In company, loneliness

alone together

Book Review
Alone together: why we expect more from technology and less from each other.
Sherry Turkle.
Basic Books, 2011. 360 p.

“Unless that’s the president, get off your phone!” headlines today’s newspaper column written by UW-Madison student Kathleen Brosnan.

“I pretty much secretly despise people who are clicking away at their phone when I’m having a conversation with them.”

Her column in today’s Daily Cardinal illustrates Sherry Turkle’s concern in Alone Together.

Turkle is the Abby Rockefeller Mauze Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT. She’s the founder and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, and a licensed clinical psychologist. She is the author of The Second Self and Life on the Screen.

In Alone Together Turkle shows how today’s always-on social network, with its promise to give us more control over human relationships, actually isolates us.

She also illustrates our vulnerability to sociable robots, which promise relationships where we will be in control, even if that means not being in relationships at all.

Through dozens of case studies, Alone Together shows how we keep expecting more from technology and less from each other. While we defend all this connectivity as a way to be close, we also use it to distance each other.

Alone Together also raises philosophical and ethical questions about using intelligent robots as playthings for children and caretakers for the elderly. This may seem a far stretch, but consider:

In the late 1990s children began playing with objects that presented themselves as having feelings and needs. Tamagotchis and Furbies sold in the tens of millions. They would tell you if they were hungry or unhappy. Children interacted with them as they would a pet or a human.  They identified with the doll before them, all the while knowing that it is “only a machine.”

The elderly, meanwhile, find comfort and “companionship” in Paro, a small, seal-like sociable robot developed at MIT’s AgeLab. In 2002 the Guinness Records pronounced it “the most therapeutic robot in the world,” in part because it was part of Japan’s initiative to use robots to support senior citizens. In 2009, Denmark placed an order for one thousand Paros for elder-care facilities, even though the price tag as $6,000 per unit.

For Turkle, Paro and other companion robots raise the question, “Don’t we have people for these jobs?” Have we come to think of the elderly as nonpersons who do not require the care of persons”? Perhaps those who suffer from dementia need the most human attention, not the least. And if we assign machine companionship to Alzheimer’s patients, who is next on the list?

Turkle challenges us to take a very critical look at our intelligent companions, whether dolls or smart phones, and to consider the consequences of using them as substitutes for genuine human communication.

I close with one of Turkle’s many powerful anecdotes: Hannah, a high school junior, says that for years she has tried to get her mother’s attention when her mother comes to fetch her after school or after dance lessons. Hannah says, “The car will start; she’ll be driving still looking down, looking at her messages, but still no hello.”  Parents say they are ashamed of such behavior but quickly get around to explaining, if not justifying it, They say they are more stressed than ever as they try to keep up with email messages.


2 Responses to In company, loneliness

  1. Angela Lewis says:

    Thanks for the review, I’ve admired Sherry Turkle’s writing. I didn’t realise she has a new book and am checking it out right now!

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