Alone Together: Why We’ve Started Expecting More from Technology and Less from Each Other

Author Sherry Turkle on her new book arguing that relentless connection through technology leads to a new solitude.

March 18, 2011  |   “This is a book of repentance,” Sherry Turkle has said of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. “I have been studying computers and people for thirty years. I didn’t see several important things. I got some important things wrong.”

“Technology promises to let us do anything from anywhere with anyone. But it also drains us as we try to do everything everywhere. In a surprising twist, relentless connection leads to a new solitude.”

Sherry Turkle is Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT and founder and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. A licensed clinical psychologist, Sherry is the author of several books including The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit, and Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. Alone Together completes a trilogy.

McNally: You studied sociology and personality psychology. How is it that you began to focus on the relationships between humans and technology?

Turkle: I took a job at MIT. Coming out of Harvard trained as a clinician and a social scientist, MIT seemed a perfect place to look at some new kinds of ideas about the mind that were based on computation.

McNally: What year?

Turkle: This was ’76, ’77. There had long been artificial intelligence and ideas about computers, but for the first time people had home computers or at work had experiences with computers that made those ideas more compelling, more real. They were no longer abstract.

Psychoanalytic ideas had at first been for experts, and then all of a sudden people analyzed each other’s dreams, psychoanalytic ideas helped you raise children; you talked about them with your friends. How does something like that happen? I set out to study that same kind of movement of ideas about computers from seminar rooms into the popular culture.

But as I was studying this fairly academic problem, something dramatic happened. In my first couple of weeks at MIT, I noticed the intensity of people’s relationships with their computers.

McNally: You’d never seen that before?

Turkle: No. At Harvard, I hadn’t seen people with computers. When I wanted to run data, I had a friend who did that kind of thing. People used to go to the computer building to put in their punch cards or whatever they did in the computer building. I never saw people in relationship to this technology, I saw people using it to do instrumental things.

McNally: So it was partly the fact that you ventured into a place where folks were ahead of the curve?

Turkle: Yes. These were people who were actually working with, in, and on these computers. The first generation of personal computers was starting to come outcomputers that you could build from kitsthe Altairthe first generation of TRS80 home computers.

When I saw people with computers, it really hit me

McNally: You mean how people were with computers?

Turkle: People say, “Oh, it’s just like your stereo or your car.” No, I’d seen people with their cars and their stereos; it was not like that. I think it’s because the computer is a mind machine. It doesn’t have its own psychology, but in a way it presents itself as though it does.

I called my first book on this question, The Second Self. I took that name from a 13 year-old girl who had a little personal computer on which she programmed. She said, “When you program a computer, you take a little piece of your mind and you put it in the computer’s mind, and you come to see it differently.” It was that mind-to-mind connection with the technology that fascinated me.

McNally: In Cambridge in ’73 or ’74, I I made a friendship with someone who told me he was working in an MIT lab inputting digital information and creating images on the screen that had never existed as physical reality, not even as a drawing. That day I knew something really new was happening.

Was there a moment when you realized this wasn’t something you were going to look at for a couple of years, but that it had become your life?

Turkle: I wrote The Second Self from the day I hit MIT until it came out in 1984, and by that time, I had found my next subject.

I’ve been very fortunate; as technology has been developing, it has posed new challenges. My subject is not what computers do for us, but what computers do to us — to our sense of self; to the ways we raise our children; to how we see the world.

I call it the subjective computer, and as the technology has evolved, it has posed that question in very different ways. Those first computers that my students were falling in love with and projecting themselves onto and seeing as a second self Those first computers were there as objects to be programmed and projected onto. In my first book I studied the projection of self onto machine and the fascinating one-on-one connection of self and machine.

By 1985 or ’86, you could already see people moving online into the new world of the Internet — then called the Arpanet — and I began to be fascinated by the issues of online connectivity. I was able to tell the story of the very early AOL, the chat rooms, the early MUDs and MOOs, the multi-user domains that are the early versions of something like Second Life and Virtual World. Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet poses new questions and psychological issues. What kind of life do we have when we use the computer as a portal to a virtual life beyond it? To a life that we share with other people on the network beyond the screen?

McNally: It helps that your degree was in sociology and psychology.

Turkle: I’m blessed because it turns out that I was very well trained to study this phenomenon. I’m able to do what I call an intimate ethnography. II look at the social environment, but I also sit for many hours and do interviews to try to figure out the meaning.

