Sherry Turkle, an excellent writer, is a clinical psychologist and a professor at M.I.T. and has spent her career examining the effects of technology on society. She has written three books focusing on computers, the first, The Second Self, written in 1984, was dedicated to the interaction of computers and people. The second, Life on the Screen, was written ten years later and devoted to the use of the computer to form online identities. Both were quite positive about the potential of the computer to help us develop. Her last one, Alone Together, subtitled Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. was published in 2011, when her daughter was in college, and shows much more worry about the effects of computers on us, particularly on the young.
Her research subjects for this book ranged from young children through college students, and being a social scientist, she interviewed and interacted with a large number of them. Her findings and associated information about trends in computer application are covered in the very readable book. I read it when it was first published, but I just re-read it, and found it even more thought provoking, perhaps because my grandchildren now range from 3 years to 17 in age, and I have been able to compare the effects of computers on them with that of my own children, and on my brother and me — three generations of drastically different usage.
The first section of Turkle’s book talks of robots – computers and computer controlled devices intended not only to serve us, but to evoke emotions in us. A sizeable business exists in computer controlled toys for both children and adults that do so, ranging from simple toys such as Tamagotchis, Furbies, My Real Babies, AIBO’s, and Paro’s through the much more “human” appearing and acting products being experimented with at places such as M.I.T. Turkle discusses the ethical and practical issues associated with machines designed and built to stimulate love and other emotions in humans through such mechanisms as neediness, communication, and aesthetic appeal. She delves into such issues as their use in caring for and interacting with the aged in nursing homes and with children. In the case of providing companionship for lonely elders, she points out the value in providing them with something to love and care for, but also questions as to why real humans are not doing this instead. She also responds to an apparent increase in desire for robotic mates on the part of extreme computer believers, by pointing out that robots themselves have no emotions and even though they may seem to love you, they do not care for you at all.
The second section is about communication and interaction over the internet, and nicely overlaps the first, since although they do not have three dimensional bodies, there is certainly an essence of robot in the avatars we design for ourselves in many games and in the role that social networking can play in our lives.
Turkle goes into great detail on the positives and negatives of internet communications, and in her usual style tells many stories, good and bad, as examples of what is happening. Since I still mix with college students, it has been interesting to me to see the progression from telephoning to e-mail to instant messaging to texting. What next? More and more messaging of shorter and shallower character? She tells stories of students texting each of their “friends” 20 times a day and staying away from telephone conversations for fear that they will let their friends know more about them than they would like; of hurt feelings and misinterpretations; of overly controlling parents; of treating people more like things and things more like people; and finally of the tremendous amount of time and energy devoted to social networking.
When our children were young, my wife liked the analogy of tree people and phone people. When tree people had problems, they would climb a tree and try to figure out what to do to solve them. When phone people had problems, they would instantly get on a phone and call their friends to discuss them. Now it seem we have progressed past phone people to tweet/text people, and trying to communicate with more and more people by saying as little as possible. Why do we seem drifting toward huge quantities of shallow statements? Is a sound bite mentality the natural defense to a surplus of information?
In the March issue of The Atlantic magazine, there was an excellent article by Graeme Wood entitled What ISIS Really wants. We subscribe to The Atlantic, and I had read the article, which was very thoughtful. But in the May issue, they printed several reader responses, and then, to my amusement they put in a “Tweet of the Month”, which was “Disagree w.parts, but @gcaw’s new Atlantic essay on ISIS is the rare, genuine must-read. I felt challenged, even provoked, through it all”. The tweet was from @shadihamid, who is a Brookings Institute Fellow, and undoubtedly an expert in this area. But was I not a subscriber to The Atlantic, and even if I was and had not read the article, Mr. Hamid’s tweet (if I read it, which would have been unlikely) would probably not have convinced me to. Granted that he is good at restricting himself to 140 characters, I would bet he deserves a few more, and if he had them could convince more people to read the article.
If you have not read Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together, I recommend it highly. It is even more pertinent than it was when she wrote it. If you did read it when it was published, you might find it interesting to read it again.