Sherry Turkle, trained as a psychologist and an anthropologist, is developing her career at MIT as an observer of how technology impacts our daily lives. In her 2011 volume Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less form Each Other, she condenses the work of fifteen years, based on thousands of interviews particularly with young and old persons. Turkle considers two main aspects: how we relate to robots and how the social networks shape socializing. These two aspects might seem unrelated but she makes the point that in our time–the ‘robotic moment’–we seek warmth and companionship from machines that cannot provide either because, despite being connected with more people than ever, we are alone and craving for real contact with people. What we call a paradox.
As I have written here often, my friend Carme Torras, a top robotic engineer at UPC, works not only building the robots of our near future but also warning us about the excessive emotional attachment we develop for machines that cannot correspond–particularly, as Turkle shows, the pet robots and the nursing robots already massively present in the environment of the most vulnerable: children and the elderly. I’ll leave robots aside, though this is a topic I am passionate about, to focus on a few passages from the second part of the book, dealing with teen life and technology. As a teacher working with young people I feel progressively alienated from the world my students inhabit, particularly as regards the social networks. This is why I tend to read whatever can help me to get a picture of the daily lives of my students. In this sense Turkle’s book is very useful, though I wonder how her conservative stance goes with the teens she studies (she ends up defending letter writing as an alternative to Skype). If they read her at all, for, well, can you really target the persons massively involved in the social networks by publishing a book, I wonder?
One thing that surprises me very much because I do not know how this fits my immediate national reality is that Turkle describes a situation affecting already two generations: American teenagers have been brought up by parents “who talked on their cell phones and scrolled through messages as they walked to the playground”, picked their children from school, shared meals with them or watched films in their company. They are, then, in no position to curb down their children’s use of the social networks. Actually, Turkle notes that teenagers resents their parent’s inattention and that some have started demanding that the adults disconnect their cell phones at least during meals. If you get my drift, she is arguing that a turning point is already looming in the horizon by which the younger generation, the millennials, will soon start considering if so much connectivity is worth it. Either that, or she has biased her book to suggest that this is the case.
I recently shared a meal with some of my post-grad students and they gave me a similar picture. One explained that she and her mates, tired of meeting for drinks only to see that everyone round the table was texting someone else, decided to pile their cell phone together: the first one to pick up his or hers, would pay for all the drinks. It seems to work. Another complained that her whatsapp family circle was nice and fulfilling but also time-consuming; all noted that whatsapp has very much complicated their lives, for it demands instant availability and response. If you refuse to join a whatsapp group or do not participate much, then you risk becoming a social pariah. The picture I got was of a certain reluctance to complying with all these demands and a wish that these trends soon peak out. This agrees with the panorama that Turkle offers. As a teacher, I was particularly concerned by her claim that many of the teens she has interviewed “send and receive six to eight thousand texts a month, spend hours a day on Facebook, and interleave instant messaging and Google searches”. This passage is part of a segment on how impossible it is to keep your teen life private and, what’s more important, without leaving potentially embarrassing traces for the future in a life “that generates its own electronic shadow”.
Yet, this colossal investment of time in just staying connected is not the sole province of the very young. Turkle presents the case of a fellow scholar who decides to leave his cell phone in the trunk of his car so that he can concentrate on writing a book, only to find himself going to his car many times a day to check if he’s got any messages. “Connectivity becomes a craving,” Turkle explains; “when we receive a text or an e-mail, our nervous system responds by giving us a shot of dopamine. We are stimulated by connectivity itself. We learn to require it, even as it depletes us. A new generation already suspects this is the case.”
