Alone, Together

Posted March 1st, 2011 at 5:58 pm (UTC-4)
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How the Internet Separates As Well As Connects

The survey results should have been stunning.

Last year, the Oxygen Media Group asked women about their relationships online and in the real world.  Well over half – 57 percent – said they communicate more by Internet than face-to-face.  39 percent called themselves “Facebook addicts,” and a whopping 26 percent – one quarter of the respondents – get up in the middle of the night to check their text messages.

But these and similar findings come as no surprise to researcher Sherry Turkle.  “I think in terms of human vulnerabilities that we are very vulnerable to what technology offers.”

For nearly three decades, Turkle, a professor of social science at MIT, has studied the relationship between humans and machines.  Over the years, she says, those relationships have become more complex and more ‘real’ – often at the expense of actual real-world ones.

Turkle cites a story she’s heard countless times from interview subjects.  Harried mom picks up kids at school.  Children ride silently in back, busily texting, gaming or watching videos.  The car speeds down the road when mom’s BlackBerry starts blinking – a new message has come in.  She knows she shouldn’t – she knows it’s dangerous.  But she picks up the BlackBerry all the same, one hand on the wheel and one eye on the road.

“I ask her, ‘what’s going on?’” says Turkle.  “She’s not proud of it.  She’s not saying, ‘Oh, what I care most about is the Internet.’  What she says is, ‘That device is the place for hope in my life.  That’s where sweetness  will come to me, that’s where something new will come to me.’  And that’s what the Internet has become for us; that’s what we’re vulnerable to.”

It’s one of many stories Turkle relates in her new book “Alone Together.”  Her third of a set of books on the topic, she says her understanding of the complexity of man/machine relations has undergone major changes.

Click here to here our complete interview with Sherry Turkle:

“I got some things wrong,” she says of her earlier work that proposed people’s online activities would be limited, discrete moments of play and experimentation.  Apparently, not so much.

“I realized that technologies were being developed where we were going to have the technology to do that on us all the time,” she says.  “That’s what we have now – an always on, always on-you culture.”

Now, with advanced mobile devices like the iPad, a person can be virtually anywhere they want.  And increasingly, that means leaving behind the people they’re actually with.

The result of all this, asks Turkle?  People are unhappy:

“If I had done this research and found a nation of people who checked their email and went on social networking but were maintaining close and loving relationships with friends and family, I wouldn’t have written the book.  But what I found instead were parents who text at the dinner table, leaving their children feeling bereft.  Parents who were texting on the playground while they pushed their kids with one hand and do their email with another.  Mothers who are not happy because they’re reading Harry Potter and having their BlackBerrys under the blankets so they can check their mail while they’re reading, feeling that they’re sort of missing out on the experience with their kids but they can’t stop themselves.”

Calling her work “somewhat dark,” Turkle warns that people increasingly seem to be adapting themselves, their cultures and their social norms to the machines, rather than the other way around:

“If we were out to dinner, it has become normal that if a call came in, even from someone where you wouldn’t even know who it was, it has now become socially normal for you to take that call and sort of put me on pause.  And that’s really outrageous, as though we’re kind of ‘pausable’ machines or tape recorders while we see what else comes in over the transom. “

Behaviors like this and others she documents – for example, the person who couldn’t stop texting during a friend’s funeral – may sound obsessive, even addictive.  It’s not a comparison that works for Turkle, however, preferring to liken it more to a teenage crush: something that’s new and overwhelming, but rarely lasts.

The job now, she says, is for humans to learn how to live with the web, rather than for it:

“Just because we grew up with the Internet we think that the Internet is all grown up.  And it’s not.  It’s early days.  Our job now is to force ourselves is to think of the way we are online and the way we are with social networks as the beginning of things.  This is our game, and it’s for us to make it.”

One Response to “Alone, Together”

  1. [...] Making Us Crazy?” (Short answer: probably not.) And, we admit, we’ve written several times before about the Internet’s ability to drive us to distraction, or [...]

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