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BreakPoint This Week: Alone Together


John Stonestreet interviews Sherry Turkle, author of "Alone Together," about how technology is changing our relationships, and how we can respond.

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This broadcast was originally aired on January 26, 2013.

Communication technology; it's made life so much easier, from smart phones to tablets, from texting to Facebook. It's all upside without any downside, right? Uh, wrong. During today's broadcast, John Stonestreet welcomes Dr. Sherry Turkle, author of "Alone Together," to discuss both the good aspects and the potential pitfalls of modern communication.

turkle
Dr. Sherry Turkle
Technology really can be a double-edged sword. It can make learning easier, but tougher because of distractions; communication faster, but less personal. And who among us hasn't gawked at a family sitting around the dinner table, each lost in their own mobile device, chatting with people far away? Dr. Sherry Turkle, a professor of social studies and science and technology at MIT, has had her finger on the pulse of technology and culture since the first computers hit the market. She has been hailed as a forecaster of advances in communication, as well as how our relationships with machines alter our relationships with one another.

Author of several books on the subject, including "Life on the Screen," (1997), "The Second Self," (2005), and her latest, "Alone Together," Dr. Turkle has provided a rare, decades-long social commentary on the effect of computers and mobile communication throughout the life of these still young technologies.

Turkle is not a Luddite. She expresses great admiration and thankfulness for the advances and conveniences things like the internet, smart phones, and social media have brought us. But she has long insisted that technology unbridled by values and self-restraint makes us into its slaves, rather than the opposite. We must deliberately prioritize our humanity, she argues, in order to keep from becoming lost in our own artificial identities, and most importantly, to avoid losing touch with one anotheran ironic fear in an age of unprecedented connectedness.

"I go out to dinner with friends, and it's not an unusual experience for people to be constantly checking their text messages," says Turkle. "I just finished teaching a class in which you could see students struggling not to check their text messages. I stand in the back of large lecture halls, and students are texting and going on Facebook. People text at church! I studied this. And you ask them why and they sort of say, 'I can't not!' And that's where the title of my book, 'Alone Together' comes from."

This hyper-connectedness and addiction to multitasking, says Turkle, is robbing us not only of focused and meaningful interactions with others, but of our ability to be in the here and now.

"People want to be with each other and present with each other," she explains, "but they also want to use technology to be elsewhere... We're having fewer conversations, and more connection. But connection and conversation are not the same thing."

The result is a type of relational isolation no generation has ever known.

"The prediction you make," recalls John Stonestreet, speaking of Dr. Turkle's book, "is that we've actually become people who will choose artificial, digital or electronic relationships over real ones, because our relational skill set will be so poor, that all we'll want our of relationships will be empathy. We'll just want someone to acknowledge our feelings and our emotions, but we don't want anything to be required of us."

But we have a choice. As Dr. Turkle points out, current trends are taking us in the wrong direction. When people would rather text than talk, and prefer other forms of asynchronous, controlled communication to the unpredictable, personal and realistic interaction of a phone call or a face-to-face chat, we're setting ourselves up for loneliness and relational shallowness.

"Face-to-face conversation is hard," she says. "An apology is hard. Think about how hard it is to really apologize, and how easy it is to type, 'I'm sry.' and hit 'send.' ...What people want is a much more superficial connection."

This desire for superficiality, argues Turkle, is ultimately about maintaining control over impressions others form of us, and protecting the edited image we so carefully construct of ourselves online and through other limited forms of communication.

"I think we're getting used to projecting ourselves," she says, "whether it's in a Facebook profile, in an email or in a text. [It's] that feeling of being able to edit and control. And by putting that value first, I think we're shortchanging ourselves. We're forgetting what a conversation is."

What's the solution? Well, as someone who has surveyed the rise of communication technology since the 1970s and praised its potential, Dr. Turkel believes we have a distinct choice whether to take control of it or allow it to control us. And while she discourages us from overreacting and chucking our smart phones and tablets out the window, Dr. Turkle has some specific proposals to regain mastery of our lives and our relationships, especially in the home.

"If you have children, you need to start to say, 'Dinner, breakfast; no texting.' These are sacred spaces in your home where it's time for conversation. And I think the best advice to give to parents is that the car is a sacred space! I feel very strongly about this. You need to have, in your family, sacred space for conversation."

She stresses that hers is not a call to asceticism or nostalgia. Like most innovations, the digital age is morally neutral. It is how we choose to use such new tools as the internet and mobile communication that ultimately matters. And deciding to shut off our computers, put down our phones, and log out of our social networks for deliberate time with the human beings in our lives, believes Turkle, will ultimately enhance our enjoyment of both worlds.

"I love technology! But we have to be in the driver's seat with it," she says. "We can't be letting it tell us what to do."




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