, and I continued on my way into the McDonald’s, remembering the conversation that I had with Plinko here just yesterday.

    It is clear to me that people have lost their “wholesome connection” with each other in the United States over my lifetime. I do not think that this was caused by technology, because I first noticed the problem in 1967, decades before computer technology became a part of people’s lives. But I think that technology has encouraged and facilitated the disconnection and made it worse than it would otherwise be.

    Younger people should not read this as yet another “what’s wrong with young people” criticism. My intention is to criticize the way of life that you are stuck with, a way of life that was imposed upon you as you formed and grew up into adulthood. People my age created the problem. People your age will have to solve it, not so much for yourselves because it is too late for you, but for those who will come after you.