Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle
This book is a fascinating piece of research on the sociology and psychology of technology use. I recommend it to anyone perplexed by how quickly things have changed and wondering where we go from here. It did a great job of explaining how social norms of communication have changed since I was in high school. Back then, long phone calls on parents’ land lines were the way to communicate with friends outside of school. No one texted, and only a few people got cell phones, around when we started to drive, but they were usually pay-by-the-minute, so we only used them for quick calls to make plans. Now, a phone call is seen as intrusive, but there is some intimacy lost in the fact that we no longer expect people to drop everything and talk to us. Turkle does a great job of explaining how social norms have changed so quickly, and articulating what we have lost, or are in danger of losing. For example, talking on the phone seems to be a skill that is rapidly disappearing.
The first section of the book focused on what Turkle calls “sociable robots,” and the ways that people project feelings onto them and are ready to accept them as members of the family. I found this part of the book less compelling and more science-fiction-esque, mostly because I was less interested in this topic than in cell phones, email, and social media. Some of Turkle’s arguments struck me as Romantic, and that surprised me because I feel like those kinds of arguments are rare nowadays. But in the end Turkle did connect her argument about robots to the one she makes about iphones and facebook. She also emphasizes that we shouldn’t resign ourselves to the inevitability of technology’s ascendance, but instead think outside the box for solutions that allow us to preserve human connection. An example might be that instead of just accepting that we will need robots to care for the elderly, we could design robotic prosthetic arms to help human nurses care for and lift patients.
The book isn’t entirely negative about technology, and does spend considerable time celebrating the positive things that the internet allows us to do. However, I would certainly characterize Turkle as skeptical of the overly optimistic narrative that technology will solve everything. She points out the negative flip side to several positive tech developments, the unforeseen consequences when changes in the way we communicate damage relationships and make them less intimate and sustaining. It’s a conversation that I don’t think we have often enough, especially with young people, who know of no world without the internet or smartphones.
For individuals, Turkle didn’t seem to offer many specific solutions to the problem she describes so thoroughly, which is frustrating but understandable. She recommends periodic unplugging and being intentional about technology use, rather than expecting devices and applications to solve all our problems. At the end, she waxes nostalgic about the letters she and her mother sent when she was in college, and writes a letter to her own daughter.