Some books are worthy and earnest. Others sling "2.0", "digital native" or "zombie" into a title to show that the author is down with the kids. Very rarely, a book is published that plays tug of war with our beliefs. The words pull and jolt. These tug-of-war books are exceptional. Sherry Turkle has written two of them.
Her Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (1995) captured a buoyant combination of hippy happiness and technotopia. She wrote about citizens gaining new perspectives when entering digitised worlds. The book clothed readers in a virtual kaftan, opening a wardrobe of e-opportunities.
Then dot-com bubbles burst, hyper-techno obsolescence damaged the environment and new theories of screen culture interrupted Turkle's celebration. These realignments did not undermine her contribution. She changed how scholars and citizens understood the internet.
Her re-examination of technological mediations was always going to be a publishing - and intellectual - event. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other grew out of 15 years of research. The length of intellectual gestation means she has overstressed minor moments in the history of technology, such as Tamagotchis, Furbies and Aibo the robot dog. These redundant examples are rationalised because later arguments are built on earlier chapters.
Put more bluntly, Turkle is obsessed by robots. Half of this book is on robots. The other half is framed by robots. She argues that "relationships with robots are ramping up. Relationships with people are ramping down." Actually, no. I know some people devoted to robots. Fifty years ago, similar obsessives enjoyed woodturning. Turkle is worried about the emotional investment, time and attention lavished on robots. While interesting, much of this terrain was covered in a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, The Measure of a Man. Lt Commander Data (an android) was put on trial to assess his sentience. Was "he" property or a puppet? Did "he" have the right to choose? Turkle inverts Data's ethical predicament, exploring the consequences for "us" if "we" transform robots into "sort of alive". She does not quite move to "Open the pod bay doors, Hal" territory, but it is close.
Turkle is nostalgic for real communication with real people. The flaw in her argument is that bodies lie. Torsos are Spanx-ed, faces are painted and hair is gelled. We live through fabrications and falsehoods.
But Turkle desires authenticity. She wants mobile phones disconnected from ears. That is worthwhile. But distraction is not a characteristic of online communication alone. As a wife, I know that a husband may appear to concentrate. He may look at you. He may nod. Actually, he is thinking about Manchester City.
The mobile phone is a barrier to corporeal conversations. But the notion that before the release of the iPhone 4 we gathered in tea rooms to discuss the redistribution of wealth is to celebrate analogue modes of communication that never existed. When blokes did not play Angry Birds on their phones, they reorganised tools in their sheds.
The salient lesson from Turkle's research is that studying communication is a key project of the 2010s. The distinction between analogue and digital is only one issue to consider. The question is how to create productive communication systems for our diverse roles at work and in leisure. Currently, mistakes are made when aligning media platform and context. Examples mentioned by Turkle include answering a mobile phone at a funeral (which is just rude) or children not listening to their parents in favour of Facebook "friends" (get in the queue, Elvis).
Turkle's studies focus on "young people". Using field research and clinical studies, her aim is to reveal "the 'inner history' of technology". She offers the argument that "We are lonely but fearful of intimacy...our networked life allows us to hide from each other, even as we are tethered to each other." "Our" relationships are mediated through machines.
The question is why Turkle focuses on "young people" as the model for online relationships. She imbues too much Marc Prensky and not enough Paul Willis. The least experienced, least socialised citizens are not a model for social interaction. We do not rely on 16-year-olds to provide advice for marriage, drinking behaviour or the workplace. Therefore, why is this group a model for online communication?
In celebrating authenticity, Turkle is validating a version of family and friendship that has never existed. Technology is blamed for making e-Walter Mittys.
She writes: "Creating an avatar - perhaps of a different age, a different gender, a different temperament - is a way to explore the self. But if you're spending three, four, or five hours a day in an online game or virtual world (a time commitment that is not unusual), there's got to be someplace you're not. And that someplace you're not is often with your family and friends - sitting around, playing Scrabble face-to-face, taking a walk, watching a movie together in the old-fashioned way. And with performance can come disorientation."
Turkle is wrong. If I were to offer a mono-causal reason for the alienation and disconnection experienced by some citizens, I would look to employment, unemployment or underemployment. I often travel on the 5am commuter train from Eastbourne to London. The eyes of the men (and they are almost all men) are haunting. Their loss, denial and decay are not caused by investing in an avatar, but by holding a job that reduces them to guest stars in their own life. They are ghosts - not in the machine - but on the train.
Social networking is not disconnected from the real. It augments the real. The medium is not the message. Platform selection - paper, screen, voice - is the first moment in the generation of meaning. This choice of platform requires consciousness and reflection. Sometimes a text message is the most efficient way to connect with another person. Sometimes it is a kiss. In an educational context, a lecture theatre may be the best, most evocative way to explore ideas. Sometimes Twitter will suffice.
Information and media literacy are absent from the book. Turkle argues that social networking has rendered "us" more alone. Digitally enabled citizens are smarter than she realises. Some groups are making strategic selections about which platform best conveys information to an audience. Certainly errors are made. Students leave questions about assignments on a Facebook wall. Employees complain about the boss on Twitter. But as information literacy develops, a considered matrix of platform, meaning and audience will appear.
There is a need to ritualise information literacy and platform selection, avoiding the rudeness of "pausing" face-to-face conversations for mobile phone calls. Turkle is right in arguing that "when media are always there, waiting to be wanted, people lose a sense of choosing to communicate". But her "people" are not robots. They require media and information literacy to improve their choices.
Alone Together is a book to think with, offering ideas and directives. Do emails. Do not be done by them. New technology may not create only efficiency, but also distraction and disconnection. Turkle realises that "when we are at our best, thinking about technology brings us back to questions about what really matters". At her best, Turkle asks readers to think about mediations of time, space and identity. We can transform aloneness - together.
Sherry Turkle, the Abby Rockefeller Mauze professor of the social studies of science and technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says she has been curious about people's connections to the objects they have loved since childhood.
She recalls having her photograph taken aged 10, sitting on her grandfather's desk, wearing her grandmother's white gloves and holding favourite objects that represented a world beyond Brooklyn, her place of origin: a figurine her aunt had brought her from Mexico and a doll from France.
Before receiving her bachelor's degree in social studies from Harvard University, Turkle spent a summer in Mexico learning Spanish, and then moved to France for a year after the death of her mother. She returned to France in the 1970s to conduct research for her joint doctorate in sociology and personality psychology, and says she would happily live in Paris for the architecture and the sheer pleasure of walking its streets.
Turkle is the founder and current director of MIT's Initiative on Technology and Self. She has received several honours and fellowships, but says that being named one of Ms. magazine's Women of the Year 1984 alongside recipients including Cyndi Lauper definitely made her feel that she was "in a new cultural zone".
Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other
By Sherry Turkle
Perseus, 384pp, £18.99
Published 10 February 2011
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