Review of Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other
by Sherry Turkle 2011; Basic Books
Bradford Hincher, Georgia State University
(Published: October 10, 2012)
Sherry Turkle’s 2011 book Alone Together explores the psychological and sociological dimensions of the technological advancements that comprise the current rhetoric of our modern day world. In so doing, it accomplishes much more than provisioning mere description of how our daily lives have changed. Rather, it permits us to adopt both extrinsic and intrinsic views of how newer forms of technology and rhetoric affect us and those around us, and how human interaction has been modified into something we are frequently unable to recognize as human. Regardless of one’s perspective on technology, Turkle’s work provides unarguable benefits for detractors and proponents alike.
Alone Together is the third major work in a trilogy of volumes by Turkle discussing online identity and the relationships that human beings develop with and inside of computers. Turkle’s previous successes lie in tracing the development of technology across the past three decades, culminating in this work. Alone Together seeks to examine the real and virtual spaces, where human beings now exist as a result of those technological and rhetorical developments, and to ask “how we got to this place and whether we are content to be here” (2).
Turkle’s psychoanalytic perspective informs the entire work. A psychologist by training, Turkle applies her educational background to the analysis of computers and computer-mediated discourse, objects which a great number of human beings now hold dear, and which are often valued more than the life that is lived outside of cyberspace. She combines her education with thirty years of experience studying computer culture as a tenured faculty member at MIT.
Turkle’s work is divided into two parts. The first, entitled “The Robotic Movement: In Solitude, New Intimacies,” begins by describing the love-filled relationships that children have with their robotic companions. While the idea may be preposterous to some, Turkle substantiates her claim with descriptions of how children react when Tamagotchis die as a result of neglect. According to Turkle, what we see with these virtual companions is “the beginning of mourning for artificial life,” sanctioning “the idea that…indeed…there is something ‘there’ to mourn” (34). Similarly, Turkle utilizes research from her career and from a number of esteemed colleagues to conclude that “we are at the point of seeing digital objects as both creatures and machines” (46). Interestingly, this situation creates new vulnerabilities within human beings.
Experiments with children, however, are not the only ones that Turkle surveys in the first portion of Alone Together. She also describes how robots are used with great success in combating loneliness in nursing homes with the fortunate dual outcomes of both “‘curing’ the loneliness of seniors and assuaging the regrets of their families” (124). After analyzing the idea, however, it may seem as if Turkle herself is the one who is left lonely, as she seems to be the only individual in a room of Harvard undergraduates who is left pondering the question of how the solution creates “moral complacency” (124). Ironically, the Japanese, who introduced the concept of robotic elder care, did so in the hope that “robots will heal our wounds” and “will pull us back toward the physical real and thus each other” (Turkle 146-7). Therefore, they are involving themselves in an ironic cultural experiment: attempting to gain greater human connection through decreased human engagement.
On this note, Turkle begins the second portion of Alone Together, entitled “Networked: In Intimacy, New Solitudes,” an intriguing reversal of the first portion of the work. It begins with a chapter entitled “Always On,” which states that “technologies of connection…have changed how we date and how we travel” and that “the global reach of connectivity can make the most isolated outpost into a center of learning and economic activity” (Turkle 152). Conversely, however, it also suggests that “when part of your life is lived in virtual places…a vexed relationship develops between what is true and what is ‘true here,’ true in simulation” (Turkle 153). Turkle tells the story of her daughter who, when visiting Paris, answers a telephone call from a friend in Boston and makes lunch plans for the following Friday. “Emotionally, socially,” Turkle observes, “wherever she goes, she never leaves home” (156). Turkle characterizes her own emotions regarding the experience as “wistful” and “worried that” her daughter is “missing an experience” she once “cherished…an undiluted Paris…with the thrill of disconnection” (156). What does it mean that Paris for Turkle’s daughter “does not include this displacement” (Turkle 156)? Because her daughter, Rebecca, is constantly connected to what is familiar, is it possible that she may be missing new experiences that surround her? This perspective is reminiscent of the slightly earlier work of N. Katherine Hayles, who, in her 2010 work, defines the differences between deep attention and hyper attention and questions whether a “shift in cognitive modes is more pronounced” among younger generations (72).
Turkle utilizes the occurrence as a means of experimentation in her classroom, and she decides to prohibit students from using laptop computers in class, requiring them to take notes by hand. While the regulation is short-lived, she learns that “the students whose laptops are open in class do not do as well as the others” (Turkle 163). Though the underlying trial supporting this conclusion certainly requires replication before it can be ascertained a certainty, Turkle illustrates an integral point: with technology and virtual spaces constantly surrounding us, how often are we physically present in our actual ones? What are the dangers of multitasking? While we often gain from our common practices, what is it that we are losing in the process?
In this manner, Turkle’s work demonstrates continuity with both old and new rhetorical inquiries, which concern the potentially negative effects of technology. For example, Cynthia Selfe, certainly a proponent of the pedagogical usage of computers, stated in a 1991 collaborative article that “[w]e can no longer afford simply, and only, to dwell on the best parts, to tell stories about the best classroom moments, and to feature the more positive findings about computers. Rather, we must begin to identify the ways in which technology can fail us” (Hawisher & Selfe 61). The rapid advancement of technology since the early 1990s has caused many of us to lose sight of early warnings that were provided.
