Professor with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sherry Turkle has continuously explored the psychological dimension to human-technology relationship. In this age of simulated sex, 3D and sociable robots, are we headed for a new meltdown? Have we lost conversation? A ten minute time that stretched into a half an hour long conversation, that could have stretched further, if not for the appointment diary.
In reference to your book Alone Together, when do you think this complete dependency on technology happened? If you were to analyse that, why did it happen? Late capitalism or just our vulnerabilities…
Well I think it sort of took us by surprise, I mean I see there is something very specific about this technology. I think it seduces us in very particular ways. I’m not talking about all technology, I’m talking about our vulnerability to a very particular technology and the very particular technology that I’m talking about makes us three offers we can’t refuse. One that will always be heard.Two, that we can put our attention to wherever we wanted to be, and three, that we never have to be alone.
And it’s that third offer, that we never have to be alone that turns out to be extraordinarily seductive in ways that I don’t think people ever had a chance to think about or anticipate because people always had to be alone before this. And now people are at a point, when given that possibility of never having to be alone, people start to not be able to tolerate people alone. I mean I study people at traffic lights, when it’s red, they pull out a device. I study people at STOP signs, they pull out a device. I study people at the check-out line of the supermarket, they pull out a device. So there’s a new total intolerance for the experience of being alone. I study people who think they can’t have a thought without texting it, a kind of dependence, I call it “I share therefore I am”. So my own particular theory of this work, this technological moment really centres around our vulnerability to particular affordances of digital technology and the way it captures us, given what it’s offering us right now. It doesn’t have to do with larger network social analysis, it has to do with the affordances this technology and our psychological vulnerability to what it offers and it turns out that we’re so vulnerable indeed to the point, that I think it’s changing the way we think, the way we relate to each other, the way we allow our children to grow up, the way we are tending to each other, the quality of our relationships in a way that I don’t think does justice to who we are.
Is this the intolerance towards being alone or is it that we are becoming lonelier and getting into a vicious cycle?
I agree that there is a vicious circle and I think you are right. You could say that our situation, our lack of community makes us more lonely and so we leap on a device that gives us an illusion of companionship, without the demands of intimacy. I wouldn’t want to say that there isn’t a piece of that in this dynamic but I’ve also watched environments with a strong sense of community, dissolve with the advent of this technology. So I’m not personally convinced of an analysis where we were lonely and thus jumped on technology that solved our problem really in the form of a symptom because when you watch community college students living in a dorm, who now don’t want to have conversations with each other.
How problematic is that? Why are the communities breaking down?
An analysis in terms of loneliness, a sort of a working class loneliness where these kids are literally living in dorm rooms and don’t want to talk to each other, you are left with that seduction of being able to hide from each other, even as we are constantly connected to each other, the comfort of being in control, a question of why we need that kind of control, you know what is there about that kind of control that is so appealing is one that plagues me.
To kind of highlight the superficiality; some time ago, at a conference, this lady who is a tribal activist in our country and who has been doing a lot of on ground work to fight against this takeover of land by the corporates etc. she said that “my Facebook friends are increasing by the day, you know I have like a 1000, 2000, 5000 friends on Facebook and the more friends I have, there are less and less friends with me to work on the ground”…
Well, that is my analysis and that is basically what I’m saying. Politically, this concerns me because in my country where I’m very politically active, people feel that political action means “liking” something on Facebook and I’m concerned with people going door to door in for Barack Obama and instead they’re going to a website and “liking” it. I’m trying to get them to drive 3 hours to go to Hampshire. It’s ironical that I wasn’t in America during the elections but I spent the last 8 months on the election and getting people to go to New Hampshire for the election, getting young people to go has not been easy. But they like the logo on the website and they think that’s political action. So that is very concerning and this is a different problem that people begin to think that if you are doing something, you do it online, that’s a different problem and of great concern to me.
“It is only if you have the capacity of solitude, which is the capacity to be with yourself and to gather yourself that you have the capacity to connect with other people and really experience them as others.”
Coming back to the sociological part of it, since we are talking about Facebook. At least in the cities we keep hearing about relationships breaking apart because of a certain update, but we also hear about old friends coming together thanks to Facebook. So on one level, do you think social networking brings about a level of transparency?
What do you mean by transparency?
As in maybe without the availability of Facebook, a wife wouldn’t be able to know that her husband is cheating on her…
You see things on Facebook that you wouldn’t see otherwise, yes… Hmm. (pauses). But what a way to get transparency! Like Tiger Woods was caught cheating on his wife, you get to know who’s cheating, you get to see, you get to stalk ex-boyfriends, ex- husbands. There’s got to be a better way of having transparency in relationships, that’s not what Facebook is for. The internet, email, Facebook, texting; it’s not a way to have conversations. I cannot be convinced. It’s a way to keep up with friends, it’s a way to share activities, updates, photos, going on’s, it’s a way to maintain relationships with far flung people. It’s not a way to sit down and get close. Now saying I get to find out if my husband is cheating on me because I can friend him on Facebook, this is not what Facebook is for, I mean that can’t be a plus, I really don’t want to go there.
