With her newest book, Alone Together (Basic Books), Sherry Turkle, the ethnographer of people's relationship with technology, completes a trilogy begun with The Second Self in 1984. It is significant that she does so using a format that would seem to be an anomaly for a digitally-fluent mother speaking to her born-digital daughter -- a letter. A must read, this is a rare letter, as the author's first words indicate: "TO REBECCA, My letter to you, with love" (p.v). And it is perhaps equally significant that she posts this intensely intimate form of communication publicly -- an act integral to all the Web 2.0 technologies Turkle studies and knows so well. The ironic tension between these two facts is echoed in the subtitle of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. It is a key reason why this book, like all Turkle's thinking and writing, moves and shakes the whole field of social science and technology.
Bringing to bear training in psychology and anthropology, Turkle created and dominates that field, studying the range of human interactions with our programmable computers, robots, and tech-toy devices and how the interactions affect our minds and our lives. (Full disclosure: I was a student of Turkle's at MIT; her ideas have longed helped shape my own.) When Turkle began chronicling the human-tech relationship in The Second Self, it was to show us the computer as a tool that could change our awareness of both ourselves and one another. In Life on the Screen in 1995, she explored how computers and the rising use of the internet were able to revise the boundaries of identity and what that might mean. Now she completes the trilogy, weighing the impact of the always-on life in which we leverage social networks and the artifacts of media technology -- photos, videos, posts, blogs -- to archive everything we do to our own bit of storage space in the cloud.
Jam-packed with insights, intellectual connections, and 40 pages of Turkle's inimitable endnotes -- always my favorite part of any Turkle publication -- Alone Together offers comprehensive field research, clinical studies, observations, conversations, and an ethnographer's knack for just the right illustrative anecdote. Having monitored the "computational media and robotics movement" for 30 years (and having brought it home, literally, to her daughter, Rebecca, since she was a small child) Turkle can claim an engagement with this field and an insight into it that are personal as well as objective.
Alone Together explores the sense of connection we feel toward technology and the sense of loss when that connection is broken. The connection is particularly acute among Turkle's daughter's generation, a generation that breeds media hourly, plays with robot toys, has global friends they have never met in person, and nurtures multiple virtual networks and selves. To an extent that Turkle finds disheartening, these young people "navigate intimacy by skirting it," as Turkle puts it, keeping in touch while keeping true human closeness at bay. Yet when disconnected from their technology, this generation suffers a profound deprivation that Turkle analyzes -- part sense of deficiency, part grief, part bafflement.
Disheartening indeed, but not totally hopeless.
From her home in Massachusetts, where she is MIT professor of social sciences, technology and society, Turkle, like many 21st-century mothers, is able to be in constant communication with her 18-year old daughter 3000 miles away in Dublin. Via texting, tweeting, messaging, Facebook, and Skype, the two can "connect" nonstop. Yet Turkle craves from her daughter a more personally crafted, intimate communication. Like what? Rebecca wants to know. For answer, Turkle describes the long letters she and her own mother exchanged when Turkle herself was a college student -- a time before computers and email and 24/7 connecting.
"So send me a letter," Rebecca suggests. To Turkle, her daughter's preference for a communication that, unlike the always-on tech, can filter, organize, and select remembrance into meaning is a hopeful sign from a generation that tends to expect more from technology than from people. She complies -- but posts the letter publicly in the form of this book. Authentic connection for all to see. Maybe because Sherry Turkle is herself shaped by the act of 'posting' so integral to all the Web2.0 technologies she studies deeply.
I'm hopeful, too. And as a friend of Sherry Turkle and avid reader of her work, I'm posting this comment, my response, as a public declaration of authentic connection to her insightful and important new book.