Connected, but Alone?

Sherry Turkle

Sherry Turkle, a Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT and founder and current director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, ponders the question, "As we expect more from technology, do we expect less from each other?" In a TED Talk, Turkle delves into how our devices and online personas are redefining human connection and communication. Her book, Alone Together, provides a broader understanding to Turkle's thoughts on technology and human interaction.


I Would Rather Text Than Talk

"My daughter just sent me a text right before I came on stage," Turkle said in her 2012 Ted Talk. "It said, "Mom, you're going to rock!" Getting that text, was like getting a hug. Thus, I've embodied the central paradox."

Turkle is excited by technology but appeared on stage in order to make a case that we are letting technology take us to a place we don't want to go. "Little devices are so psychologically powerful," Turkle said. "They change what we do and who we are. It's perceived as, 'I share, therefore I am.'"

Turkle explained that texting, shopping, web-surfing goes on at corporate board meetings, during presentations, before, during, and after classes, between parents at dinner, etc. However, those parents who are texting or emailing during every meal of the day have children who complain about not getting enough attention, and then those children in turn deny attention to one another. People text at funerals in order to remove themselves from grief and now, explained Turkle, there is a new phenomenon where people attempt to make eye contact while they are texting. Why is this such a thing?

"Why does this all matter, though?" Turkle asked. "We're setting ourselves up for trouble. We're getting used to being alone together because people want to be together but also elsewhere. They want to customize their lives and control where they put their attention." Turkle feels that we're all hiding from one another and telling each other that we are the ones who don't want to be interrupted.

Goldilocks Effect

The Goldilocks Effect is the phenomenon that by using technology the way we have been, we are making it so we are not too close, not too far, but just right.

Turkle even came in contact with an 18-year-old boy who said to her, "Someday, someday, but certainly not now, I would like to learn how to have a conversation."

Real Conversations

Having a conversation happens in real time and you can't control what you're going to say. However, on texting, we get to edit, to delete, and to re-touch. The gist, according to Turkle, is that human relationships are rich, demanding and messy. So, we clean them up with technology. In turn, we short-change ourselves.

Texting should be used for gathering discreet bits of info, for saying that you're thinking about someone, or even that you love them. Texting and technology in general shouldn't be for learning about one another or understanding one another. We are compromising our self-reflection.

A Wish

"I heard a wish," said Turkle, " from someone that hoped one day Siri would be a best friend, someone who listens."

Thus, that's why we are on social media, using technology as much as we do and in the ways that we do. If there isn't anyone listening, we turn to Facebook, to Twitter, and so on. There are so many automatic listeners and we want to spend our time with machines, because they are being made to be our companions.

"We are expecting more from technology and less from each other," Turkle stated.

Being Alone

Turkle feels that technology appeals to us most when we are most vulnerable. We reach for a device. We're lonely but we're also afraid of intimacy. Thus, we are creating the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship.

Technology does the following three things:
1. We can put our attention wherever.
2. We are always heard.
3. We are never alone.

Being alone means being anxious, etc. Being alone feels like a problem that needs to be solved, and we define ourselves by sharing our thoughts and feelings as we are feeling them.

"It used to be, 'I'm having a feeling, let me make a call,'" said Turkle. "Now it's, 'I want to have a feeling, let me send a text.'"

Time to Talk

We're smitten with technology, but it's time to talk. If we don't teach our children to be alone, they're only going to learn how to be lonely.

There's plenty of time to reconsider how we use technology. "Solitude is a good thing," suggested Turkle. "Teach it as a value to your children. Reclaim your spaces that were previously occupied with or by techno-logic communications.

We need to listen to each other, even the boring bits. When we stumble, we reveal ourselves to each other.

"Technology can lead us back to our own lives, our own bodies, our own planet; they need us," ended Turkle.


The scary part of this TED Talk was that it was four years ago. So, where are we now?

Alone Together
Sherry Turkle
January 2011
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