That second book was not about the one-on-one with the computer; it was about the world that we shape with each other as we meet each other in the virtual places that we get to through the computer. One of the things that fascinated me most in that book was the identity play that’s possible when people go online – whether in a game or a virtual world or in a website community – and play out aspects of themselves that aren’t fully realized in their physical life. You create an avatar, but you end up playing some aspect of yourself.

McNally: That was 1995 — prior to social media and online dating and all those things.

Why do you consider Alone Together a book of repentance?

Turkle: I went back and I read the book carefully, and there was something I didn’t see in 1995. I saw it a little bit but I didn’t focus on it. I didn’t see how things would change when you had your technology always on.

I joke to my students — I say call me “not prescient” [LAUGHS]. My model of how this identity exploration would take place — because it’s the way it was happening at the time — was that people would have several windows open on their screen, and they would cycle through identities. I coined this term “cycling through.” That was fascinating to me, this notion of multiple identities and cycling through. They might be at work during the day and with their kids and so forth, and then at night they would spend often three or four or five hours in online worlds exploring different aspects of self. But basically I saw a firewall of sorts.

McNally: That when you weren’t at your computer you weren’t with your computer.

Turkle: Well put. I’m exaggerating slightly because I really was interested in the fluidity of that boundary psychologically, but essentially, that’s what I thought. After I finished Life on the Screen, I had the profound experience of going back to MIT and meeting Steve Mann and Brad Stormer, scientists who called themselves cyborgs. These young scientists wore their computers as backpacks, carried their keyboards in their pockets, wore their glasses as screens. They were essentially wearing the web on their backs. People were making fun of them at the time, saying they looked like disabled people, thinking that they had some kind of prosthetic.

When I saw them, I saw what I had missed: I saw the future.

McNally: When you say you saw the future, did you see how it would happen? What made it work for the masses, and not just for the cutting edge eccentrics, was the reduction in size.

Turkle: I knew I didn’t know, but I knew.

McNally: The book Alone Together has an introductory section that sets things up and then it splits into two sections. The first section is on sociable robotics, the second section is on the all-the-time-all-connected world so many of us live in. I thought that was an interesting choice because I don’t think much about robotics.

Turkle: Time to think.

I also had an “aha” moment meeting COG, my first sociable robot — a robot that engages you in a sociable interaction. These robots are not —

McNally: — They’re not manufacturing a car.

Turkle: They’re not manufacturing anything or cleaning the rug. These robots are there to be with you.

In 1995, I was at a conference on artificial life with Christopher Langton, a great figure in the history of artificial life. I include this anecdote in Life on the Screen. The book was done, and I remember really annoying everybody at the publishers, saying “I have to put this in.”

We went together to Rodney Brooks’ laboratory, and here’s this robot that looks you in the eye. It can recognize a face and can recognize eyes. It gestures in your direction and it tracks human motion. It can tell what’s human motion and what’s non-. Human motion is irregular, non-human motion is very linear.

It fixes on you, usually because you’re wearing a color that it’s been programmed to be interested in, and it tracks on you. I became competitive with Langton about who COG was paying more attention to. It turns out that when a robot gestures in your direction, makes eye contact, tracks your motion — you’re toast. You believe that there’s someone home because the last thing that did that was another human being. So we’re very vulnerable to robots that do those things.

McNally: Mirror neurons at play?

Turkle: Absolutely. Mirror neurons would be relevant.

McNally: When I see you rub your arm, neurons fire in my brain as if I were rubbing mine. Our mirror neurons don’t know the robot doesn’t mirror back.

Turkle: So if a robot is looking as though it cares, you feel

McNally: — the same thing you would if a person looked at you that way

Turkle: Yes. A relationship forms. That’s a part of what makes you toast — you anticipate a relationship whereas in fact there’s no relationship. I decided to follow that story as well, and in my mind the two have turned out to be quite related.

McNally: The social media, the texting, all that stuff is in my world. What leads you to say it’s time to think about social robotics?

Turkle: We didn’t think before we put mobile connectivity in our lives. We just said, “Oh, phones that will interrupt us every few minutes? Cool! Texts that will be texting at funerals – whoa!” We put a seductive technology into the hands of eight-year-olds without giving it a thought.

I’m exaggerating of course. I apologize to all of my colleagues who’ve been writing up storms, but as a culture we’ve essentially put ourselves into a position where Mark Zuckerberg can say, “Privacy as a social norm is no longer relevant,” and a lot of people don’t blink an eye.

McNally: And the younger people are the more they seem to go along, because they’ve grown up with it.

When the social network doesn’t find it convenient to have privacy, we say, “Okay, social network, you don’t want privacy, maybe we won’t have it either.” But we did this without having the conversation.

