Book Review

Why we’re more connected, yet more isolated than ever

Sherry Turkle on technology and relationships

October 24, 2019

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.

Jessica Burke

Jessica Burke is married to her high school sweetheart, and they have four children. The Burkes lived in Skopje, Macedonia, as missionaries for three years before moving to North Carolina where Jessica’s husband is a chaplain at a local jail and a pastor. A former public school teacher, Jessica home educates her … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24