Alone Together by Sherry Turkle

Alone Together

RATING: 7/10…READ: July 17, 2011

An examination of our social relationship to technology from robotics to social networking; More of a description of our relationship with technology than a prescription. While I agree with the author’s premise that we are becoming “Alone Together,” the book could easily be cut down as it contains too many repetitive case studies.

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People perhaps wondered, the human mind is just a programmed machine, much like a computer. Perhaps if the mind is a program, free will is an illusion.

These days, insecure in our relationships and anxious about intimacy, we look to technology for ways to be in relationships and protect ourselves from them at the same time.

We expect more from technology and less from each other.

Digital connections and the social robot may off the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship.

Our networked life allows us to hide from each other, even as we are tethered to each other.

People are lonely. The network is seductive. But we are always on; we may deny ourselves the rewards of solitude.

I believe that in our culture of simulation, the notion of authenticity if for us what sex was for the Victorians—threat and obsession, taboo and fascination.

Levy argues that robots will teach us to be better friends and lovers because we will be able to practice on them.

A love relationship involves coming to savor the surprised and the rough patches of looking at the world from another’s point of view shaped by history, biology, trauma, and joy.

We are psychologically programmed not only to nurture what we love but to love what we nurture.

Putting hope in robots expresses an enduring technological optimism, a belief that as other things go wrong, science will go right.

Online you’re slim, rich, and buffed up, and you feel you have more opportunities than in the real world.

-So here too, better than nothing can become better than something—or better than anything.

People report feeling let down when they move from the virtual to the real world.

Our new devices provide space for the emergence of a new state of the self, itself, split between the screen and the physical real, wired into existence through technology.

We shape our buildings and then they shape us. We make our technologies , and they, in turn, shape us. [Winston Churchill]

Of every technology we must ask, Does it serve our human purposes?

The singularity is a moment when machine intelligence goes beyond a tipping point.

Our online lives are all about performance. We perform on social networks and direct the performance of our avatars in virtual worlds.

If a robot makes you love it, is it alive?

Children approach sociable machines in a spirit similar to the way they approach sociable pets or people—with the hope of befriending them.

When my Tamagotchi dies, I don’t want to play with the new one who can pop up. It makes me remember the real one [the first one].

Metaphorically, at least, mourning keeps a lost person present.

Eight-year old Pearl thinks that removing the batteries from a Furby causes it to die and that people’s death is akin to “taking the batteries out of a Furby.”

Children enjoy the teaching task. From the first encounter, it gives them something in common with their Furbies and it implies that the Furbies can grow to better understand them.

For decades computers have asked us to think with them; these days, computers and robots, deemed sociable, affective, and relational, ask us to feel for and with them.

A new Furby is a stranger—that could never be the Furby into which each has poured time and attention.

If you focus on the Furby’s mechanical side, you can enjoy some of the pleasures of companionship without the risks of attachment to a pet or person.

An object on the boundaries of life suggests the possibility of real pain.

The Furby with its expressions of fear and the gendered Nexi with her blindfold are the new uncanny in the culture of computing.

Artificial intelligence is often described as the art and science of “getting machines to do things that would be considered intelligent if done by people.” We are coming to a parallel definition of artificial emotion as the art of “getting machines to express things that would be considered feelings if expressed by people.”

Some children are open to a robot companion because people are so often disappointing.

“You can only trust a person if you know who they are. You would have to know a person more [than a robot]….You wouldn’t have to know the robot, or you would get to know it much faster.”

The robotic face signals the presence of a self that can recognize another. It puts us in a landscape where we seek recognition. This is not about a robot’s being able to recognize us. It is about our desire to have it do so.

Part II: Networked

“cyborgs”: always wireless connected to the Internet, always online, free from desks and cables.

On social networking sites such as Facebook, we think we will be presenting ourselves, but our profile ends up as somebody else—often the fantasy of who we want to be.

With sociable robots we are alone about receive the signals that tell us we are together. Networked, we are together, but so lessened are our expectations of each other that we can feel utterly alone.

And there is the risk that we come to see others as objects to be accessed—and only for the parts we find useful, comforting, or amusing.

In this new regime, a train station (like an airport, a café, or a park) is no longer a communal space but a place of social collection: people have come together but do not speak to each other. Each is tethered to a mobile device and to the people and places to which that device serves as a portal.

Sometimes people signal their departure by putting a phone to their ear, but it often happens in more subtle ways—there may be a glance down at a mobile device during dinner or a meeting.

What is a place if those who are physically absent have their attention on the absent?

Today, our machine dream is to be never alone but always in control. This can’t happen when one is face-to-face with a person.

The life mix is the mash-up of what you have on-and offline. We have moved from multitasking to multi-lifing.

Mobile technology has made each of us “pauseable.” Our face-to-face conversations are routinely interrupted by incoming calls and text messages.

I notice, along with several of my colleagues, that the students whose laptops are open in class do not do as well as the others [others using notebooks for notes]

We strive to be a self that can keep up with its e-mail.

They [parents who are connected] say they are more stressed than ever as they try to keep up with e-mail and messages. They always feel behind. They cannot take a vacation without bringing the office with them; their office is on their cell phone.

Electronic communication has been liberating, but in the end, “it has put me on a speed-up, on a treadmill, but that isn’t the same as being productive.”

To make time to think would mean turning off our phones.

With sociable robots, we imagine objects as people. Online, we invent ways of being with people that turn them into something close to objects.

