Alone Together

When I recently travelled to a memorial service for a close friend, the program, on heavy cream-colored card stock, listed the afternoon’s speakers, told who would play what music, and displayed photographs of my friend as a young woman and in her prime. Several around me used the program’s stiff, protective wings to hide their cell phones as they sent text messages during the service. One of the texting mourners, a woman in her late sixties, came over to chat with me after the service. Matter-of-factly, she offered, ‘I couldn’t stand to sit that long without getting on my phone.’ The point of the service was to take a moment. This woman had been schooled by a technology she’d had for less than a decade to find this close to impossible (loc 5642).

Sherry Turkle’s new book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, is full of stories like this one. One of the reasons that Turkle’s books are so interesting is that she collects and tells the kind of stories that make you as the reader both scowl with judgement and cringe with self-recognition. Texting during a memorial service seems especially distasteful to me, but I know that I have done similar things, attempting to dissociate so that I did not have to be fully present in the place where I was, feeling the anxiety and sorrow that would be appropriate for the moment.

The first half of the book, reviewed in my last post, deals with social robotics, but the second half focuses on social networking technologies: not only the typical examples of Facebook and Myspace, but also mobile telephony, texting, instant messaging, simulations like Second Life, and confessional web sites (which are particularly interesting). For Turkle, social robotics and social networking are part of the same phenomenon; we are trying to use technology to mediate relationships so that we can control, or entirely avoid, their inherent risks. Turkle is concerned that we are trading away real human relationship for something that is shallow and ultimately narcissistic. It gives us the illusion of “being connected,” but we are left feeling alone. Like relational junk food, it satiates our immediate surface desires, but leaves our deeper relational needs malnourished.

Turkle’s critiques of Facebook and Myspace are similar to, but refreshingly different from, those of other authors. For example, Jaron Lanier, who worries that Facebook is causing adolescents to confuse their limited online profile with a fuller understanding of personhood, rarely quotes or cites interviews with real adolescent Facebook users to show that his concerns are genuine and not simply the projections of an older adult. Turkle, however, has spent her academic career talking with children and adolescents about identity formation online, and her extensive quotes show that most adolescents are fully aware that their Facebook profiles are just an avatar, a projection of who they would like to be, constructed for an audience.

Turkle reminds us that adolescents have always used artifacts to play with and project their developing identities. In the 1980s, we would decorate our cars, folders, book covers, and the inside of our locker doors with pictures, the names of cool bands, comics, or anything that would communicate a desired message about who we wanted others to perceive us to be. Today’s generation now does this same thing on Facebook or Myspace, but these new platforms are different in two important ways: they are always available, resulting in many adolescents feeling pressured to constantly perform on them; and those performances are very public and essentially permanent.

But Turkle is also quick to remind us that our use of these technologies is not determined by the systems themselves. Facebook’s wide availability, or the speed of text messaging, may afford constant performances and rapid responses, but it is we who require those patters of use. This is not a pedantic distinction; to confuse the two is to leave us with a false dichotomy–play along, or leave the game. It does not enable us to consider our third option: rewrite the rules.

Turkle notes that this kind of binary choice actually stems from the language of addiction, a language that many critics use when discussing the ills of social networking technologies, but one that is ultimately unhelpful. Turkle explains:

Talking about addiction subverts our best thinking because it suggests that if there are problems, there is only one solution. To combat the addiction, you have to discard the addicting substance. But we are not going to “get rid” of the Internet. We will not go “cold turkey” or forbid cell phones to our children…. The idea of addiction, with its one solution that we know we won’t take, makes us feel hopeless. We have to find a way to live with seductive technology and make it work to our purposes. This is hard and will take work. Simple love of technology is not going to help. Nor is a Luddite impulse (loc 5604).

Of course, those who are truly addicted to social networking technologies should seek help, and may need to discontinue using them, but for most of us, we must be suspect of both triumphal praise of, as well as apocalyptic predictions about, these technologies. Finding the middle road towards a more healthy pattern of use will be difficult, but it can be done.

Turkle ends the book with an encouragement that we have not yet locked ourselves into a particular pattern of use:

It is too early to have reached such an impasse. Rather, I believe we have reached a point of inflection, where we can see the costs and start to take action. We will begin with very simple things. Some will seem like just reclaiming good manners. Talk to colleagues down the hall, no cell phones at dinner, on the playground, in the car, or in company. There will be more complicated things: to name only one, nascent efforts to reclaim privacy would be supported across the generations. And compassion is due to those of us–and there are many of us–who are so dependent on our devices that we cannot sit still for a funeral service or a lecture or a play…. Yet, no matter how difficult, it is time to look again toward the virtues of solitude, deliberateness, and living fully in the moment (loc 5647).

I couldn’t agree more.

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7 thoughts on “Alone Together

  1. Trefor

    Thanks for this post David. Relationships with technology are always complex and binary views miss the point which is that we negotiate with these tools all the time — using them in unexpected ways. But a clear challenge is to find focused time for reflection and genuine, deep thought. To give an idea (let alone a person) the time and attention it deserves.

    Even tougher is to create deliberate time to listen to God. To still ourselves and all the chatter that runs through our minds (and phones) so we can listen to the gentle and often subtle presence of God stirring in our hearts. It takes a desire, a discipline, and sometimes drastic measures.

    Thanks for sharing this.

    trefor

    Reply
  2. Cheryl Smith

    Fascinating post. Will definitely have to add to book to my reading list!
    Welcome to The High Calling! If you haven’t already, be sure to connect with our Culture Editor, Sam Van Eman. I’ll send him your way.

    Reply
  3. Sam Van Eman

    David, thanks for this. I’ve maintained a habit of turning my phone off in all meetings, lectures, church services and even lunch appointments. Even call waiting has been disabled. I simply don’t believe I should be that available.

    Reply
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