I finally got around to reading Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together after hearing about it from another friend. Here are some thoughts about this book that explores our relationship with technology.
1. I’m generally sympathetic to Turkle’s arguments that we need to think more about what technology does to our lives. If you were to sum up her argument, it would look something like this: we need to make sure we master technology rather than letting it master us. It may offer some benefits but it also has downsides and we have a choice to make.
2. Turkle has a fascinating background in studying human interaction with robots, everything from Furbys and Tamogatchis to robots intended for care for the elderly. I think she does a strong job in her discussion about using robots to care for the elderly: do we want to be a society where fellow humans don’t want to care for people because it is more efficient to use robots? As Turkle suggests, discussions about technology shouldn’t just be about efficiency; we need to weigh the lost human component.
3. Some critiques:
a. Turkle talks about phenomena that don’t apply to everyone and then implies that it could happen to everyone. Take Second Life as an example. Turkle discusses the implications of people creating alternative personas that end up not just providing an outlet for people to try to improve themselves (say by learning to be more assertive) but become preferred alternatives to human interactions. Second Life is indeed a unique space and maybe such spaces could become more common but it has remained relatively limited. According to Wikipedia: “In November 2010, 21.3 million accounts were registered…” Compared to Facebook and other programs, this is a drop in the bucket. And it doesn’t exactly work this way in Facebook – while users clearly have and take advantage of space to present themselves in a certain light, they don’t typically create complete alter egos and their profiles still contain some truth.
b. I felt Turkle could stress the positives of technology more. It is interesting that she admits that she too has given in to these things such as using Skype to communicate with her daughter who goes abroad for a gap year. She tends to talk about what could go wrong without discussing what usually does happen. For example, she talks about what can go wrong with Facebook without discussing why people continue to use the site. Indeed, my own research shows that teenagers are well aware of the dark sides of Facebook and take some steps to minimize issues like privacy concerns or who they become friends with. Sure, users could become friends with strangers or completely misrepresent themselves in their profile but many do not.
c. I was continually struck by Turkle’s psychological and personal approach. A number of the chapters end with Turkle expressing her own misgivings about technology and asking if it has to be this way. While she hints at this throughout the book, I kept hoping she would expand her vision and talk about the bigger implications for society. What happens if we have new generations that accept all technology without questions? What happens if we care for all of our elderly with robots? How will institutions like schools or governments change because of pervasive technology? I suppose this is the sociologist in me. Also, she relies a lot on interviews and personal observations and there is little in the way of large-scale data.
d. This is tied to my comment about the big picture; Turkle suggests at the end that we all need to make individual choices about technology as we can’t stop it all. She is correct…but there are certainly larger-scale things that could be done to make sure we remain the masters of technology.
All in all, this is a thought-provoking book that left me somewhat depressed about our future with technology. At the least, we should heed Turkle’s admonition to slow down and think about the implications of technology before wholeheartedly jumping in.