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Alone Together

[This is a post for UNL’s Digital Humanities Seminar. The week’s readings was Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together.]

In Alone Together, Sherry Turkle explores human interaction with technology, concluding that as technology provides companionship it also isolates individuals. Turkle presents this argument in two parts, first looking at “tomorrow’s story” of sociable robots and later examining “today’s story” of online networks and connectivity (17). Turkle suggests that as people and technology become closer, people grow further apart. While Turkle’s use of extensive examples make her point clear and understandable, as a historian, I found her analysis lacking genuine reflection on comparing the interpersonal relationships in the Internet Age with relationships before this new technology. By not historicizing her argument, skepticism over the uniqueness of her findings remains.

Turkle begins her work by examining what she sees as the future, sociable robots. Detailing case studies of people’s interactions with increasingly sophisticate robots, Turkle builds the argument that people are and will continue to develop sociable robots to fill emotional voids. She warns the “safe” interactions robots provide seem beneficial, but may in fact hinder society in the long run. While sociable robots give the impression of a relationship, they in fact only give a “performance” (101). She makes this point most powerfully when discussing the use of robots in nursing homes. Turkle acknowledges that the relationship seems to benefit seniors and allows younger generations the comfort of knowing their elders have companionship, but she questions whether this reliance on technology merely allows society to, guilt-free, ignore seniors.

Society accepting the replacement of personal relationships with technology is the second step in Turkle’s narrative, however. Turkle argues that before sociable robots will provide the appearance of companionship to isolated individuals on a societal level, society must first learn to feel connected while alone. Turkle argues online networks and mobile connectivity are already building the appearance of connectivity while people are increasingly losing touch with “real” relationships. Social networks and continual connectivity, Turkle maintains, lower expectations for social interaction, paving the way for robotic relationships. Networked communication lowers people’s social interaction by placing technology in-between personal relationships. Through more case studies, Turkle explores online communication from Facebook to texting to confessional websites, arguing people feel more connected, while they are, in reality, only superficially connected. Like the sociable robot, networked communication is more a performance than a relationship.

However, I felt quite skeptical from Turkle’s interpretations of her observations in regards to these networked communications. In her introduction, Turkle tells a story of a young woman Skyping with her grandma. While Turkle notes the service Skype allows increased face-to-face communication (mediated by a computer though), the woman felt guilty for doing other things while chatting with her family member. Turkle suggests this anecdote exemplifies the superficial connectivity of new technology: more quantity, but less quality (14). However, I find this view to romanticize the past. How many people talk distractedly on the phone to a family member? Or in person to a family member? Likely the same proportion that do so online. Turkle’s observations of new communication technology eroding personal relationships seems alarmist when much of the behavior she observes takes place with pre-Internet communication.

Turkle repeatedly overstretches her argument with similar examples. One of Turkle’s biggest points is that people create alternate online identities, which Turkle emphasizes as performance. However, social interactions have nearly always been dependent on performance. I was not convinced the performance of a Facebook profile is all that much more damaging than the performance of eighteenth and nineteenth gentility (or any other cultural system), in which people surround themselves with objects meant to convey a sense of self that may or may not be genuine. Social relations seem to be by their nature part performance, so why would online relationships be different?

Perhaps the most egregious is her assertion that young people are so busy that they can no longer date, but only “hook up.” It is not my area of expertise, but I have to believe low commitment sexual relationship are not new to the Digital Age. In attributing every instance of low quality communication to new technology, Turkle undermines her argument’s effectiveness. Though she briefly notes past comparisons in a few spots, she does not examine the historical trends that may shape this new technology’s influence. Turkle’s fears may merely be a product of new technology’s reception, similar to Wu’s “cycle.” It is certainly possible every new communication technology brings reports of new “distractions” and cheapened personal communications (though this is just speculation on my part).

Even though Turkle may overreach at points, she does make an overall valid point about technology. Just because there is more communication does not mean it will better communication. The humanities and academia more generally should heed this broader argument. Academics can now “friend” or “follow” other academics and even follow along with conferences via twitter. Scholars use popular (twitter, Facebook, etc.) and scholarly (H-Net) networks for communication, allowing the academics to work together regardless of their place on the globe.

However, this virtual communication cannot substitute for personal relationships and conference attendance. These virtual networks should support real life relationships, not overtake them. Scholars should use networked communication to virtually attend conferences that would have previously been out of reach. If, or perhaps when, scholars begin using virtual conference attendance to substitute for physical attendance then Turkle’s fear will be realized in the humanities.

Similarly, online communication removes space as a barrier for collaboration. Any scholar can work with any other scholar, provide they have Internet access. However, Turkle’s warning should be heeded as it is easy for scholars to collaborate online while (literally) shutting the door on their real life colleagues.

Turkle’s warning can also be extrapolated to address the digital humanities specifically. Digital tools open the possibilities of analyzing data in new way. Though many of these tools read texts at a distance, like text mining and topic modeling. These new methods are important, though the humanities would be cheapened if scholars abandoned traditional close readings of text. Turkle urges society to be careful of the ways in which new technology changes people and their relationships. Digital humanists must likewise be careful to watch the ways in which new digital tools change their scholarship.

Published in Digital Humanities