Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Sherry Turkle: "Alone Together" (review)

Author:  Sherry Turkle (MIT, professor of Social Studies of Science and Technology)

Title: “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other

Publication: 2011, Basic Books.  ISBN 978-0-465-01021-9, 360 pages, indexed, hardcover, two parts, introduction, fourteen chapters, conclusion, epilogue

Amazon link

Imagine, if you will, standing on a ramp above the dance floor at a gay disco. It’s late. Down below, “love trains” form. Then, a little blink at the waist area on one of the guys, and the train breaks apart. The guy looks at the limelight glow of his smartphone.  A CIA spy could probably hack it.
A sentence on p. 280 may summarize Turkle’s thesis well. She writes, “The ties we form through the Internet are not the ties that bind. But they are the ties that preoccupy.” Remember that hymn, “Bless be the ties that bind” that we (I at least) used to sing when Sunday night program services broke up in the 50s, when people talked about “fellowship”?

During a difficult period in my life, the college years, my father (and more than one psychiatrist) said, “You don’t see people as people.”

But today, according to the author, nobody does.

Her book is well bifurcated into the two parts (rather like a two-movement piano sonata).  The of these is “The Robotic Movement: In Solitude, New Intimacies”, and then the second is “Networked: In Intimacy, New Solutions.”

The first half of the book takes where the movie “2001” with the robot spaceship leader HAL (“IBM”) left off.   People really take seriously the idea that robots can help raise kids (or keep them company), and particularly, now, take care of the elderly, freeing us from involuntary filial responsibility.  Kids may have a hard time learning the difference between a “living soul” (as my father called it) or a machine – or a symbol, something psychiatrists (even in my case) call a “part-object” (which she mentions).

In the second half of the book, she gradually migrates toward the now common discussion about the total gutting of privacy as we used to view it, in a social networking world where teenagers have to design whole strategies around getting to know what amount to avatars rather than real people – just to have a chance to compete in the world of real people.  She provides a lot of parallel diversions, such as a discussion of Second Life, as a total substitute for what my mother called "real life". (She called herself "Rachel" there; in more recent times, social networking sites have discouraged pseudonyms or anonymity, as I've discussed elsewhere.) She makes the odd comment that kids don’t see bullying as an unforgivable transgression the way they see observable political disloyalty.  The former is normal social combat. The latter exposes one to the roving cameras of others – the tagging, the matching, the archiving, the timelines, and the assessment of future (or even current) employers.  Yet kids barely understand the real implications of online reputation in the adult world – whole countries can fall on it.

We may, despite the compulsive behavior that social networking sites may drag us into (almost as mandatory) be losing our ability to live as social creatures.  If so, our sustainable future could be bleak.

Google presents an hour long interview of the author on YouTube about the book.

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