As for online life, they see its power—they are, after all risking their lives to check their messages—but they also view it as one might the weather: to be taken for granted, enjoyed, and sometimes endured.

“Sometimes you don’t have time for your friends except if they’re online,” is a common complaint.

If it is always possible to be in touch, when does one have the right to be alone?

Teenagers argue that they should be allowed time when they are not “on call.”

They need to be connected in order to feel like themselves. They cultivate a collaborative self.

Without a firm inner sense of purpose, people looked to their neighbors for validation.

Today, cell phone in hand, other directedness is raised to a higher power. At the moment of beginning to have a thought or feeling, we can have it validated, almost prevalidated.

But now that I had invited strangers into my life, would I invite myself into the lives of strangers?

The ricks, says Stan, Is in “weaving profiles that people can see you are not too crazy…What I learned in high school was profiles, profiles, profiles, how to make a me.”

At the screen, you have a chance to write yourself into the person you want to be and to imagine others as you wish to them to be, constructing them for your purposes.

“You’re going to get your makeup on, put on your cute little outfit, you’re going to take your picture and post it up as your default, and that’s what people are going to expect that you are every day, when really you’re making it up for all these people.”

Change your avatar, change your world.

Online life is practice to make the rest of life better, but it is also pleasure in itself.

In online life, the site supports the self.

“An online apology. It’s cheap. It’s easy. All you have to do is type ‘I’m sorry.’ You don’t have to have any emotion, any believability in your voice or anything. It takes a lot for someone to go up a person and say, ‘I’m sorry,” and that’s when you can really take it to heart.

An online apology is only one of the easy “shortcuts” that the Net provides.

“You wouldn’t want to call because then you would have to get into a conversation.” And conversation, “Well, that’s something where you only want to have them when you want to have them.”

In solitude we don’t reject the world but have the space to think our own thoughts. But if your phone is always with you, seeking solitude can look suspiciously like hiding.

In text, messaging, and e-mail, you can hide as much as you show. You can present yourself as you wish to be “seen.” [in response to why don’t we talk on the phone more].

Acting out and working through: In acting out, you take the conflicts you have in the physical real and express them again and again in the virtual. There is much repetition and little growth.

In working through, you use the materials of online life to confront the conflicts of the real and search for new resolutions.

Nora is bored with her life but not with her Second Life. She says of her online connections, “they are always about something, always about a real interest.” But connections about shared “interests” mean that Nora discards people when her “interests” change.

-“There is always someone else to talk to, someone else to meet. I don’t feel a commitment.”

Mastery over the game world is a sense of joy.

Like playing the guitar in The Beatles: Rock Band, it is not creating but the feeling of creation.

[about games] You’re creating something as you go along with it, but it’s a format that provides you with all the grunt work already, it’s already there, it’s set up, and you just got this little area—it’s a fantasy, it’s a form of wish fulfillment.”

Looking to games for amusement is one thing. Looking to them for a life is another.

Americans face too many choices, but they are not real choices. They provide the illusion of choice—just enough to give a sense of overload, but not enough to enable a purposeful life.

Confessing to a friend might bring disapproval. But disapproval, while hard to take, can be part of an ongoing and sustaining relationship. It can mean that someone cares enough to consider your actions and talk to you about their feelings.

She goes online to feel better, not to make things right. [in regard to confessional sites]

Like a conversation with a robot, online confession appeals because someone silent wants to speak. But if we use these sites to relieve our anxieties by getting them “out there,” we are not necessarily closer to understanding what stands behind them.

Communities are constituted by physical proximity, shared concerns, real consequences, and common responsibilities. Its members help each other in the most practical ways.  –this is not what most communities online are.

Psychoanalytic: not what is true, but what things mean.

We have to love our technology enough to describe it accurately. And we have to love ourselves enough to confront technology’s true effects on us.

In democracy, perhaps we all need to begin with the assumption that every one has something to hide, a zone of private action and reflection, one that must be protected no matter what our techno-enthusiasms.

Thoreau remarks that we are too much in contact with others and in ways that are random. We cannot respect each other if we “stumble over one another.”

Thoreau’s quest inspires us to ask of our life with technology: Do we live deliberately? Do we turn away from life that is not life? Do we refuse resignation?

The most enthusiastic proponents of computer aided design defended hand drawing. When their students began to lose the skill, these professors sent them off to drawing class. It was not about rejecting the computer but about making sure that designers cam e to it with their own values.

A sacred space is not a place to hide out. It is a place where we recognize ourselves and our commitments.

Kevin Kelly asks, “What does Technology Want?” and insists that, whatever it is, technology is going to get it. Accepting his premise, what if one of the things technology wants is to exploit our disappointments and vulnerabilities. When this is what technology wants, it wants to be a symptom.

When technology is a symptom, it disconnects us from our real struggles.

In treatment, symptoms disappear because they become irrelevant. Patients become more interested in looking at what symptoms hide—the ordinary thoughts and experiences of which they are the strangulated expression.

We are not in trouble because of invention but because we think it will solve everything.

Technology gives us more and more of what we think we want.

But if we pay attention to the real consequences of what we think we want, we may discover what we really want. We may want some stillness and solitude. As Thoreau put it, we may want to live less “thickly and wait for more infrequent but meaningful face-to-face encounters.

What are we missing in our lives together that leads us to prefer lives alone together?

We may become intolerant of our own company.

In life, the challenge is not so much to figure out how best to play the game; the challenge is to figure out what game you’re playing.