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Digital Dystopia

Jacqueline Olds

ALONE TOGETHER: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. By Sherry Turkle. xviii + 360 pp. Basic Books, 2011. $28.95.

Sherry Turkle, in her new book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, argues that humans are at a “robotic moment” in history. People have reached a “state of emotional—and I would say philosophical—readiness,” she writes, in which they are “willing to seriously consider robots not only as pets but as potential friends, confidants, and even romantic partners.”

To make her case, Turkle first discusses people’s responses to actual robots. Part one of the book, “The Robotic Moment: In Solitude, New Intimacies,” begins with ELIZA, the computer program created by Joseph Weizenbaum at MIT in the 1960s that “conversed” with people via text on the screen, mimicking psychotherapeutic dialogue, and quickly moves to robotic “pets.” She reports the results of interviews she conducted with children about their interactions with Tamagotchis, tiny toys first released in 1997 that appear on a screen housed in a plastic egg and “ask” their owners to take care of them. She analyses the results of similar studies with the Furby, a hamsterlike robot popular among children and adults in the late 1990s; the AIBO, a robotic “dog” released in 1999; and My Real Baby, a robotic doll released in 2000. These toys have unpredictable responses to their child owners, leading to confused responses and much theorizing by the children about whether and how the toys are alive or dead, real or fake. Children’s concepts about what makes something alive, she writes, have evolved since the 1970s to center on “an object’s seeming potential for mutual care.” This, Turkle suggests, is one hallmark of the “robotic moment.” Turkle has also studied robots created for people who are nearing the end of their lives. She notes that many people are persuaded that they will be better off and less of a burden if they let robots take care of them as they age, rather than letting humans do their expensive and often inadequate caretaking.

But Turkle points out that her book is not just about robots: “Rather, it is about how we are changed as technology offers us substitutes for connecting with each other face to face.” Part two of the book, “Networked: In Intimacy, New Solitudes,” moves from the more literal examples robots offer to the subtleties of online communication, text messaging and online gaming communities such as Second Life, whose users can craft their online identities and appearances and build homes and businesses within the game. Turkle’s careful description of what she says are still the “early days” of the Internet displays both her curiosity and her concern about the effects of technology. She interviews people who seem more taken with their robot friends, cell phones and computers than are most people I can think of. In fact, I found many of the interview subjects’ attachment to these devices quite surprising. Still, these people aren’t so far off from the people I know that her arguments seem completely implausible—and the points Turkle makes are important ones.

Turkle’s conclusions are based on years of research exploring people’s interactions with and responses to electronic devices. This includes a number of studies she has conducted herself, many of which entailed interviewing elementary-school students, college students and adults about their use of technology. Hers is clearly an effort to report results evenhandedly. Still, reading her analysis, I sense that she feels we might all have sold ourselves down the river to technology that was supposed to save us time and leave us more available for the activities and intimacies that really matter to us. She argues, as have many others, that we are dominated by our cell phones, computers, e-mails and text messages, rather than controlling our use of them to increase our efficiency and thus our free time. She doesn’t like to label excessive use of these devices as addiction—she writes, “To combat addiction, you have to discard the addicting substance. But we are not going to ‘get rid’ of the Internet.” But she thinks, and in this I completely agree with her, that “we have to find a way to live with seductive technology and make it work to our purposes.”

Alone Together is the final book in a trilogy that began with Turkle’s 1984 book The Second Self and continued in Life on the Screen, which was published in 1995. This latest book represents something of a shift—Turkle was more optimistic about the role of technology earlier in her career. And the changes in her thinking have yielded some compelling arguments. One of these is Turkle’s exploration of how confusing it is for young children to be confronted with robotic toys that respond to them in complex, humanlike “voices” and express needs and feelings. Part of what child psychiatrists appreciate about inanimate toys is that children get to write the script for make-believe play, using the toys to work out issues in their own development. Play is not quite as creative when someone has programmed a randomized script into a toy that purports to have feelings of its own.