And there are people taking up different personalities online…
Even Facebook, forget about multiple personalities, the point is that when you do a profile, you are putting forward your best self and we get used to putting forward a persona instead of our self in all our complexities.
That’s one side of it but there are also people, for example celebrities whose entire lives are on Twitter or on Facebook, minute by minute account…
Ya but that’s not necessarily them. I know people who have hired somebody to be their PDA’s- their Personal Digital Assistants. Initially PDAs were like your smartphones or something, now the PDAs are your Personal Digital Assistants where you hire somebody to do your Tweeting for you, do your Facebook for you. When you’re a celebrity, many people are never doing their own stuff. You think Barack Obama, instead of being the President up there, he sits around all day doing his Twitter for you? So you hire a professional to be your online self. It’s a full time job.
Why this urge to make the private completely public?
This is because having a digital persona has become a part of the new social presence and that is the new way of serving our identity. People don’t feel fully a part of the mix unless they have that account. People expect me to have a blog, I don’t have a blog. I need to have a life so when I say “I don’t have a blog, I have a life”, so they say “why don’t you hire somebody to do your blog for you?” It is expected of me to have a blog. Because I have a life, I try to go to the gym, I try to do my work, my research, reach out to my students, I have to write my lectures, but not to have a blog for somebody like me or that I don’t really have a Twitter feed, I log into my Twitter account probably once a month. It’s like not doing these things are considered socially unacceptable. So this is part of the new digital identity and I don’t think these are mysterious questions. To me this is just part of the immediate changes and new forms of expression that have become easy, have become available and people would use them. I don’t think that’s surprising or mysterious, I think the more interesting questions are, what people choose to use them for and and what the cost is.
So I know perfectly well that if I had a blog, I wouldn’t do my serious writing because I wouldn’t be able to do the kind of writing and the kind of thinking I need to do or the kind of research and interview. If we’re all going to be blogging, people like me are not going to be researching. My concern is not that “oh we have this new medium and a lot of people want to use it”, my concern is that there needs to be some people who say “well, we just think about this effect” and I know that you can’t be a professor, a mother, have a personal life, blogging every day and doing my kind of research. So I don’t think that the mystery is that this new thing is there and a lot of people want to use it. I think it’s more that people need to centre on their priorities and know that what their capabilities are.
Like you said that it’s important to learn how to be alone so that you don’t feel lonely…
I mean solitude. It is only if you have the capacity of solitude, which is the capacity to be with yourself and to gather yourself that you have the capacity to connect with other people and really experience them as others. You just don’t turn to other people to make yourself feel whole and you use them the way I write about it in my book. It’s like using the spare parts to make yourself feel whole and that’s not a relationship. The trouble with connecting with everybody all the time is that everybody is just using other people as spare parts and if you don’t teach your children to be alone, they’ll only know how to feel lonely. So the link between solitude and capacity to have conversation is important.
Just as we let capitalism have its way and the Laissez-faire, it just had to be the way it was and then we saw a meltdown in 2008 where everything just crumbled and this internet revolution, this Face-booking, seems to be connected in some way. Do you see that if we let it be just the way it is going – this entire lack of intimacy, this breaking down of personal connections etc. will there be a meltdown here as well?
What I think the danger is for me, for young people is that when you have conversations with other people is when you learn to have conversations with yourself. So it’s not just that I want people talking to each other, I want them to have the capacity of self-reflection. So the meltdown is going to be a generation of young people who don’t have the capacity for self-reflection and the capacity of a conversation, empathy, listening, now what does a meltdown like that look like? It’s not like a fiscal cliff, it takes the form of a discourse in relationships and more. The kind of meltdown I see, that you could observe is more in the area of my work. It’s more political where I talk about the fact that when we use emails and when I study companies and institutions where in order to get a quick response, we ask each other simple questions to get simple answers. So we dumb down our whole discourse, it’s like we put ourselves on cable noose. I think that’s an interesting point. That’s more how I see a kind of danger that you could actually, physically and I think you see that politically as well, where we start to dumb down our political conversations, we start to dumb down the way we talk about global warming, we start to dumb down climate change, we start to dumb down when we talk about economics, we start to dumb down when we talk about migration. We talk about these things in sound bytes because we are almost like intolerant of the long form. There is a sort of sense that “let’s move this along”.
Finally, if Sylvia Plath were alive, what would she make of multi lifing because she writes in Bell Jar “I can’t live all the lives that I want to, I can’t read all the books that I want to, I’m very limited by my individual identity”…
You mean, she could go on the internet and be many identities? That’s a speculation! I think the question is whether or not on the interne,t she would find the richness of the identity and be satisfied. Maybe 15 years ago I think it would have been very thrilling to her and in the end I think she might have found the richness of the identity, not on the internet but I don’t want to speak for Sylvia Plath.