We were unprepared for the fast rise of our digital life. We don’t understand, and maybe don’t recognize, the way our world has changed. And it’s not over. Driverless cars, geriatric-care robots, and augmented reality are some of the technology that could shape our world—and its people—next.
Sherry Turkle, a clinician psychologist and professor at MIT, has spent her career researching how technology is used and how it is changing us. Turkle’s career, spanning the whole digital age, began just before personal computers were in homes. In her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, she examines how technology promises us more connections while severing them at the same time. She shares stories from her 40 years of research, leading her readers to draw their own conclusions about their relationships with technology. And those conclusions should make one extremely uncomfortable.
Alone Together is “about how we are changed as technology offers us substitutes for connecting with each other face-to-face” (11). Turkle examines these changes through our current networked life “with its promise to give us more control over human relationships, and tomorrow’s story of sociable robots, which promise relationships where we will be in control, even if that means not being in relationships at all” (17).
Part one: How we interact with robots
In part one, “The Robotic Moment: In Solitude, New Intimacies,” Turkle considers how people interact with robots and how it starts in the playroom with children’s sociable toys like Furby, My Real Baby, and Tamagotchi. She explains how these toys are different from a computer:
“For decades computers have used us to think with them; these days computers and robots, deemed sociable, affective, and relational, ask us to feel for them and with them” (39). But this isn’t just child’s play. She continues “Roboticists hope we can use their inventions to practice our relationship skills. But . . . more than harmless amusements, they are powerful because they invite our attachment. And such attachments change our way of being in the world” (79).
Story after story from Turkle’s research makes one see how easily people are duped into believing that these sociable robots have feelings and can care for humans the way humans begin to care for them. That experience leads to a lot of people “getting comfortable with the idea that a robot’s companionship is even close to a replacement for a person” (65). Turkle moves from the playroom to observe how adults interact with robots. In her research, people choose robots over human interaction because robots won’t suffer from impatience, frustration, and apathy. They can simulate listening, care, and affection. While robots may ease loneliness, what do they do to us? Turkle finds that “we seem determined to give human qualities to objects and content to treat each other as things” (xiv).
We are called to love one another; we can’t do that if we avoid relationships with one another.
The line between the robotic and human is rapidly blurring. We are beginning to believe that the inanimate have life. We are no longer honest about machines’ indifference toward us because “what robots offer meets our human vulnerabilities. We can interact with robots in full knowledge of their limitations, comforted nonetheless by what must be unrequited love” (133). Turkle’s warnings should cause anyone to consider technology’s role in our lives, but for the Christian, the implications are even greater than her extensive research shows. No technological development can replace the image of God each human bears. We are called to love one another; we can’t do that if we avoid relationships with one another.
Part two: Connected, yet isolated
In part two, “Networked: In Intimacy, New Solitudes,” Turkle observes how online platforms designed for connection are creating more isolation than ever. Networks allow people to maintain (or start) relationships when distance would have previously prohibited it. When my family lived overseas, we thanked God daily for the technology that allowed us to video call our relatives on a different continent. But go to any restaurant now, and you’ll observe people who are sitting together ignoring each other, choosing to focus on their mobile device rather than make conversation with the people in front of them. Professionals feel like they can’t—and maybe don’t want to—disconnect from their work even while on vacation.
Turkle’s research covers a wide variety of platforms, some of which are already outdated in the short time since publication. Despite some the datedness of her research, her findings can be applied to newer mediums because these platforms often still offer connection without commitment. In thinking of online platforms as “communities,” we have lost the meaning of the word: “to give among each other” (238). People find it less work to engage with the virtual world than with real people whom one can’t control or click away. Too often, “the ties we form through the internet are not, in the end, the ties that bind. But they are the ties that preoccupy” (280).
Alone Together is a fascinating read that forces the reader to consider one’s interactions with not only technology but with real, concrete people. I left the book wanting to increase face-to-face interactions and decrease online interactions with others. I want my family to prioritize relationships with people. Nonetheless, the book also left me with more questions than answers. Her practical suggestions at the end are helpful but limited. But maybe that’s the point: we’re best off if we feel the tension of how technology is changing us. We don’t have all the answers, and we need to continue wrestling with this new and present reality.