39 pages 1 hour read

Sherry Turkle

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less From Each Other

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2011

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Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, originally published in 2011, is a work of nonfiction that explores technology’s effect on how humans interact with one another. The book is split into two halves: the first deals with human interactions with sociable robots and the second with the networked connections of social media and virtual worlds.

In the 1970s, Turkle meets ELIZA, a computer program that “engaged in dialogue in the style of a psychotherapist” (22). It acts mostly as a Rorschach that people use to express themselves. The Tamagotchi (digital pets a user must care for as if they are real pets), Furby (small robotic toys programmed to speak their own language at first and more and more English over time, giving the appearance of learning), and AIBO (a robotic dog) of the 1990s are a step beyond ELIZA because they make demands of the user, presenting themselves as ready for a relationship. Turkle interviews many children who bond with these toys as they would with another person.

Turkle goes on to explore the advancing technology of robotics with My Real Baby, a doll able to perform many of the same actions of a human baby. The kids she asks about having a robot babysitter agree that a robot would generally be more efficient and make fewer mistakes. Few children care that it wouldn’t be able to understand them as another human could. Turkle calls this position the “behaviorism of the robotic movement” (72).

In 1994, Turkle meets Cog, who is the first lifelike robot with a fully mobile body. Turkle finds herself involuntarily treating Cog as a person and reacting to him as such. Kismet is another robot who is facially and vocally expressive. Both induce states of kinship in whoever is interacting with them. Turkle studies children’s responses and notes that often their attachments are a product of what they are missing (a strong presence of a parent in many cases).

In Part 2, Turkle aims her gaze at “always-on” communications, such as texting and social media. She sees these forms of communication as capable of making humans more alone in a way. For instance, with texting, one wishes to be alone to focus on what one is going to say.

Turkle looks at chatrooms, Facebook, and online games such as World of Warcraft and Second Life (an online world that allows users to virtually perform the same actions and have the same interactions they might in the real world) to support her idea that while we first might see interactions with other people through these programs as insufficient, we could quickly get used to their “special pleasures—we can have connection where and when we need it,” (160) to the point where we view these as better than the real thing.

Turkle looks at the pressure young people feel to always be available to respond to texts and to tailor their social media profiles. She allows that some level of experimentation with one’s identity is normal for adolescents, but Facebook is oppressive in this regard.

Turkle looks at Adam, who plays lots of video games such as Quake, a first-person shooter game, and Civilization, a game where users develop and oversee their own civilizations. She sees this behavior as finding “a sense of adventure in a zone of predictable action” (228). She feels confession sites like PostSecret devalue atonement by cheapening the process until venting feels like apologizing. Finally, she looks at privacy and how much young people using these technologies think about their privacy—most are content to put it out of mind.

Turkle ends with a conversation with her daughter who is studying in Paris. She mourns the end of a time when one could become completely disconnected from ones’ home and have a thrilling adventure in a new country. Tired of the sparseness of texting, Turkle suggests they begin writing letters to each other, and they do.