Subsequent chapters in the second section of Alone Together discuss the effects of constant interconnectedness upon our notions of self. Our expectations for instantaneous response, for example, often create personalities that are “so fragile that they need constant support,” creating a host of “symptoms born of isolation and abandonment” (Turkle 177-8). Clearly, this is a substantial concern, which we ignore only at our own peril. Facebook is also discussed as a phenomenon that creates an alter ego for individuals, whereby one can be whomever he or she wishes to be, without fears of rejection and without the need for lengthy explication. This perspective is balanced, of course, with stories of “Reduction and Betrayal,” the title of a chapter which describes how “faces and bodies become objects” and how “the emoticon emotions of texting signal rather than [actually] express feelings” (Turkle 225). The following chapter, “True Confessions,” goes on to inquire as to whether or not what we see on many internet sites is real at all; perhaps “the Internet is our new literature” (Turkle 240).
Turkle states clearly that the delineation between truth and fiction, however, is not the goal of her work: “Trained psychoanalytically, I am primed not to ask what is true but what things mean. That doesn’t suggest that truth is unimportant, but it does say that fantasies and wishes carry their own significant messages” (240). In that regard, Alone Together further discusses the anxiety that the author feels within herself when she is unable to help people in the virtual world. Anxiety is further discussed as a mechanism of regret with regard to inappropriate postings on Facebook and in other social networking venues. According to one analysis, there is a prevalent virtual and actual disconnect between what we feel and what we know (Turkle 258). The final chapter in Turkle’s work discusses an additional form of anxiety, contrived by the pressure to always respond. With the large number of communication partners that is nearly inevitable in today’s world, this raises a perplexing dilemma: how do we decide what is important, and what is not? Do we have the requisite energy to respond to everyone, or does our new culture require us to be selective?
The Conclusion and Epilogue of Alone Together combine to form significant questions about what has brought us to this point, at which time we simultaneously return to the inquiry posed in the beginning of the work: do we want to be here? “Connectivity,” according to Turkle in her conclusion, is certainly useful, but it “also disrupts our attachments to things that have always sustained us” (284). By way of explication, she tells the following, personal story:
I have brought my daughter Rebecca to Ireland and helped her to set up her dorm room for a gap year before starting college in New England. I’m one day back from Dublin, and I have already had a lot of contact with Rebecca, all of it very sweet…I assemble her parcel and send a text: “On the way to the Post Office…” I have downloaded Skype and am ready for its unforgiving stare. Yet…I sit in my basement surrounded by musty boxes, looking for the letters that my mother and I exchanged during my first year in college, the first time I lived away from home…We were separating, finding our way toward something new. Forty years later, I find the letters and feel as though I hold her heart in my hands…As the days pass, I am in regular contact with my daughter. As though under some generational tutelage, I feel constrained to be charming and brief in our breezy, information-filled encounters. Once, while texting, I am overtaken by a predictable moment in which I experience my mortality. In forty years, what will Rebecca know of her mother’s heart as she found her way toward something new? (Turkle 297-8)
Turkle dedicates this book to her daughter, describing it as a “letter…with love,” and it is appropriate that its conclusion laments what she feels has been lost (v).
Alone Together is appropriate not only for rhetoric and communications scholars, and not only for psychologists and sociologists who survey our culture, though researchers in any of these fields will be cheerfully rewarded with the book’s extensive bibliographical notes. Ultimately, Turkle’s work is relevant for anyone who is interested in the nature of human interaction and connectedness, which should mean: all of us. While Alone Together does serve as a contrast to unwaveringly positive scholarship, it is not a work that despises technology, nor is it one which rejects newer forms of rhetoric created in its wake. Rather, the negative perspective presented is purposeful, and is designed to force us to ask important questions about what we are leaving behind in our quest for constant connectedness. These questions appear from the beginning of the book until its end. It is often easy to believe that technology and our new methods of interacting with one another are allowing us to experience more, and very often, it is difficult to argue otherwise. However, we are also trapped in ignorance of the fact that “moments of more may leave us with lives of less” (Turkle 154). Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together encourages us to confront dilemmas of complacency. Though we may strongly dislike the answers we obtain, the fact is that technology is advancing, and rhetoric is changing, regardless of our personal feelings about those developments. Therefore, the gravest danger lies in failing to inquire, at all, about the deeper meaning for human beings and for our world.
Hawisher, Gayle, and Cynthia Selfe. “The Rhetoric of Technology and the Electronic Writing Class.” College Composition and Communication 42:1 (1991). 55-65. Web. 24 Aug. 2012.
Hayles, Katherine. “How We Read: Close, Hyper, Machine.” ADE Bulletin 150 (2010). 62-79. Web. 27 Aug. 2012.
Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other. New York: Basic Books, 2011. Print.