After reading Cathy Davidson’s book Now You See It, a work that examines the potential of technology to reshape the ways in which we learn and work, I thought it would be beneficial to get the other side of the story. Sherry Turkle’s new book Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other provides a perspective that is vastly different from that of Davidson and other Digital Humanists who see technology as a way to enhance our humanness and connect with each other in more productive ways.
Turkle sees technology as a hindrance to meaningful human interaction. First examining humanoid robots and then exploring social media, she argues that what we are seeing in both instances is simply ourselves. Both the robot and our lists of “followers” or “friends” simply reflect back at us what we want to see. We are talking to ourselves and they (i.e. our electronic audience) applaud our performance. And, what’s more, on those occasions when we do receive a negative review they are easily unfriended or ignored.
The consequences of the shift in our emotional relationship to technology are far-reaching, according to Turkle. Most importantly, they remove mutuality from any discussion of human behavior. Everything we do is directed one way with little thought of the consequences or the response. The speed of communication also insures that thoughts will come and go as fast as leaves blowing in a strong wind. Reaction rather than sustained thought, acquaintance rather than true friendship are the rules of the day.
Turkle’s book is not meant to offer solutions to these problems but instead to outline them and offer an explanation as to their origin. On this latter point she is uniquely qualified as she has written two previous books on the connection between humans and technology–The Second Self and Life on the Screen. Turkle readily admits that she has grown increasingly pessimistic about technology as she written on the subject over time. In this third book she shows how humans have increasingly become more like machines even as machines have become more like us. Thus making the famous Turing test besides the point. We are all bots now, is the constant refrain of her text. In making this claim she shows an unlikely affinity to Neil Postman, the cranky humanist whose 1992 book Technopoly deftly outlined how humans had become the tools of their tools. Her conclusion seems to be that if more people feel the same concern she does, we will step back from the ledge and find ways to make technology work for us in ways that foster human interaction rather than mediate it.
As with Turkle’s two previous books on the subject, Alone Together is well researched. My only complaint involves the overall structure of the book, which is confusing at times. Her division of the text into one section on humanoid robots and another on social media feels artificial and makes the work appear to be two smaller texts stitched together. Additionally, there is a considerable amount of repetition in each chapter that suggests a need for more editing. The book could have been cut by at least 60 pages and still made its point effectively.
That said, Turkle’s book is worth reading by those who are suspicious about technology as well as those who embrace it with open arms. She leaves the reader much to think about and paints a damning portrait of how humans have let each other down while using technology as an excuse. One cannot help but think that Marx would approve.