Sherry Turkle. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less From Each Other. (New York, Basic Books, 2011): $28.95. 384 pages.
Michael Bugeja. Interpersonal Divide: The Search for Community in a Technological Age (New York, Oxford, 2005): $26.11. 226 pages.
CES has brought a new forest of tablets and gadgets, but in a new book MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle says such technology is just a 'symptom' of issues that deeply affect our culture.
For those of us concerned with the history and sociology of technology, Turkle's new book is a major event. Turkle has already penned several important books about technology's disturbing impacts on the post-modern 'self' including Life on the Screen (Simon and Schuster, 1997) and The Second Self (MIT Press, 2005). She is an endowed professor in the Science, Technology and Society program at MIT.
One reviewer describes Turkle's new book, Alone Together, as a "chilling examination of what our iPods and iPads are doing to our relationships." Bootleg advanced copies of the book are already on sale at Strand bookstore in lower Manhattan. I found one in Seattle near the Town Hall where Turkle will speak on January 26th. (Tickets for that event are already on sale for $5.)
During her research, Turkle conducted extensive "personal fieldwork" in which she "interview[ed] hundreds of teens, children, and adults about their relationships with robots and cell phones." Shortly before the New Year she told me:
"in the mid-1990s, I began to study nascent connectivity in all its guises, from the nascent America online to MUDs, virtual realities, gaming, and then as it began to go mobile... to cells, texting, social networking . . . you know the rest.
I...put the new confusions in our social space (when we are in these spaces -- are we alone or are we together -- in relation to the new confusions we feel when we are with sociable robots -- here, too, we feel together, but really, we are alone, where are we?).
So, my book is a study not in cell phones or mobile devices but in the coming together of two movements: on the one hand sociable robotics and on the other a connectivity revolution that leads to new social confusion. Alone (with our robots) we feel new connections. Together
(with each other) we feel new kinds of isolation.
I see the coming together of these two movements as a kind of "perfect storm" -- in solitude, new intimacies, in intimacies, new solitudes.
This work resonates deeply with your own historical investigations of intimacy and solitude. I frame what I am doing in the ruminations of Thoreau on intimacy and solitude, on the questions of the relationship of privacy to democracy and intimacy.
Publishers Weekly believes the book makes a strong case that technologies which were "meant to be a way to facilitate communications [have] pushed people closer to their machines and further away from each other." It appears that Turkle is what Christine Rosen of the New Atlantis once described as one of a pair of social critics 'who were looking skeptically at consumer technology.' The other member of this pair was an award winning journalist, ethicist and communications specialist named Michael Bugeja whose classic and prescient study of technology and social capital made points very similar to those of Alone Together seven years ago.
Bugeja's Interpersonal Divide takes its cue from social activist Parker J. Palmer's observations that if the search for social acceptance was done in front of screens and monitors the vitality of our communities would be seriously undermined. Bugeja observed that people who use these "gadgets... are spending more time apart from each other and their friends and neighbors" (p 15).
Unfortunately sociology and social psychology travel slower than human insight: last year it was confirmed that for every one of the 7 ½ hours most adolescents now spend online he or she spends ½ hour less with family members. Nonetheless it was 2004 when Bugeja first wrote: "we visit home pages instead of homes but convince ourselves that we are interacting responsibly with family and friends simply because we are keeping up with their lives" (p 56). Such overuse of technology leads to "impatience...[and] poor interpersonal skills" (p 64). Moreover, Bugeja claims, "we have forgotten how to respond ethically, emotionally and intellectually to the challenges, desires and opportunities of life at home and at work" (p 82).
The strength of Bugeja's analysis is its willingness to analyze media history to support a thesis that has fairly negative implications for contemporary personal technology. But if we look at the long term encroachment of communications technology on social capital, we shouldn't be surprised to find that as we became increasingly 'connected' we also became increasingly isolated. The use of mobile technology to bring such isolation into public is only the most recent wrinkle in a chain of decline that has lasted more than a hundred years.
When I asked Michael Bugeja about the issues quantified by Alone Together, he thanked me for
"setting the record straight about...being among the first to note what Sherry has documented."
Order Sherry Turkle's Alone Together here: