Evolving Relationships in a Digital Age
A review of Sherry Turkle’s book, “Alone Together,” which explores how technology is changing the human psyche and impacting our lives.
Humans created computers, robots, the Internet and mobile technologies. As these technologies become increasingly central to our lives, the ways they are redefining our humanity, our relationships and our ways of thinking are being questioned. How has technology changed the way we communicate, how we relate to each other, our definitions of love and friendship, and how we process information?
Sherry Turkle, a psychologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), has been investigating these questions for decades. She is the founder and director of the MIT initiative on Technology and Self. Although her latest book, “Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other,” the third in a trilogy on the impact of technology on our psychological well-being, largely concentrates on the data garnered from interviews with high-school- and college-age youth, her references to the perspectives of older generations serve to anchor and frame her fascinating depiction of how technologies are changing the human psyche.
There are a number of publications on the differences between technological immigrants—those of us who grew up before the age of the ubiquitous personal computer or device and the Internet—and technological natives. Technological immigrants are more inclined to be wary of technology and are concerned about its impact on our lives. Turkle takes the discussion one step further by exploring how technology is changing our social skills, our conceptualizations of love, friendship and intimacy and our abilities to empathize, persevere and accept the good with the bad. She discusses how technological natives tend to see phone calls as not only intrusive but also too personally revealing, whereas text messages and other forms of asynchronous text-based communications are preferred because they seem less intrusive and personally revealing. She writes about how many technological natives create second, online lives, often the imagined lives of the people they think they want to be, thereby developing a way to avoid facing one’s real self and learning to cherish that self. She looks into the impact of technologies on face-to-face interactions, which are becoming more and more rare, and how people increasingly flit from subject to subject, interrupt each other and reach for their mobile devices to either inform or enhance the communication or simply divert from it. Turkle writes about how technologies can be addictive and even controlling. She describes online communities and how they are being seen as substitutes for face-to-face communities, but fall short of the latter in a number of important ways.
The virtual world can be a very lonely place. The opportunities offered by the Internet may appear to enhance our ability to communicate and enrich our network of relationships, but it may actually serve to further isolate us from one another and ourselves.
Please don’t jump to the conclusion that Turkle believes technology is all bad. In fact, there’s a great deal of good that comes from living in a technologically-enhanced and -imbued world. But there’s a time, place and role for technology-enabled communication and for some of the more revealing, real-time, face-to-face types of communication.
Trying to understand the perspectives of a technological native, I loaned the book to my younger, 22-year-old son. He’s a pretty critical person. I was curious to hear his reactions and see which points from the book he rejects and which he embraces. It turns out that he agrees with nearly everything Turkle had to say about his generation. The book made him step back and consider the impact of technology on his relationships, communication preferences and ways of viewing the world and himself.
So, take a few hours off, curl up with “Alone Together” and reflect a bit on how technology has changed you. I found it well worth my time.
Craig L. Dicker is the Counselor for Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi. He is also the Editor in Chief of SPAN magazine.