Sunday, May 12, 2013

Alone Together

I have rarely read a non-fiction book that was more engrossing than this one -- Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, by Sherry Turkle. 
Admittedly, it took me a while to get through it, but that's because I've had some preoccupations. But every spare moment I could afford, I wanted to get back to it. Finished it Saturday night.
The book is broken into two parts, the first dealing with the history of robotics. Turkle, a licensed clinical psychologist and expert in all things cyber-techno, begins by recounting the rise of robot technology in the 1980's and '90's. She describes the effects of things like the Tamagotchis, the "MyRealBabies" and other robot toys that introduced a generation of children to the concept of ascribing a sort of "living" value to things that were essentially inanimate. Her premise is that the interactive abilities of these toys introduced new sensibilities foreign to children of previous generations, who possessed completely "lifeless" dolls to which a child had to [more creatively] attribute [verb-form] lifelike qualities. The most those old dolls could do was maybe wet their pants, or close their eyes as you horizontally tipped them. I am oversimplifying for the sake of brevity -- but Turkle explores so many other areas of how animated robots have affected society -- as in the case of the care of the elderly.
What I appreciate about her assessment is that she is not out to demonize the [alleged] progress made in all these areas, but rather, she raises very pertinent issues regarding how these developments have affected our "real" interactions with each other. Our relationships.
Having skimmed not one iota of this first section [so intriguing was it all], I must admit that it was really the second part of the book that I could not wait to get around to reading.
And I was not disappointed.
Part Two is entitled Networked: In Intimacy, New Solitudes -- and here, Turkle delineates what is going on with the whole phenomenon of texting -- and things like Facebook.
Forget regular e-mail, or phone calls.
My God -- these are the activities of dinosaurs. [Like me, by the way!]
We've come to a place in time where even e-mail is too… detailed of an affair. And a phone call too intrusive, and [horrors] -- too involved. 

And why would you write a hand-written letter to someone you texted 40 times in that same day?
Who thinks in terms of paragraphs any more?
We are in the throes of a generation trying to abbreviate previous…. abbreviations.
The word of the day is get something across… to someone… as fast as possible, and move the hell on.  

And like, "Holy ****, in the interim I myself have received 35 messages."
If you are like me at all, and have ever felt that perhaps the rudest thing in the entire world is sitting around with someone and finding that they are not really there with you at all, but are rather with pretty much everyone else in the world that is not in the same room -- this is the book for you.
Not because Turkle pokes fun at those people, or denigrates them. But because she explains WHY they are doing it. And what it is doing to them, as human beings… or is potentially doing to what we formerly thought of as the people right next to us. The ones that are breathing next to us.
What happens to a society, when the people that are most present, are not even there?
Quit texting someone long enough to read this book, and find out.
It is startling. It is so well-written, so well-researched and documented. 

Let us just hope the book is not out-dated even as we read it, because the next step is to say, "No. Don't call me. No. Don't e-mail me. No. Don't text me. Just…. just… just…. don't be."


Merisi said...

I trust that is an interesting book. Still, I am not convinced that those who would sit opposite you and can't stop reading and sending text messages would pay have paid any more attention to you without those electronic devices.

Melwyk said...

This sounds like a necessary read. I know I have great fondness for handwritten letters and all that "OLD" stuff, but I have also broken down and begun texting, though minimally. Interesting to read her thoughts, I think -- I'm intrigued by the elements you've shared.

Anonymous said...

Excellent, excellent, excellent review, cipriano. I have read the Turkle as well and I could not agree with you more.
I have read so many other studies on this topic - how electronic communications are literally re-structuring the way our brains work, as well as changing what we think of as "paying attention" to others - even those we love. They all generally agree with the points Turkle brings up.
All of them also agree that the technology itself is, in large part, indeed to blame - in the way it shortens attention spans or makes "multi-tasking" (inefficient, at best) look attractive.

It is what Neil Postman in his Amusing Ourselves to Death - written many decades ago - called an invisible technology. We use it without even thinking about how it is changing us, changing our interactions. But people are starting to pay attention - from educators to psychologists to neurologists.

I am no Luddite, and I depend on emails and texts myself, but for sure, it can change the way you think about "real" communication with another human being. It can be phony, dismissive, and careless of another's human-ness. True, this could always happen - but our new "communication technologies" make it so much easier and very nearly inevitable. It lends itself to the quick and the shallow.

Another notable book on the topic is Nicholas Carr's The Shallows, which I would also recommend. I guess my biggest concern is not in the use of the technology itself, but in our fundamental lack of concern over the hold it has over us, or our ignorance of the potential changes it so easily brings. I am using a relatively new technology to comment on your blog - but at the same time, I am painfully aware that these few words cannot possibly provide the insight that is found in the Turkle. Already, for example, this post has become far "too long" for a post response. Ah, the ironies.

Not to sound alarmist, but "something [definitely] IS happening here, and what it is ain't exactly clear...." but I think it is well worth our stopping to consider.

Love your site, cipriano. Always something to think about here - or to make my day more bright.

Stefanie said...

Sounds like a good read. I seem to recall that it got lots of press when it first came out. But sadly, it seems like trying to stop and avalanche with a snow shovel. Maybe people will eventually get some sense again?