In "Alone Together," MIT technology and society professor Sherry Turkle explores the power of our new tools and toys to dramatically alter our social lives. It's a nuanced exploration of what we are looking for--and sacrificing--in a world of electronic companions and social networking tools, and an argument that, despite the hand-waving of today's self-described prophets of the future, it will be the next generation who will chart the path between isolation and connectivity.
This persistent nostalgia apart, the main problem I have with the book is her unwillingness to look beyond psychology. Economics and sociology have developed answers to many of the issues Turkle raises but can not answer properly. Erving Goffman's impression management would have been helpful in discussing the different roles presented online. Economics would have shown that many of her questions rely on opportunity costs and imperfect substitutions. While a personal service may continue to be highly valued, most people will refuse the high price those services cause and choose the cheap machines. Some if not most will already prefer the machine. Turkle's cherished talk with the cash teller for example is something I find the ATM superior: faster and available around the clock. The same holds for her preference for telephone conversations. She underestimates the disruptive and productivity killing qualities of a phone call. Asynchronous communication is superior and for truly emotional events, the phone can not replace a face to face communication. The second part of her book is thus seriously flawed and not fully thought through.
The value of the book lies in its first part. It is a joy to read about how children explain the workings of these robotic toys and how they grow to love these not so simple machines. Humanity has come a long way from Konrad Lorenz tricking geese to senior citizens caring for robot babies. The law of simplicity and economics dictates that we will see specialist robots fulfilling partial human roles and functions. Just like any other kind of technology, its use is a social decision. Turkle only hints at the pampered lives most of the robot owners live. The harsher reality shines through when she tells about some kids saying that the MIT snack is their best daily meal they get. On the other end of the social scale, kids of professionals see their quality time with parents replaced with a friendly robot. No wonder these shattered kids inflict punishment on their innocent robots. The removal of the expression of pain from My Real Baby due to the kids' sadistic pleasure on torturing the robot baby hints at the darker hidden corners of the human soul. The modern Milgram's experimenters torture robots ...
"Alone together" adds a sliver of information to the "Bowling alone" thesis. Strong physical, longterm and local ties are replaced with weak, virtual and quick relationships. The main effect will be the multiplier effect of technology. Robots and communication technology will assist those already at the center of power, while those at the periphery will struggle to equalize the power differential.
I found the second half to be much more powerful than the first. The book is split into two separate long-term studies. One of personable robots and the other of networked communications.
What makes this critique stand out is that Turkle is methodical and disciplined in her approach. Like McLuhan, she may have strong suspicion of the technologies she investigates, but she prioritizes understanding above judgement. She wants to know what it means for humans to talk to robots and for humans to communicate over networks. She has suspicions about the effects of these media and technologies, but she does not set out to prove her suspicions.
I've read other reviews that make the claim "Turkle hates technology." These clearly are missing something. She is critical of unexamined surrender to technology, but is very intentional (and correct IMHO) to point out that technology is not the problem, it is how we use and relate to technology. The root of a lot of these problems is this very tendency to humanize technology.
One of Turkle insights (shared w/ J. Lanier) is that when we attempt to talk about "artificial intelligence" or "human machines" we tend to change our definitions of intelligence and humanity, lowering our standards in order to anthropomorphize the machines. This is a mistake. Our tools are really freaking cool, there is no reason to pretend they are something more than tools.
The first half of the work is devoted to Turkle's discussion of the use of robots to help people. She focuses her discussion on how robot pets and babies can ease the loneliness of the elderly in retirement homes. This, of course, is in response to the feelings of abandonment felt by people who are now seen as a burden to the younger generation. Turkle describes different experiments in which senior citizens and children (two of the most emotionally vulnerable groups) are given robots that can respond to the human voice and human touch. She then documents words and experiences of specific individuals, showing the emotional connections that the young and old can create with these objects. While I didn't find this section of the book as interesting as the second part, one cannot help but feel a kind of collective shame in being part of a society that would imagine the need for such things. Turkle, however, does not condemn so much as remind us that human needs are complex, and how we frame our ethical and social challenges are just as crucial, if not more, as deliberating on the possible solutions for them.
The second part of the work focuses on the impact of social networks, gaming, and virtual worlds on people's lives and relationships. While there's a good deal here that I have thought about many times before, Turkle's exposition is an effective showing and not mere telling of her beliefs. She interviews high school students, computer programmers, young professionals, and people of the pre-Internet generation and asks them about their use of technology in their everyday lives. What they have to say about how technology creates chronic demands on them and steers them to a life of loneliness and isolation is unsettling but not surprising. When we are always connected, we can no longer tolerate the idea of being alone, of not having someone respond to what we say or think. Ironically, of course, this emphasis on media performance only debilitates us socially in an interpersonal sense (if one can still even think of the world this way). We "forget" the value of stillness and solitude that can revivify our lives, lending them purpose and meaning, and strengthen our relationships. Instead, solitude frightens us. Turkle explains quite profoundly: "Loneliness is failed solitude."
I'm not a Luddite and neither is Turkle. What she proposes in the end is an examination of our values and the ways in which we frame social, even existential, problems--each are crucial to a healthier understanding of ourselves in an age of invasive technology: "What I call realtechnik suggests that we step back and reassess when we hear triumphalist or apocalyptic narratives about how to live with technology. Realtechnik is skeptical about linear progress. It encourages humility, a state of mind in which we are most open to facing problems and reconsidering decisions. The Net, she states, is still young, but the human beings who have imagined the technology we know today is not. As technology advances, always ready to "be" for us what in reality should only remain a "seem" (to quote the poet Wallace Steven's words from "The Emperor of Ice Cream") so must our understanding of what is fundamentally human: "When we are at our best, thinking about technology brings us back to questions about what really matters."
