Alone Together

Book cover image

Sherry Turkle is well known as an observer of what technology does to us, and in Alone Together, she turns to the most relevant recent technologies regarding the reshaping of the human social sphere, such as cell phones and social robots. Her main observation is that as good-enough is pushed to replace what is already available but in short supply, performance of connection, emotion and intimacy appears to replace the real thing. The book details, through talks with people from different groups, the various contexts this process takes place in. The most important of these contexts are the introduction of sociable and emotional robots to take over elderly care in the future, and maybe even more, and how loosely connected communication services, such as texting and email, replaced traditional forms of closer and more intimate communication. The argument arc demonstrated by Turkle is really obvious, when you learn to look for it. It starts with “We don’t have enough resources for this form of social engagement”, and then turns into “Let’s supplement it with this technology”, and before we recognize it, the supplement has replaced the authentic form preceding it. In communication, this has happened long ago. Instead of making phone calls, we text, email and social network like crazy, although everyone knows that these don’t replace five minutes of chatting over coffee, or a phone call. As Turkle points out, for the modern connected human being, “things that happen in real time take too much time”. Turkle argues that we have started “performing” on social networks and on the net, which has led to our becoming more prone to treating human intimacy and emotion in the same way, i.e. as a performance rather than an intrinsic, existential internal trait of human beings.

Since we have started viewing emotional responses as performances, the next step for technology replacing human participation, sociable and emotional robots stepping into our lives as replacements for erstwhile human-only tasks, is not a science-fiction scenario anymore. This is the reason sociable robotics is slowly gaining acceptance, and starting to get marketed as an alternative to missing caretakers or relatives. Sociable robots are designed to elicit emotional responses from people, by imitating living beings in certain ways, such as performing emotions, making eye contact, expressing their content when they are stroked or touched. Turkle details the responses given by people to various forms of such robots; these are the Aibo, My Real Baby, Paro (a therapeutic robot for the elderly), and Kismet (a sociable robot at MIT). It is astonishing to read in detail how people (especially children) react to robots as they would to a play companion, or to an animal that requires attention. Engaging with a human being can be challenging, not really because they might harm us physically, but because we have to open ourselves up, and make ourselves vulnerable. With robots there is no such danger; Turkle calls robots ‘selfobjects’, things we directly project our desires and wishes on (a term borrowed from the description of how narcissistic people treat other humans). Robots therefore are built to deliver performances, make our wishes true, but a social companion does much more than that.

Taking care of elderly is one area where robots are pushed as an alternative to living people, with the preconception that “the elderly are tended by underpaid workers who seem to do their jobs by rote” (p.107). This argument is very interesting because it does not question the given conditions, and just assumes that the most direct solution would be a technological one, and not a social or political one. Furthermore, it is the starting point of the argument arc I mentioned in the first paragraph: Robots are better than nothing. Robots in elderly care, and similar cases of possible robot replacements for human beings who do socially relevant work, Turkle points out, are coupled with decreased expectations of what we as a society can achieve for those we have to take care of: “We learn a deference to what technology offers because we see ourselves as depleted. We give up on ourselves” (p.123). I find this to be the core message and at the same time question of this book: If we measure ourselves on our image that appears on the surface of technological objects, where will we end as humanity? As Turkle shows through her interviews, robots are the perfect form of human construct as evocative objects: they “give people a way to talk about their dissapointments with people around them” (p.68). And we tend to adapt our concepts about humanity by measuring them on technological artifacts, changing them and our expectations of human beings with generations. One of Turkle’s example for this process is intelligence, which “implied intuition and common sense. But when computers were declared to have it, intelligence started to denote something more one-dimensional, strictly cognitive” (p.141).

The reflection of our own image does not happen only on imitative technology; how we use modern communication technologies is also part of this techno-image. Thanks to cellphones, we have stopped being somewhere or with someone with all our presence. We are instead in a constant state of “continual partial attention” where our attention is split between all the tasks we can also accomplish through our cell phones. The way we communicate is also based on multi-tasking. Through interviews with busy professionals and with teenagers who are growing into the cell phone culture, Turkle shows that people have largely started eschewing individual conversations for fast and “asynchronous” text messages or emails. These were presented as a supplement to personal conversations, when it wouldn’t be possible to talk at the same time, but have started replacing synhronized interactions – again the “better than nothing” argument. The kind of communication promoted by texting, though, is one where people deluge each other with messages, but know in return that they are all disposable, and short-lived. In additon, they lack a voice: The bodily and voice-related content available in personal conservations is not there. We ourselves have thrown away the shared corporality and the personal sound that we are trying to give the robots. As Turkle points out, this flows into the lowered expectations we have of ourselves: “On networks, including game worlds, we are together but so lessen our expectations of other people that we can feel utterly alone” (p. 126).

As Sherry Turkle mentions a few times in the book, she’s a trained psychoanalyst. One of her main strengths, unsurprisingly, is getting people to talk. In psychoanalysis, as far as I know, the patient is made to elaborate on his issues, and as he nears a resolution, it’s the psychoanalyst’s job to direct him in the right direction. It is the patient who does most of the talking, not the analyst. Alone Together is a book on technological solitude, but sometimes it reads like a psychoanalyst’s log; various people talk about their experiences with hyper-availability, and how it makes them feel more alone, frequently in repeated statements, but the conclusions Turkle makes, and the thread she weaves out of the ‘dialogue’ are too thin. She frequently just re-states what the people are saying anyway; they talk about being anxious, and Turkle writes that modern communication technology makes us anxious. Why? What is wrong with us? Why don’t we rebel? Why are we so crazy about these small devices? Turkle refrains a bit too much from making conclusions and connections; it’s pretty much over-stressed and over-communicated ‘patients’ doing the talking for her. I, or people around me, have the same thoughts and behavioral patterns as the people in this book; if I had asked them some questions, they would have told me similar things. Of course I wouldn’t have been able to analyze them the same way that Turkle does, but this doesn’t excuse the repetitious and sometimes not so interesting body of interviews. I’m pretty sure that it would have been possible to shave at least 50 pages from the book by ommitting the repetitive things said by the interviewees. At some point, I stopped reading them and just started skimming, and didn’t have the feeling at all that I was missing something.

The book ends with a short, very personal episode about Turkle’s daughter leaving for university abroad, and her remembering the letters her mother wrote when she did the same thing. She then tells about finding those letters again, and the complicated feelings she goes through reading them. She then asks her daughter that they write letters to each other, but her reaction is rather cool. She thinks that they will lack topics, since they text and email every day. I found this story to be extremely interesting and touching, and her style here would put many a novelist to shame. If Turkle would write more about this and similar personal topics, I would be the first to order it.

Despite its shortcomings, Alone Together is an interesting and important (although temporally demanding) book that is very humanistic and attentive to the details of everyday lives. In the midst of this whole technology craze, we need people like Turkle who take a hard good look at not only what we want from technology, but what it demands from us, and at the terms for our obsession with it.