Alone Together

Every technology becomes our partner, because we make it, and then it makes and shapes us in return, and it takes a little time for us to see how that process of mutual unfolding goes. Every technology gives us the opportunity to say: Is this technology serving our human values? I think there are ways in which we’re constantly communicating and yet not making enough good connections, in a way that’s to our detriment.

I interviewed lawyers, architects, management consultants, and businessmen. They talk about the volume and the velocity [of communications]. They’re never off; the communication is con-stant; and they talk in terms of 500, 1,000, 1,500 [emails per day]. It’s more life than they can even read, and they say things like, “I can’t even keep up with my life.” When you have that kind of volume and velocity, you start to notice that people ask you questions expecting a quick answer, and you start to ask questions that you can give a quick answer to. The questions can get dumbed down so that the answers will be quick. We’re not necessarily putting our investment in the ties that bind; we’re putting our investment in the ties that preoccupy.

If you get into these email, Facebook thumbs-up/thumbs-down settings, a paradoxical thing happens: even though you’re alone, you get into this situation where you’re continually looking for your next message, and to have a sense of approval and validation. You’re alone but looking for approval as though you were together—the little red light going off on the BlackBerry to see if you have somebody’s validation. I make a statement in the book, that if you don’t learn how to be alone, you’ll always be lonely, that loneliness is failed solitude. We’re raising a generation that has grown up with constant connection, and only knows how to be lonely when not connected. This capacity for generative solitude is very important for the creative process, but if you grow up thinking it’s your right and due to be tweeted and retweeted, to have thumbs up on Facebook, we’re losing a capacity for autonomy both intellectual and emotional.

I think it’s an interesting notion that sharing becomes part of actually having the thought. It’s not “I think therefore I am,” it’s, “I share therefore I am.” Sharing as you’re thinking opens you up to whether the group likes what you’re thinking as becoming a very big factor in whether or not you think you’re thinking well.

For some purposes, simulation is just as good as real. Kids call it being “alive enough.” Making an airline reservation? Simulation is as good as the real. Playing chess? Maybe, maybe not. It can beat you, but do you care? Many people are building robot companions; David Levy argues that robots will be intimate companions. Where we are now, I call it the “robotic moment,” not because we have robots, but because we’re being philosophically prepared to have them. I’m very haunted by these children who talk about simulation as “alive enough.” We’re encouraged to live more and more of our lives in simulation.

Somebody said of email, “It’s the place for hope in life.” It reminds me of how in Jane Austen, carriages are always coming, you’re waiting, it could be Mr. Bingley’s invitation to a ball. There’s some sense that the post is always arriving in Jane Austen. There’s something about email that carries the sense that that’s where the good news will come. I did a hysterical interview with an accountant about why he felt so strongly about his texts. He said he might get a Genius award! I said, “I don’t think they give those to accountants.” And he said, “But you know what I mean.” He was trying to express that anything could happen on email. Anything could happen! I try to figure out what it is that this little red light means to people. I think it’s that place for hope and change and the new, and what can be different, and how things can be what they’re not now. And I think we all want that.

—Sherry Turkle

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3 Responses to “Alone Together”


  1. 1 possum February 3, 2011 at 5:15 am

    A favored song here in Possum Valley has the line, “All our lives you and I have lived together we have lived alone.” Speaks to the separation of too many these days even when they share space.

    Sharing e-space is little akin to sharing real space. In Possum Valley two of the family carry Blackberries. One (the younger) is addicted and the phone lives in his hand. The other (myself) learned early on to limit the notifications and to hit the delete button more often than not.

    Technology can rule our lives or we can choose to limit its intrusion. We have a rule about the landline telephone and mealtime. No answering during meals ever. We refuse to be interrupted from our face time. That was not always a rule but a situation that developed with children and interference over time.

    Like Turkle says, too many people find hope in that next message. Too bad they cannot look at their own life and find the orchids among the weeds.

    • 2 bluenred February 4, 2011 at 7:39 am

      I imagine your various communications devices were pretty busy when you were a congressional candidate. So that you have been able to dial back shows strength of character. ; )

  2. 3 possum February 6, 2011 at 2:49 pm

    I don’t know about strength of character but priorities in life these days are personal interactions. We may touch lives by e-communication but I believe the most lasting and most important effects we may have in this life are on a day to day basis as we travel through life. We set off ripples that one day may become a tsunami.


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