Book Review: Alone Together by Sherry Turkle

Alone Together Sherry Turkle book

 

Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other by Sherry Turkle is not the sort of book I tend to review on this blog. I usually talk about books that you might find useful to integrate in university classes aimed at teaching about professional uses social media and related subject.

Alone Together, on the other hand, is a cautionary tale.

This year Alone Together is the Common Reading book here at Shepherd University. And, as a member of the committee, I had the chance to read it.

The book is a detailed review of years of Turkle’s research from her time exploring the early days of artificial intelligence as a graduate student at MIT up through contemporary times where smart phones, video games, and virtual worlds have become a conduit for our interactions with others.

The book can be divided into two parts: The first half explores the growing intrusion of of A.I. into our lives and its effect. Turkle takes exception to the dominant narrative that robots – from Furby’s intended as play pals for children to robotic pets designed to serve as companions for the elderly – are inherently positive. This is the “expect more from technology” part of the argument. Turkle asks why is it that we are wanting robotic pets instead of genuine friendships, or even pets? Why is it that many are hoping one day to have robots that can care for the elderly or serve as love interests?  And what’s the cost for both the individuals these technologies aim to serve and society as a whole? The book traces the progression towards humanizing technology, increasing expectations, and shifting attitudes towards accepting technology as capable of ‘thinking’ on towards capable of ‘feeling.’

The second half of the book is about ‘why we expect less from each other.’ This, of course, is tied to why we expect more from technology. A large part of this portion of the book is the various ways in which we are hoping that technology can serve to take away the pains, discomforts, or awkwardness of dealing with others. Break ups over text-message, Second Life romances with persons we’ve never seen or met offline, and using IM or dating websites to flirt, are all examples of this. Another theme is how we construct our identities and craft an image of ourselves through Facebook (or blogs such as this 🙂 ). A major theme that touched home to me, is streamlining and efficiency. For example, because we are so busy, it is more convenient to text or email to get things done. There’s no time to sit and chat – both parties are busy. We’ve got to get straight to the point. I admit, this is a behavior I am very guilty of. Efficiency and maximizing productivity are things I highly value. I often find it much more effective to email about work-related things.

With the rise of social media, and tools like Skype, there is such promise for connectivity. We can extend our senses across the world, as McLuhan stated. Yet, are we taking time to be with others? Or, are we blasting away messages into space, like Tweets that no one will read because we feel we need to have a consistent presence? But, the more we post the more content there is, and the greater the competition for the attention of those we want to reach.

It is an unknown place we are all rushing towards (And, I admit, that I took a detour once or twice while writing this blog post to check Facebook and Twitter).

It is fair to say that our society has become optimistically obsessed with technology. And, I am not exception to that. After all, this is a blog about technology and how we can 1) use it as a tool to teach our students, and 2) how our students should learn and understand it to advance their careers and, I hope, seek fulfillment in their careers.

In terms of the purpose of this blog:

We are wise to remind ourselves that just because we call something social media doesn’t mean that we are using it functionally for social purposes.

Turkle is skeptical of technological optimism. And, for that reason, I thank her for the opportunity to put my own relationship in technology on review.

Have I been using social media socially? Or, have I been using it as a broadcast platform? Is it bringing me connections, enrichment, and the opportunity to help others, enrich others, and build lasting relationships? (A recent article, explored that social relationships are and always will be a major predictor of happiness and well-being. Turkle’s work is cited in the article).

We talk a lot about ‘engagement’ on social media as a key metric. But, what are we measuring when we measure engagement? Are they simply behaviors or lasting emotional connections and relationships?

If you’re interested in a journey exploring our complex relationship with technology, this book is a worthwhile read. I believe we can only gain by exploring and reflecting on our own relationships and biases about technology.

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