MG's Reviews > Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other

Alone Together by Sherry Turkle
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Feb 14, 12

it was amazing
Read on February 20, 2011

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by MIT professor Sherry Turkle is one of the most enlightening books about the ethical and social repercussions of technology I have ever read. Interestingly, I read it on my Kindle, where I recently learned how to use the highlighting and notes function. So my review isn't so much a review as a reflection on some of the most meaningful quotations from the work.

The first half of the work is devoted to Turkle's discussion of the use of robots to help people. She focuses her discussion on how robot pets and babies can ease the loneliness of the elderly in retirement homes. This, of course, is in response to the feelings of abandonment felt by people who are now seen as a burden to the younger generation. Turkle describes different experiments in which senior citizens and children (two of the most emotionally vulnerable groups) are given robots that can respond to the human voice and human touch. She then documents words and experiences of specific individuals, showing the emotional connections that the young and old can create with these objects. While I didn't find this section of the book as interesting as the second part, one cannot help but feel a kind of collective shame in being part of a society that would imagine the need for such things. Turkle, however, does not condemn as much as remind us that human needs are complex, and how we frame our ethical and social challenges are just as crucial as deliberating on the possible solutions for them.

The second part of the work focuses on the impact of social networks, gaming, and virtual worlds on people's lives and relationships. While there's a good deal here that I have thought about many times before, Turkle's exposition is an effective showing and not mere telling of her beliefs. She interviews high school students, computer programmers, young professionals, and people of the pre-Internet generation and asks them about their use of technology in their everyday lives. What they have to say about how technology creates chronic demands on them and steers them to a life of loneliness and isolation is unsettling but not surprising. When we are always connected, we can no longer tolerate the idea of being alone, of not having someone respond to what we say or think. Ironically, of course, this emphasis on media performance only debilitates us socially in an interpersonal sense (if one can still even think of the world this way). We "forget" the value of stillness and solitude that can revivify our lives, lending them purpose and meaning, and strengthen our relationships. Instead, solitude frightens us. Turkle explains quite profoundly: "Loneliness is failed solitude."

I'm not a Luddite and neither is Turkle. What she proposes in the end is an examination of our values and the ways in which we frame social, even existential, problems--each are crucial to a healthier understanding of ourselves in an age of invasive technology: "What I call realtechnik suggests that we step back and reassess when we hear triumphalist or apocalyptic narratives about how to live with technology. Realtechnik is skeptical about linear progress. It encourages humility, a state of mind in which we are most open to facing problems and reconsidering decisions." The Net, she states, is still young, but the human beings who have imagined the technology we know today is not. As technology advances, always ready to "be" for us what in reality should only remain a "seem" (to quote the poet Wallace Steven's words in "The Emperor of Ice Cream") so must our understanding of what is fundamentally human: "When we are at our best, thinking about technology brings us back to questions about what really matters."
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