Transcript for Sherry Turkle on "Alone Together"

Jim Fleming: MIT Professor Sherry Turkle’s been studying the ways we interact with machines since 1984 through her books “The Second Self’ and “Life on the Screen’. Now Turkle’s released the third book in this trilogy . “Alone Together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other’. While researching the book Turkle came across an expression  she’d never heard before- “life-mix’, the mash-up of online and offline lives. She tells Anne Strainchamps that the phrase made her realise something new.

Sherry Turkle: We’ve gone from multitasking to multi-lifeing. What I didn’t see in 1995 is that the interpenetration of physical and virtual is to the point that we are living a life-mix of what’s in the physical and what’s in the virtual, and I think that’s genuinely new. And that can only come if you have a device with you that lets you literally be at dinner with your friends, looking up, and looking down then a moment at your Blackberry and doing something in your virtual world, doing something on the screen, texting, doing something on facebook, that your life is a mixture of what you do in the real and in the virtual. And that’s how we live now, and that I think is something where we need to mark the moment because it’s not necessarily a heroic moment, because it means that we’re not giving each other full attention in the physical in a way that may be very detrimental to our physical relationships.

Anne Strainchamps: I guess I’m wondering if this necessarily has to be a bad thing because I would imagine that when the printed book came along people might have had similar complaints, you know, you could be in the same room and there’s someone sitting reading a book, and in their head they’re far away from the rest of you in the room.

Turkle: That’s such an excellent point, and I think that those were exactly the kinds of objections that were made, that peoples’ attentions were elsewhere. I think the difference now is that  we have an opportunity to bail out to other relationships with active demands, people with active demands on us and claims on us, whenever the going kind of gets tough in our relationships with people who are in our lives and in the room in a way that a book does not. Characters in a book have their hold on you, but you have to volunteer for duty, in a way, to them. I’ll give you a couple of examples, some dark and some not so dark, because they don’t all have to be dark. I was at a funeral, people at a funeral party are hiding their Blackberries under the funeral program, and they’re texting. And it didn’t just happen once, it happened several times, and many people have spoken to me about similar experiences they have had. It’s about not taking a moment, at the times when we need to be most present to each other. It’s not just about letting our attention wander; it’s about forgetting the point of the exercise, which is to be with each other at the times that count. To take a time that’s less dark, I was speaking to someone who was talking about a 15 year old’s birthday party, and  here’s an example of something where everybody who’s ever been 15, or has a 15 year old, know that there’s a point in this party where everybody wants to go home, and part of being 15 and successfully getting to be 16 is that, 15 year olds have to fight through that moment and learn how to get along with each other, and to make it work with each other. But at this 15 year old’s birthday party everybody could just, y’know, get on their facebook and be elsewhere, and not have to deal with each other. And this option, to not just ignore each other but to really find an active social place in the world that doesn’t include each other; I think that is genuinely new.

Strainchamps: I can imagine being 15 and finding that an incredible relief, I mean instead of sitting in a room and feeling really awkward and worrying that the people you’re with maybe don’t like you, you could go online and have a quick hit, talk to some people who you know like you.

Turkle: But a lot of the things that develop mostly most important, and here’s maybe the bad news, are those difficult things that, you have to get through, and find a way to talk to the people who are around you? This is actually an important social skill that kids are not learning now and it might be a relief for a moment, but knowing that you can in fact work your way through that moment is a very important part of adolescent development.

Strainchamps: Do you see developmental benefits to some of the social technology we have now?

Turkle: Yes, I think there’s plusses and there’s minuses. I mean this technology gives and it takes away, it changes some of the rules of the game in ways that are new. One of the things that it does is, for example, it allows you to bring forward relationships that you’ve had before and not have these big shifts when you move form junior high to highschool, and then highschool to college. So you can keep friends who’ve nurtured you, and relationships that you;ve nurtured, you can keep those people with you, which can be very nice. And that of course means that there’s continuity in your friendships, and that’s a good thing. It comes however, and this again is just thinking in terms of development and coms of the costs, is that some teenagers talk about the downside of that. For example in “Alone Together’ I talk to one teenager who talks about how “Wow, didn’t it used to be that when you started college, you could, like, reinvent yourself”which you really can’t do if all your friends come along with you. You’re not going to reinvent yourself and start fresh and new if you’ve brought all your highschool friends along. The possibilities for reinvention are dramatically limited, if that’s the case.