McNally: It was a step at a time. If it’s possible, let’s try it. If it’s possible and it sells, let’s try more of it.

Turkle: Having traced this for over 15 years, I think it’s time to take a step back and say, “We’ve gotten ourselves into some places where we’re not serving our human purposes. Let’s reconsider.”

I focused on the sociable robot first because it’s not just a technology of the future, it’s happening now. It’s very big in Japan and there’s a sociable robot in every Danish nursing home. It’s being aggressively marketed here now, and you’ll see more in the years to come. There’s already a discourse about why we need it. It’s not distant, but it’s not in your face yet. Let’s think first. Here’s another seductive technology and here are some tools for thinking about it.

McNally: You referred to Japan, Scandinavia. What’s going on?

Turkle: The premise is that the boomers are aging, and there aren’t enough of the next demographic group coming in to take care of the elderly. Taking care of the old is very expensive, and robots can be brought in to do the job. Like calling in the cavalry. They can be companions to the elderly, in addition to doing some very commonsense things like helping out with medicine and lifting them if they fall.

I’m all for robots that help with anything instrumental or practical, but to pretend to be companions —

McNally: Designed to pretend to be companions — by the look, the turn of the head, the body language.

Turkle: — And by the voice. They have vocabularies and they increasingly pretend to understand. An old woman explains the loss of a husband or the death of a child to an inanimate object that pretends to understand. An inanimate object that doesn’t know what it is to have a husband or lose a child. An elderly person talks about the regret of their divorce to an object that can have no understanding of human regret. I call these chapters “Love’s Labors Lost.”

McNally: The robot responds in ways that simulate understanding and empathy by responding to behavioral signals?

Turkle: Yes.

McNally: As the elderly person moves her head a certain way, varies her tone of voice, her eyes do certain things, and it’s programmed to respond.

Turkle: Even as we speak, these robots are getting better. I experience incredible wonder at the ingenuity of my colleagues who are creating robots that pick up ever finer signals from the humans they’re dealing with. And my question is, “Why would we want to do this?” I want to start that conversation. I think it’s time to have it.

McNally: Though we may have seen Bladerunner thirty years ago, we haven’t talked about these things very seriously.

Turkle: I think it’s good when somebody knows the best rebuttal to their argument. The best response to my concern is that we have relationships with many different things, creatures and beings. We have relationships with cats, with dogs, with horses, and we know that there are certain things they can’t do. So we’ll add robots to that list, and we’ll learn what they can and cannot do. No harm, no foul.

McNally: There’s been a movement over the last ten years or so promoting pets for the elderly and the disabledRobots just give us a wider repertoire.

Turkle: That’s essentially their response: this is just a wider repertoire, but I think the research I report on in Alone Together undermines that. We are vulnerable to these objects and we need to take that into account. Just as we’re vulnerable to our cellphones in a way that we need to take into account.

I interview many mothers – hundreds — who talk about driving on the highway — at 65 if they think they’re going the speed limit, sometimes at 80 miles an hour if they admit to driving too fast — with a Blackberry on the seat beside them. The little red light goes off, and they text or answer an email — while their kid’s in the car. Are these mothers happy that they’re endangering their children’s lives? No, but they are vulnerable to doing something they know is not really in their best interest.

As a therapist, I know that when you’re vulnerable, the best way to move on is to admit your vulnerability, don’t beat yourself up for it, and try to find a way to analyze your vulnerability. Pull up your socks and try to do better for you and your family.

Similarly with the robots. I’ve done study after study where you explain that this is a robot, you explain that this robot doesn’t understand what you’re saying. As a matter of fact, in the study I did with Cynthia Brazil and Brian Scatolati, two colleagues at MIT who developed very sophisticated sociable robots, we un-robotize the robot. It’s like taking Pinocchio and making him turn back into a puppet after being a real boy. We took out all the artificial intelligence to show children that it really was just a program. Then we reprogrammed it to make the point that it was only a robot. But the minute that robot looks you in the eye, does the gesture of affection

McNally: — seems interested, seems to care

Turkle: — We are enchanted once again. I begin the book with an inscription from Plato – “Everything that deceives may be said to enchant.” Or maybe it’s the other way. What I love about that quote is that I always forget It also works the other way: “Everything that enchants may be said to deceive.” [LAUGHS]

To people who say, “What’s the harm? We’ll remind them it’s only a robot, it doesn’t really understand.” I say we’re more vulnerable than that.

That’s like saying, “Don’t text on the highway. It’s really not a good idea.” It doesn’t take seriously our vulnerability. This book is about taking our vulnerability seriously. The theme to Alone Together is human vulnerability.

