Monday, February 23, 2015

BookPastor >> "Alone Together" (Sherry Turkle)

TITLE: Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other
AUTHOR: Sherry Turkle
PUBLISHER: New York, NY: Basic Books, 2011, (360 pages).

This book underlines Sherry Turkle's concern about how the tools we use are shaping us. In trying to understand the way young people think, the author over several weeks organized pizza parties in the Boston area so that she could tell stories of how people were living in the virtual world. She witnesses a changing understanding of identity. She explores the consequences of a totally networked life and the evolution of robotics. So over 15 years, Turkle notices first hand how technology has shaped, shaken, and seduced the nature of relationships among friends, family, parents, children, lovers, and so on. We can be free to work anywhere but we can also be lonely everywhere. She asserts that machines are no longer about their capabilities but about our vulnerabilities. Texting is preferred to talking. Multitasking has become the norm. People are connected but loneliness continues unabated. Machines can do many things for us, but for Turkle, the straw came when a Scientific American reporter was so convicted that the day would come where a machine will become a man's best friend. As she describes the reasons why people expect more from technology and less from each other, she maintains a quest not only to ask why but also to propose a path forward.

Written in two parts, Part One talks about the growing "Robotic Movement" which is increasing more solitude and also creating new intimacies with machines. From young, children were given toys that seem to project a cuddly and personal object, like Furby that seems to have feelings. The Tamagotchi appears like a real thing that we need to clothe, feed, and take care of. Virtual pets take a lot of time to maintain. There are also discomforting toys like female dolls that seem to verbalize reactions like a real woman, especially when it deals with sexual matters. Some people use electronic toys to live with their self-centeredness. Parents let their children return each day to an empty house where the babysitter is often the television, computer games, or the Internet. Responding to people who insist that friendship is possible with robots, Turkle argues that such a tactic demeans the true meaning of friendship. No matter how much programming we can do, there is no replacing conscience, ethics, and the fundamental communion among people.

Part Two deals with the networked environment which solves the problem of bringing people closer but also creates a new situation. People are constantly connected and always busy. In an always-on world, what do we do when we have free time? We will probably be checking our emails, texting, or doing something on the Internet. We can be connected but we can be absent at the same time. Put the phone on the ear and we have already isolated ourselves from the people around us physically. The way programs like "Second Life" enables people to live in a fantasy world totally separated from the world. Turkle notes the following "New State of the Self," how technology has changed us:
  • People's attention seems somewhere when they are connected in front of us
  • People can be connected to many others on the Internet, that they are infusing face to face meetings with interruptions from cyberspace
  • People are increasingly using multitasking as the way of life to do many things; that relationships can easily turn into an item on a To-Do list
People are growing up tethered as their lives are more and more public knowledge. The search for identity gets confused as people are "forced" to post personal details just because it is the norm. What is true on social media? Is the avatar used an appropriate representation of self? Apologies on Facebook do not count for much because real confessions need to be in person. There is the anxiety over strangers making comments on our walls and the threat of breaches of privacy.

Sherry Turkle is the Abby Rockefeller Mauze Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT. She has been warning us of the negative consequences of technology but does so in a manner that does not discredit the advantages of technology. In fact, she uses it extensively too. What is important is to recognize that Internet relationships are not necessary the "ties that bind." Rather, they tend to be "ties that preoccupy." We need to ask what Kevin Kelly has been asking: "What Technology Wants?" Chances are, technology is going to get what it wants. Technology is still developing, and Turkle thinks it is still the early days. The mood to adopt is "cautiously optimistic." She reminds us once again that at our best, our thoughts about technology should not be about what technology can or cannot do, but about thinking of things that TRULY MATTER. Relationships. How technology is changing that, we must constantly ask and adapt.

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