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Sherry Turkle: Alone Together in a Digital World – Calvin College January Series

January 4, 2012

To kick off the 25th anniversary of the January Series at Calvin College, today’s speaker was Sherry Turkle. Turkle, a professor at MIT, addressed the theme of her most recent book Alone Together: Why We Expect more from Technology and Less from Each Other.

Turkle began her talk by stating that 15 years ago she sensed a tremendous amount of optimism when the Internet was first becoming part of our daily lives. Fifteen years later she feels less optimistic about digital technology in our lives.

The main thing that she did not see was the growth of hand held digital technology. Turkle thinks that it allows us to “bail out of a human social world. People are so often online that is boggles the mind. People are texting with one hand while pushing their kids on the swing with the other hand. People are texting while driving, while on dates and people are even texting during funerals.”

Turkle says that people do it because in some ways it has become the social norm. But Turkle also says that our relationship with digital technology is such that adults and youth are now sleeping with cell phones and people are becoming anxious when their phones ring/vibrate.

The MIT professor however, acknowledged that hand held devices are not the only cause for concern. Turkle stated that it is how we have come to think of our relationship with digital technology that we need to come to terms with. The companies that promote the newest digital technology have certainly marketed digital life as if it were better than our real lives.

Turkle says that she saw an ad recently for Second Life, which said, “Finally, a place to love your body, friends and life.” She also mentioned an dd for Wii tennis, which said, “the way tennis was meant to be played.”

Interestingly, in Second Life people often look better, younger and wealthier than they do in real life. “Technology,” according to Turkle, “is most seductive when its affordances meet our human needs.” However, this notion that the digital world is better than the real world is more of a reflection about how we see ourselves. Turkle said we are lonely, but fearful of intimacy, which is why the digital world is so appealing. We can communicate with people, but from a distance that doesn’t require us to be vulnerable.

The MIT professor went on to say that we have a technology that distracts us from doing what we say is really important to a lot of us. Turkle said it is even ironic that many of us are “too busy communicating to really connect.”

Turkle gave examples about how teens deal with living in a digital world. She said that many of them won’t speak on the telephone. They say it is much too slow, it makes it hard to say goodbye and it just takes too long. However, Turkle says this is the case with those on corporate boards and in academic circles. “We are using technology to dial down human contact. People find lots of meaning by being in touch with lots of people, without having to really know them well.”

Turkle also says that we imagine that e-mail and texting will give us more control over our time, which most often isn’t true. She said we are measuring ourselves by how much digital communication we have. We are pressured to respond immediately, which almost always means in short answers, like we are on a cable news show.

Where Turkle has spent a great deal of her recent research is on how digital technology impacts youth going through adolescence. She stated that young people might come into adulthood without ever having to be alone with themselves. Turkle says it is important for children to “separate” from their families both physically ad emotionally, but with digital technology they can communicate with their parents as often as they want. Part of adolescence, according to Turkle, is that awkwardness of trying to figure out who you are. With digital technology we are less likely to discover who we are since we can always be distracted.

Turkle says that philosophically the digital world says, “I share therefore I am. Your contact list becomes a mechanism for validation. In this way you are reducing people to getting what you need, without it being a consensual, intentional interaction. What is not being cultivated is being alone, to develop our own identities. If we don’t teach our children to be alone, they will only end up being lonely.”

Turkle defines the way we are interacting with digital technology as a form of addiction. However, addiction is too narrow a notion, since we usually associate the solution to addiction as going cold turkey. Turkle doesn’t feel that people will give up their use of this technology and it can make us feel hopeless or as passive victims instead of finding real solutions. “We are in trouble not because it was invented, but because we have not reflected enough on its significance in our society. We need to have a conversation about the use of this technology. You are not a Luddite if you want to have a conversation about this technology.”

Turkle began to wrap up her comments by saying we are at a moment of opportunity. Does the digital technology truly serve our human purposes? “Just because we grew up with the Internet we think it is all grown up. It is time to make the necessary corrections.”

One thing that concerns Turkle is the general failure to acknowledge that the Internet never forgets. Once something is posted or sent it doesn’t go away. There are no real delete buttons. Mark Zuckerberg, creator of Facebook, recently said that privacy is no longer a relevant subject. Turkle thinks that privacy and the ability to dissent are ore critical now than ever, despite the musings of Zuckerberg..

Turkle concluded her talk by telling the audience about how she and her Grandmother would go downstairs to get the mail every day. He Grandmother always said that no one can look at your mail, it’s a federal offense if they do. However, digital messages are not private and are not protected. “I’m not sure where to take my daughter to teach her about privacy and dissent. We all need space for privacy and reflection and that is increasingly difficult in the digital world.”

One Comment leave one →
  1. Kim Steele permalink
    February 25, 2012 10:59 pm

    I disagree with Turkle’s claim that teens don’t talk on the phone because it’s too slow. Those are not personally my reasons for not talking on the phone. Overall, a good review of Turkle’s work. Her main points were definitely brought up and explained in detail. It was a little unclear of what the author’s view of Turkle’s arguments were.

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