In the area of robotics and in the area of connectivity, technology is offering us things that we are vulnerable to — and we have to have a better response than a shrug.

McNally: As I was listening to you talk about the mother texting while speeding, I thought, “She’s like a machine, she can’t resist.” And then I realized, wait, no, she’s the human in the equation. We want to think we are the humans, we’re in charge. Yet we wouldn’t be nearly so vulnerable if we were more fully in charge.

Turkle: We talk to people about why they respond. It turns out to be terribly complicated in ways that give me some reason to hope.

For example, people talk about their phone as the place where new things come to them. That’s where an author look for Amazon numbers to see how well a book is doing. Everybody is waiting for a message from someone they love or care about

McNally: I’m going through my day and it’s boring.

Turkle: Something new will come, someone you care about will be in touch, or that invitation that will make next week light up, or that friend you lost track of, or that article that sparks something. It reminds me of the families in Jane Austen who would listen for the post, maybe an invitation from Mr. Bingley and a ball, hoping for the social invitation that would change their lives.

McNally: Of course, in that era, you would expect it once a week or once a month, and now it’s —

Turkle: — instantly. It also reminds me of The Millionaire, that show where Jay Beresford Tipton would come and hand you a check for a million dollars, or Ed McMahon and the Publisher’s Clearing House. Something that will change things. I think that our profound connection to these phones is because they have become the place we look to for that.

McNally: You mean the Smart phone, where you not only get the call, the text, but it’s where you learn if your stock went up or your ball team won.

Turkle: It’s all there.

Or it’s your email. For some people, when that thing pings, they’re gone.

You’re in a conversation with somebody in their office, and there’s a ping on their email. Literally they turn — they don’t say “excuse me” any more — they’re gone.

There’s a lot of research that indicates the brain rewards us for multi-tasking by giving us a shot of neurochemicals whenever we start a new task. Our brain rewards us even as our performance in every task degrades. We don’t even notice that our performance is bad. We don’t care. We feel like masters of the universe because our brain is chemically rewarding us for multi-tasking.

But everybody who’s ever had to finish a project, a book, a painting — when the crunch comes, you have to turn it all off. What just happened between us is the story of our lives now. The difference is that you got beet red in the face and flustered and embarrassed. In regular life at dinner people say “Excuse me,” and answer it.

McNally: I wish I were that clever, that I had planned it to go off.

Turkle: One of the arguments I make in Alone Together is that we’re too busy communicating to think, too busy communicating to connect, and sometimes we’re too busy communicating to create. This is true for individuals and also true for organizations. What’s with that?

McNally: I want to ask you about two people who write about this: Ray Kurzweil and Kevin Kelly. Kurzweil’s books include The Age of Intelligent Machines; The Age of Spiritual Machines and The Singularity is Near. Kelly’s new book is What Technology Wants.

Turkle: Well, both of these men’s work is of tremendous interest to me.

The Singularity, for people who might not know, is that moment where artificial intelligence becomes so smart that all of our assumptions about intelligence and mind go totally out the window because AI can now do things and make things and be things and give us things that we cannot even imagine. In Alone Together, I call it the “technological rapture,” where all assumptions change, where all bets are off. Ray thinks that at that moment we will be able to live forever because we will become one with the machine.

McNally: Maybe this corporal body will die, but Kurzweil believes by then all your information will have been downloaded into something else that doesn’t die.

Turkle: We will continue to live in a form in which we become cyborg. Either we download our information to a machine or we incorporate so many machine parts that we don’t know where we end and the machine begins. In his way of thinking, the issue of us and them disappears.

He anticipates that there are some people who won’t want to do that, and they’ll be — I don’t want to say “pets,” but he has some metaphor for those few people who won’t want to live forever. I think he calls them “naturals” or something.

McNally: It’s derogatory they’re a bit pathetic.

Turkle: Why wouldn’t they want to? Don’t forget you become a lot smarter after you do this downloading. You get to be enhanced. You’re not just downloading your little bit of intellectual equipment, you have all of the brilliance of the machine.

McNally: You download the version of you that you want.

Turkle: Exactly. It’s a kind of trans-human future. I have to say that I’m very species chauvinistic. I’m limiting myself to the human beings who are born, who have the arc of the human life cycle, and who die. What are our responsibilities to each other as we continue to exist in this form? In that sense, I think that Ray and I operate with a different set of morals and values.

Kevin Kelly is a bit of a different story. We operate in a little more of a parallel, on the same plane. Kevin’s new book is What Technology Wants. I have deep respect for him as a truly innovative thinker and writer, but I really don’t care what technology wants. I care about what people want and what’s good for people.