Thinking as a Literature teacher, I am particularly astonished by Turkle’s announcement of the end of conversation. Remember those American 1980s movies in which teen girls spend hours glued to phones with very long cord extensions? Well, this is over: it seems that texting and IM has made conversation an embarrassment, for teens have got used to the idea of having time, if only a few seconds, before texting their thoughts. That might explain why you see in public places so many people texting rather than talking at each other. Perhaps Turkle exaggerates, but just think what a daunting task it’ll be for novelists, playwrights and screen writers, to represent human interaction in the near future… I grant that Shakespearean dialogue was never a reflection of daily practice, but fancy writing a story in which most communication happens through cell phones and computers. At the same time, how can you exclude this intensive craving for techno-mediated contact from the representation of our times?
I’m also struck by this passage: “One young man in his twenties says that the Internet is our new literature. It is an account of our times, not necessarily calling for each individual’s truth to be told.” She confuses here (or he, I’m not sure) all literature with fiction, which need not be literary. Yet the point is valid all the same: who would want to read/see made-up stories if you are busy writing your own life story through the social networks? Turkle gives the impression that many, if not most, teens are adapting their lives to a script that is, besides, closely monitored by everyone else. If you can do the mental experiment, please, think what Darcy and Elizabeth would do today and how impossible it would be not to include their Facebook accounts in their story. They would probably tweet about each other. And thousands would follow their quarrels online.
If you remember, a crucial moment in Pride and Prejudice happens when Elizabeth receives a long letter from Darcy. The English novel, let’s recall this, depends very much on the letter (Pamela is, of course, an epistolary novel) and, in general, on the characters’ ability to sustain a continuous stream of introspection (which later becomes, yes, stream of consciousness). Now introspection is suspect–there is an add on TV for one of those comprehensive internet services, in which you see a young woman embarking on a long bus journey. The voiceover explains that she has now time to be alone with her thoughts but just after a few minutes, she decides to stop thinking and watch a TV series. And that’s the main message: that time spent in thinking is boring, and so you need to fill it in with another stream, provided by the internet service. How, in view of this, can fiction be written in the future? Not to mention essays…
Let me go back to the letter. Turkle mentions a young man who has never sent or received a letter, even though he loves the idea. For him letters are part of a quaint past: “I miss those days even though I wasn’t alive”. He, however, cannot bring letter-writing back for fear of feeling “like a throwback to something you really didn’t grow up with”. Turkle, as I have noted, ends her book trying to establish a correspondence based on letters with her daughter, studying abroad in Ireland, which mirrors her own correspondence with her mother back in her student days. This shows that the past that the young man admires is just two decades away–it ended with the internet, and it is hard to imagine how letters can make a comeback in the reign of the text and the tweet.
Apart from all the difficulties that the current trends in interpersonal communication will soon bring to the representation of our times, I’d like to stress a point which is only implicit in Turkle’s fascinating insight into the ‘robotic moment’. This refers to numbers. Back in pre-internet times, a person would stay in touch with a much more limited number of persons, connecting through a) direct verbal interaction, b) phone calls, c) letters. The new media demand not only that we interact constantly but also that we interact with many more people than we can cope with. Of course I am happy that people read my blog but I could not spend a couple of hours every few days thinking here if I had to interact with all of you. We are expected to keep in touch in our professional and private lives with literally hundreds if not thousands of people, and this is just exhausting and even a mathematical impossibility. If you have, say, three very close friends, and a smallish family, you can find time for conversation. With three hundred friends, conversation is impossible and ends up being replaced with impersonal general tweets, Facebook posts and so on. A young man complains in Turkle’s book that he learnt of his sister’s wedding through Facebook, which she chose to announce the event rather than call him…
To conclude, how our lives change conditions how their representation evolves. We already have plenty of fiction about the interaction between humans and robots–indeed, since the 1950s when Isaac Asimov first imagined what is now our near future. In contrast, it is very hard to imagine what kind of fiction the social networks will generate. There is, of course, already fiction about the men who are building them (Zuckerberg, Jobs), but still very little fiction that narrates life taking them fully into account. If, as Turkle argues, people are writing their lives rather than just live them (she mentions a scientist who is documenting every single moment of his life), then other forms of writing might be pushed out of the way.
Food for thought…
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