Turkle writes, unsurprisingly, that young people depend too much on instant messaging and text messaging as a way of conducting friendships. And indeed, we now know from neuroscience research that there are areas in the prefrontal cortex that determine the development of social judgment, and that these areas rely on input from all five senses (and the internal organs) in order to help us make decisions about what would be an appropriate response to a situation. When children and teenagers communicate via the typed word as they learn about human interactions and friendships, they don’t develop the skills of friendship or the sound social judgment that they would if they had face-to-face contact the way they did in the past. Luckily, school isn’t conducted online yet, so children still get to practice peer interchange for a few hours of every day. On a more optimistic note, she persuasively quotes some teenagers who have recognized the way in which face-to-face connections are superior to sending text messages and e-mails or using Skype to make video calls. They are trying to put aside their curiosity about their next important message and devote time to their close friends without the interference of technology. But I was dismayed to read that many of these teenagers say their parents can’t concentrate on actual conversations in the present moment because they are reading e-mails on their BlackBerries.

Turkle details how successive new technologies have changed how we communicate, noting how much information is conveyed by the human voice as transmitted by the telephone and how rare and lovely the sound of another’s voice is. But we got tired of phone calls, so many of us switched to e-mails or voice mails (designed so we wouldn’t have to encounter someone directly by phone). I would add that these communication fads play out in the realm of family dynamics. In their efforts to avoid adults’ scrutiny, teenagers take the lead in adopting new methods of technological communication, sending text messages rather than leaving voice mails, for instance. Adults end up following suit because they want to be aware of what their children are doing. But with each new technology, the messages become more clipped and contain less information, sometimes losing subtlety along the way. We can only hope that the next technological leap won’t require us to use only our thumbs—or even less.

Although Turkle doesn’t make this point, I think it’s important to note that the evolution of communication technologies has happened in parallel with the move toward families with two full-time working parents. When middle- and upper-class women were less likely to have full-time jobs and more likely to have children, they spent more time watching their children play, shopping, visiting with friends and keeping track of the whereabouts of their families. As more and more women began to choose to have careers, communication technologies were becoming more advanced. Catalog shopping, marketed to working women, was one of the harbingers of this change. Along with telephones, which made it easier to keep in touch, these and other developments established technology as an essential part of maintaining one’s home and family. And as some of the men who were these women’s partners slowly adopted a more equal share of work in the home, they too became more pressed for time. Now computers, cell phones and text messages have become ways of keeping track of children, spouses, relatives and friends. And once it’s possible to be in communication with one’s family all the time, it’s easy to feel guilty or worried if that connection is ever broken. Meanwhile, children realize they are being closely monitored—a phenomenon Turkle notes—and valiantly attempt to get distance from their parents and closer contact with their friends, even if that contact comes in the form of online video games and text messages. So along with technological changes, fear and its close companion, guilt, have helped to bring us to this peculiar state of affairs. Alone Together sheds new light on the situation.

Even though, to my mind, Turkle seems to have an uncanny knack for finding interview subjects who are putting too much store in their electronic devices, her ideas about the state we’ve come to—in which people sometimes prefer presenting a made-up self online rather than a real self in person—are important and deserve attention. In a different era, we would have worried that people who stayed in their fantasies to the extent that some computer users do were headed toward schizophrenia. If we’re now prepared to believe that time spent with computers is a reasonable alternative to real relationships, we definitely need a correction in course! Thanks to Turkle’s carefully researched book, we may be drawing closer to that correction.

Jacqueline Olds is associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. She teaches child psychiatry at the McLean and Massachusetts General Hospitals and maintains a private psychiatry practice in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is the author, with her husband Richard S. Schwartz, of The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-first Century (Beacon Press, 2008) and Marriage in Motion: The Natural Ebb and Flow of Lasting Relationships (Perseus Publishing Group, 2000), and, with Schwartz and Harriet Webster, of Overcoming Loneliness in Everyday Life (Carol Publishing Group, 1996).

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