Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other
MIT professor Sherry Turkle, presenting at the2011 Accenture Global Convergence Forum, paraphrased Winston Churchill: "We make our technology, and our technology makes us."
After 15 years of research and hundreds of interviews, Turkle has come to believe that technology and the Internet —while "wondrous" — are redefining how people experience both intimacy and solitude. In 1995, she was optimistic: "The Internet was a post-modern playhouse, allowing individuals to engage in unbridled expression." But things have changed:
"Now, we have moved from multi-tasking to multi-'life-ing'. We put a premium on controlling when we communicate and on the ability to disconnect. We expect more from technology and less from each other. Today's children are growing up in environments where parents text and email during dinner or scroll for messages during kids' activities. Teens think back nostalgically to a time they never knew: when adults gave them their full attention. Has something gone wrong? Would we rather text than talk?"
When it comes to intimacy, Turkle argued that while technology offers the illusion of companionship, it fails to deliver the intimacy of friendship, and so "we end up alone together." In a world of "always on" devices, people are tempted to move out of the physical world. "Often, we are too busy communicating to think, create, and connect with each other in ways that matter. Social media allows people to hide. Constant connection bypasses emotion."
Turkle also argued for a return on solitude — "the kind of solitude that restores and energizes. Kids have moved from 'I have a feeling, I want to talk' to 'I have a feeling, I need to text.' We risk losing the capacity for the kind of solitude that restores and energizes. If we don't teach our kids to be alone, they will know only how to be lonely."
One result of technology overall — and a symptom of the disconnection Turkle studies — is poor communication skill. In a study of 350 young people coming into the workforce, Turkle concluded (among other things) that they lack the confidence for face-to-face communication — a skill not required by the social network, but certainly needed on the job. "Managers have the same problem," said Turkle. "Like parents, they too often model the behavior they are trying to discourage." In another study of young and older people, Turkle noted that the difference between the generations is narrowing: "Everyone would rather text than talk."
Turkle also paraphrased Shakespeare, "We are consumed by that which nourishes us," before suggesting everyone go on a digital diet. "We are not going to give up our cell phones, but we need to restart some of the conversations that got derailed when we got online. Let's hit the reset button. Instead of casual Fridays, we need conversation Thursdays," she concluded.
Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society,
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
A professor, author, consultant and researcher, Dr. Sherry Turkle has spent the last 20 years researching the psychology of people's relationships with technology. She is the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT. She is the founder and current director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, a center of research and reflection on the evolving connections between people and artifacts.
One of the few researchers in this field, Dr. Turkle offers a unique perspective on meaning and mechanisms—on humans and technology and social interaction. Dr. Turkle is the author of several books including Psychoanalytic Politics: Jacques Lacan and Freud's French Revolution; The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit, and Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. She is the editor of Evocative Objects: Thinking With Things; Falling for Science: Objects in Mind, and The Inner History of Devices.
Profiles of Dr. Turkle have appeared in such publications as The New York Times, Scientific American, and Wired Magazine. She is a featured media commentator on the effects of technology for CNN, NBC, ABC, and NPR, including appearances on such programs as Nightline and 20/20. Dr. Turkle received a joint doctorate in sociology and personality psychology from Harvard University and is a licensed clinical psychologist.