Strainchamps: You also have one chapter called “The Nostalgia of the Young’, suggesting that as much as we always think that it’s children and teenagers who adore the new technology and find no downside to it, that in fact some of them have some very specific complaints about personal technology.

Turkle: Yes, what young people mostly miss, and I think it’s something that some grownups are starting to miss, which is why I’m guardedly optimistic that there’s going to be some time to make the corrections, is they miss having what they call full attention, both the full attention of their parents, and I would have to say the attention of their peers. They know that when they make a call or they send a text, they’re sharing their friend’s attention with everything else that’s happening on the street. Everybody else who’s sending a message to their friends, everything else, all the other shopping that’s being done by their friend as they’re walking along and they miss that sense that they have full attention. These are kids that grew up having their parents push them on a swing with one hand and do their email with the other, these are kids whose parents, you know, on the one hand they’re watching the game on Sunday with them, on the other hand they’re also doing their email while theyre watching the game, so I thought this book was going to end being a book about teenagers who text and how it drives their parents crazy, and it turns out it was a book about parents driving their teenagers just as crazy with their texting habits. So it’s a complicated story.

Strainchamps:  One of the issues here has to do with the definition of intimacy and the way it’s changing. I was struck that there’s a moment in the book when you watch some highschool students pass cellphones around the cafeteria, and they were sharing and comparing photos and messages, and you were struck by the thought that traditionally the development of intimacy required privacy, spending time alone with somebody is how you get to know them, but that’s not true anymore, intimacy is something that happens more in public now.

Turkle: Well there are two things that I ask. Mark Zuckerberg has recently said that privacy is part of the discourse of, uh, is no longer a relevant social norm. And I ask two questions, I say what is intimacy without privacy and what is democracy without privacy, because I think that both democracy and intimacy really require a notion of intimacy.

Strainchamps: Why does democracy require privacy?

Turkle: Well I tell a story of my grandmother taking me down to the mailboxes when I was a kid, and pointing  to them and saying, y’know, “In this country the government doesn’t open your mail, it’s a federal offense for the government to open your mail, and that’s why we’re here, that’s a democracy. The government in the old country, it spies on its citizens, in this country it’s a federal offense for the government to open the mail, and that’s what makes this country great”. And that was a thrilling moment for me, the notion that there’s a zone of privacy around each individual, and I think that that’s very much part of how free citizens live.

Strainchamps: Of course there are people who say “Well, just don’t do anything bad, then you have nothing to hide”.

Turkle: I know, and that is the new discourse of the internet, and I don’t think that is how people in a free civil society live. That’s a very demagogic discourse. That is not the way Americans have traditionally thought about what it meant to live in a democracy. I think we need to talk about these things, to have the head of a social networking company say “There’s no need for privacy”is not enough for me. I feel very strongly that these are conversations that need to happen. Similarly the congress decided that laptops and cellphones and smartphones should all be brought into the house of congress and, it’s a deliberative body but everybody should be using them during sessions of congress. And again I think that’s a decision waiting for conversation. When my students do that they’re shopping and they’re downloading music, and…

Strainchamps: Right, so do we want our elected representatives emailing or texting or online shopping when they’re supposed to be paying attention to laws.

Turkle: I tweeted, I very rarely tweet, but when I heard about this decision I said “This is a decision that’s looking for conversation”. We really need to think about when we need to deliberate, when we need to just be with each other. I think the questions is not turning off our technology, not giving it away, this is wonderful technology but it needs to be put in its place, and sometimes we need really just need to be with each other, and give each other our full attention. And that’s the sense that I fear that we’re losing and we need to refocus on.

Jim Fleming: Sherry Turkle’s the author of “Alone Together: why we expect more from technology and less from each other’. She spoke with Anne Strainchamps.


Comments for this interview