Feature

Book of the week: Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other by Sherry Turkle

Turkle is concerned that people seem to prefer simulations of human interaction to the real thing.

(Basic Books, 360 pages, $28.95)

A funny thing happens when scientists who build robots try to leave their labs at night, said Rafael Behr in the London Guardian. According to MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle, who has long studied such relationships, many of our modern-day Geppettos actually feel pained about leaving their creations “alone” for several hours. And this tendency to anthropomorphize machinery is in no way unusual. One reason robots are being developed to care for the elderly or babysit the young is that researchers have discovered that a machine only has to act a little bit clever for human beings to instinctively “play along.” What troubles Turkle, who was once an optimist about technology’s effects, is that more and more of us now seem to prefer simulations of human interaction to the real thing.

When Turkle leaves robots aside—as she does halfway through this book—her worries about interactive technology “aren’t exactly new,” said Eric Felten in The Wall Street Journal. Plenty of other authors have warned that by tethering ourselves to our smartphones and computer screens, we are “crowding out time for family and friends.” But Turkle has spent more than a decade interviewing teenagers and college students, and today she finds many of them using Facebook, Twitter, or instant messaging to construct barriers to the display of honest emotion. Even though the average teen now spends more than seven hours a day using one technological device or another, many are also growing uneasy about always being in a “performance” mode, about living in a state Turkle describes as being “there but not there.”

Turkle worries too much, said William Kist in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. To her, we are all Goldilocks-like creatures now: She says we’ve become “people who take comfort in being in touch with a lot of people” whom we also “keep at bay.” But what about the countless “meaningful reconnections” between old friends that technology has enabled? Because Alone Together ignores or downplays such stories, it feels both “one-sided and dated.” Yet Turkle isn’t all gloom and doom, said Fred Bortz in The Seattle Times. She’s actually encouraged by some teens she interviewed because they are making efforts to impose limits on their online lives and reclaim a more private existence. Maybe it’s not too late for the rest of us to do the same.

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