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Book Review: Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle

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I have several speaking engagements on faith and technology lined up in the coming months, so I figured I should probably learn something about faith and technology sometime soon. With that in mind, I picked up Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less From Each Other, and boy am I glad I did.

Turkle is making the rounds these days. Here she is on All Things Considered, Talk of the Nation, and Krista Tippett On Being, She’s popular because a) she must have an awesome publicist and b) she says reflective informed things about how Americans use technology.

I underlined and dog-eared the heck out of my copy of Alone Together, so there’s dozens of quotes I’d like to share. However, the basic premise is this: Churchill said, “We shape our buildings and then they shape us.” Turkle says, “We make our technologies, and they, in turn, shape us.” A psychologist who teaches at MIT, Turkle has the studied robotics, computers, and handheld technologies for years. Her basement, she says, is like a graveyard for toy robots — Furbys, Tamagotchi, My Real Babies, etc. She conducts dozens of qualitative studies on technology’s effects on folks, particularly young people. She writes well too, plainly but persuasively.

The book is in two parts. The first, “The Robotic Moment: In Solitude, New Intimacies” explores how robots — toys, mostly, but also companions and, increasingly, medical devices — affect the way we live. In these chapters, she asks interesting questions about times when robotic pets replace real pets and robotic nurses replace real carers. She had conducted interviews in which kids say things like, “I wish I could build a robot to save me from my brothers … I want a robot to be my friend … I want to tell my secrets.” Another preferred a robot dog AIBO because it could do things the boy’s dog couldn’t do like not get sick and die.

I hadn’t considered robots much before reading Alone Together, but now I’m fascinated. Especially, the robots developed to comfort residents of nursing homes make me wonder about the importance of human nurture — if humans develop a robot that comfort elderly folks, can that be seen as an extension of our care or the renunciation of it?

The second part of the book is about the effects of networked lives on our culture, and especially on our children. I was most struck by stories of teenagers who longed for their parents to get off their phones and be more present with them — at the dinner table, at school pick-up, at sports events, even watching TV. Turkle says she went into the project expecting to find parents complaining about their kids’ addiction to technology, but she actually found kids complaining about their parents more often.

Here are just a few quotes from Turkle’s research to whet your appetite:

  • “If Facebook were deleted, I’d be deleted … All my memories would probably go along with it … If Facebook were undone, I might actually freak out…That is where I am. It’s part of your life. It’s a second you.”
  • “Second Life gives me a better relationship that I have in real life. This is where I feel most myself. Jade accepts who I am. My relationship with Jade makes it possible for me to stay in my marriage, with my family.
  • A teenager who says he has to respond to texts in ten minutes max: “I will tell you how it is at this school. If something comes in our our phone and it’s a text, you feel you have to respond…Few people can look down at their phone and then walk away from it. Few people do that….Texting is pressure. I don’t always feel like communicating. Who says that we always have to be ready to communicate?”

My basic approach to technology these days is this: I love it, but we can’t pretend it’s anything other than value neutral. It is affecting our society in enormous ways, and while many of them are grand, many of them are also serious and potentially problematic. Increasingly, such questions present significant ethical dilemmas that people of faith must speak to carefully. Alone Together is a mighty fine layperson’s introduction to where we are as a technological and social media society. Sherry Turkle understands that “children must grow up in their own generation,” that technology is here to stay. But Turkle also knows that technology isn’t our savior either.

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