MIT professor analyzes repercussions of technology

On Thursday evening, Sherry Turkle, professor of the social studies of science and technology at MIT, gave the Oakley Center for the Humanities and Social Science’s Annual Richmond Lecture: “Alone Together: The New Intimacies and Solitudes of the Digital Age.”

Turkle introduced her lecture by telling a story from her first years at MIT: In 1978, it was a completely new concept that every home might have a personal computer. A group of computer science professors were brought together to discuss “how to keep home computers busy,” according to Turkle. Ideas that were discussed but rejected that day included a calendar, a date book, a tax preparation program and a writing program. Turkle said they were rejected because, “Who except for academics would have that much to write?” In retrospect, it seems ridiculous that these ideas were rebuked because now not only do they exist but also they are the ones keeping us busy.

Turkle’s lecture was based on her new book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. The main thread of her discussion was that when “our vulnerabilities meet the affordances of technology, it forces us to confront our human purpose,”she said. Turkle was adamant that the recent obsession with social technologies including texting, Facebook and Twitter is not a generational one. If anything, “parents are modeling the behaviors they criticize their children for, like texting at the dinner table,” Turkle said. Of the 350 children and 150 adults involved in her study, it was often the kids who were missing out on their parents’ full attention. She cited mothers who were texting while reading their kids a bedtime story or nursing. Technology obviously has many bounties, but it is “creating the illusion of companionship without the danger of intimacy,” Turkle said.

So what are the psychological characteristics of this new “tethered self”? Turkle explained five discontents that reveal the “sacred spaces in society” that technology cannot fill. “First, people are confused,” Turkle said. “People would rather text than talk so that they are in continuous control of their time … we’re mixing efficiency with intimacy.” Turkle discussed how most of the people she interviewed who said that they would rather text than talk attributed it to a faster, easier method of communication, even though texting hardly allows for any kind of intimacy that even the extra step of a phone call can provide.

Second on her list was hiding. Turkle quoted a 50-year-old lawyer who, when asked about why he communicates with people in his office by e-mail rather than face-to-face, said, “It’s easier to deal with people on my Blackberry than to interrupt them in person.” Adults and teens alike allow cell phones to interrupt their daily activities to the point that it seems almost intrusive to have to go to approach someone in person.

“Every woman I talked to said that it was a huge social faux pas to break up with someone online,” Turkle said. However, the reason this happens at all is because it is much easier to hurt someone when you aren’t staring him or her in the face.

People also use technology to avoid awkward social situations. Citing the example of a 15-year-old’s birthday party, Turkle described how there used to be a period of time when everyone at the party would want to leave, but they would have to work through it. Now when that time comes, all the kids turn to their cell phones. “Physically they’re there, but emotionally they’ve left,” Turkle said.

The third discontent is the newly developed anxiety about disconnection. “People have compared losing their cell phones to a death, and these are people who have their information backed up,” Turkle said. “For those who have a Blackberry, you know the little red light that tells you you have a message? People will find out what that little red light is. Mothers driving with their children in the backseat will check to see what that message is.” Turkle explained that that little red light sparks hope; it’s exciting because that message will bring something new. She equated this phenomenon to the post in a Jane Austen novel: “Waiting for a text message to bring some new and exciting information is like waiting for a letter from Mr. Bingley.”

Turkle then described how overwhelmed people have become by the “vicious circle” that technology creates. “It’s a paradox,” Turkle said. “Your success is measured in the number of e-mails or texts you receive. People are assuming you have [your cell phone] on you all the time.” A delayed response can invoke anger or frustration in the other party, but in order to deal with the sheer volume of messages that the average person receives daily, we are required to “dumb ourselves down because this is the lifestyle technology has given us.” We would rather text something short, quick and to the point than have a five-minute telephone conversation that would involve more than abbreviations.

Adolescents have also begun to justify emotions with the responses of their friends. Teenage girls do not experience sadness alone anymore: Before the emotion has even occurred, the girl has texted three friends to elicit their sympathy, what Turkle identified as “I feel, therefore I am.”

Turkle’s final point was about privacy. “Young people don’t know the rules … It used to be a federal offense when people went through your mail, but now our mail is run by people who can see anything they want,” she said. To finish, Turkle quoted a favorite line from her book: “Just because we grew up with the Internet, we think the Internet is all grown up. The Internet is a baby.”

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