But I allowed myself to get sidetracked and abandoned the book less than 20% of the way into it. One renewal and a pending late fine later, I still haven't turned back to it.
So many books. So little time.
Turkle is an adamant skeptic in a time of almost overwhelming technical triumphalism. However, far from being a Luddite or a scold, she takes great pains to carefully tease out the ways in which an unquestioned devotion to the tools of robotics and/or the Internet lessens our ability and willingness to have authentic relationships. What makes this book outstanding isn't the simple acknowledgement that technology has unintended drawbacks, rather, it's the depth of knowledge that she brings to the subject. Turkle doesn't waste the readers' time. She has done the heavy lifting and presents only the questions that are worth asking. It's a refreshing pleasure to read and provides plenty of food for thought.
When people are exposed to robots that seem to respond to them they then respond back by confiding in them, teaching them, and generally acting as though there is affection going in both directions of the robot-human relationship. Turkle questions why this occurs and whether or not it is a good thing.
Then, in the second part of the book she examines how people of all ages, but especially teens, interact with their games, computers, email, and devices allowing IMing and texting. Some people have come to the point of feeling confused, even naked, without their phone always there in a pocket or in their hand. They can't imagine being without it. Again she questions how we got to this point and what is good and what is bad about always being connected.
But, I found that Turkle's examples became repetitive and I believe that she could have gotten her concerns across just as well in a more concise version of the book, perhaps only two-thirds as long.
Turkle has studied technology for over thirty years and has had a fascination with robots and robotic toys. She has taken them into situations ranging from schools to retirement homes and watched the way we interact. As the technology improved, from Furby to My Little Baby, she has watched as people identified more with the robot and formed bonds. Naturally, children formed very strong bonds, believing the toys to be real and placing themselves as the teacher/protector. The robots are programmed to learn from the environment and it responds to the children's input and develop some semblance of a personality. However, when the robot breaks or has to be reset, it never quite acts the way it did before, and the children recognize the differences to the point they say the robot has "died."
The elderly also accepted the robots quickly, losing themselves in the illusion of life. Turkle found robots readily accepted as companions, especially to the lonely. They would talk to the robots, confide in them and treat them as if they were real babies, tucking them in and shushing loud talkers. When she began asking the children what they thought of robots becoming caregivers to the elderly, the dichotomy of technology began to be evident. The children at first thought it a great idea for their grandparents to have a robot to help them keep from getting lonely. However, the very next thought was the worry that the grandparents would like the robot more than them and no longer love them. They firmly believed, after their own experience with the robot, it was capable of replacing real people in the lives of their grandparents.
This theme of replacement continued throughout the book. She thoroughly investigated texting as a medium of communication. I found this section most helpful in learning why my own children are more comfortable in texting their friends instead of calling them. I would become frustrated at their reluctance to just pick up the phone and take 30 seconds for a conversation instead of 30 minutes of thumb tapping. Turkle explained their reluctance for direct interaction as result of the discomfort and uncertainty direction communication can cause. They like the opportunity to edit and think about the response before hitting the Send button. In a verbal conversation, that opportunity doesn't exist and that terrifies the inexperienced. Of course, the more texting is used, the less experience is realized and it becomes a self perpetuating problem. Having this knowledge has helped me interact with my children more and continue to draw them out beyond the texting. I have also become more comfortable with the various forms of electronic communication as a result.
Turkle's concern for the future is very evident. She fears the direction of healthy human interaction, the lack thereof. The more we separate ourselves through the barrier of technology and electronic communication, the more we become alone. She sees the signs of it all over. When plugged into our devices, we become completely oblivious to those around us. As children see parents reading and writing email at dinner instead of talking to them, they feel isolated and retreat into their own electronic worlds of Facebook and Second Life. Her concern, I believe, is well founded and cause for action. I know I have made a conscious effort to change my level of interaction. I haven't been very successful yet, but the predictions she makes are quite disturbing.
I highly recommend this book for everyone who owns a smart phone, computer or spends a regular amount of time plugged in. It has helped me understand my dependency and failings in an electronic world. As a society, we have to learn how to unplug and connect with each other. The stakes are too high. Turkle does an engaging job of warning of the problem. Will we listen?
The remaining 2/3 the book deals with the reshaping of human social contact via mobile phones. This was less interesting to me but probably more relevant to most readers, and far more immediate to the world most of us live in.
Turkle's writing is clear, well organized, and coherent. But she does immerse her story in small variations on her main theme more than I'd like. But it's easy enough to skim over those sections. Overall a very thought provoking cuting look t the cutting edge of physical HCI.
Where it falls flat however is that there seems to be no discernible conclusion or thread that hasn't been grout up before.
Still worth a read if you want to see how humans have changed just as much as the technology that drives our world today.
She starts out with an introduction saying that she's not talking about robots but the internet, then goes on for half the book to talk about robots. It's so different especially when I just finished "I, robot" a week a go.
The most interesting part b was being revived of how much social media has changed in the 10 years since this book was when. The Facebook she speaks of is almost unrecognizable compared with the 2020 incarnation. Oh and don't forget "oh my gorsh! I just made a MySpace page, why didn't need Facebook?"
Now it's just for old people
How someone has made a career studying the interaction between man and technology and hates tech so much, I have n no clue.
Practically no redeeming qualities at all.
The second half was more what I was expecting, and it was fine, but nothing revelatory (though probably that's unfair to ask of a book that's been out this long). And I'm not sure what it is exactly, I wouldn't say she's wrong, but I'm not sure she quite hit the nail on the head.