He and I share the belief in a kind of co-evolution. I begin my book by saying that technology is the architect of all intimacies. I love the Winston Churchill quote, “We make our buildings, and then our buildings make and shape us.”

We’re in partnership with technology, influencing each other in a dance. My loyalties are to our making and shaping technology to conform to our human values; and to confronting the hard job of figuring out what those values are, and how are we’re going to get technology to do that.

McNally: But you say let’s be cognizant of the fact that we react as if it wants something. You don’t say we can ignore it.

Turkle: Now it looks like robots want to love us. In what way do I need to take that into account?

McNally: You’ve said that you need to take it into account to the degree that our vulnerabilities make us susceptible. When they were just programmable keyboards and screens, we were less vulnerable.

Turkle: Robots want to love us because the field of artificial intelligence has programmed robots to say they want to love us.

McNally: Now let’s talk about the second half of the book, about our technological connectedness. You say, “Teenagers avoid making phone calls. They’re fearful that they will reveal too much.” This is not just your conjecture. You do a lot of thinking, but you also do a lot of interviews.

Turkle: I try to do the interviews before I think.

McNally: You write: “Teenagers would rather text than talk,” and “If we don’t teach kids how to be alone, they will end up only lonely.” You talk about something called “the nostalgia of the young”. Nostalgia for a time that may have never existed.

One of your biggest findings and I think it surprised you: it’s not just the kids who text while they drive and who don’t look at you when they’re talking to you. They’re learning this from their parents as much as the other way around.

Turkle: When I do qualitative research, I have two methodological rules. The first is, I don’t tell a story unless I have a very deep bench. If you tell an idiosyncratic story, there’s no resonance. People read it and say, “I don’t see anyone like that.” So I tell a story only when I have many stories behind it.

I expected to tell a story about teenagers driving their parents crazy with texting. Instead I found a story of parents texting while driving, texting during dinner, texting with one hand while reading Harry Potter with the other.

McNally: The one that struck me is when they’re at the park with a young child.

Turkle: — and texting the virtual mistress.

McNally: How can a child show off?

Turkle: The child on the jungle gym is looking over at his father, who is texting.

Many young men talked about Sunday football. During the commercials or in between plays used to be the time when dad would talk to me. That’s when I felt comfortable sharing confidences.

McNally: They’re sitting there together doing something that isn’t intimate, so that allows for intimacy.

Turkle: But now Dad’s on the laptop or the phone.

McNally: Or else he just TiVo’s through the commercials and that time is gone.

Turkle: Or even between plays.

I think parents need to accept our vulnerability and set some rules about what it is to be in a family. I’m optimistic because, in my interviews, the parents who admit to these behaviors are not happy about them. When we’re not happy about something and we’re vulnerable to it, we can do better.

McNally: You recommend that we not say we’re addicted to this stuff.

Turkle: When you’re addicted to heroin, there is only one thing you can do — go off heroin. But we’re not going to throw away these phones, we’re not going to throw away our technology.

McNally: So it creates a false choice that leaves me no choice but to keep doing what I’m doing.

Turkle: It makes people feel impotent and hopeless. It’s better to say you’re vulnerable, then face the vulnerability and go back to your values.

On the question of teaching your children how to be aloneThe kind of solitude that refreshes and restores is very important, not just for children, not just for adolescents, but for all of us. If you don’t teach your children how to be alone they will only be able to be lonely.

McNally: You’re saying that 24/7 connection does two things: one, it cheapens connection; and two, it avoids solitude.

Turkle: It doesn’t allow you solitude that’s restorative, it leaves you lonely.

Kids have moved from, “I have a feeling, I want to make a call,” to “I’d like to have a feeling, I need to send a text.” In other words, there’s a continual need for validation. They’re constituting a thought or feeling by sending it out for votes. That’s really not where you want to be emotionally.

Telephone companies sell us voice plans because they know we’re not going to use them. We’re hiding from each other. People say that calls aren’t efficient, but trying to bring efficiency into your intimacy can get you into a lot of trouble.

McNally: Your headline is that people need to strike a balance, and many of us are not as good at this as we think we are. Your final words on this?

Turkle: If you’re happy with where the Internet, Facebook, and Twitter have taken you, I’m not the Grinch. Someone called me Sherry Turkle’s “evil Luddite twin.” I’m not that. I enjoy the bounties of this technology. But if you fear that your connected life is running away with you, read the book, reflect, talk to your family and friends. I think we deserve better than some of the places that we’ve gotten with this technology.

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