Sherry Turkle at the London School of Economics: Alone Together

Last night I attended another fantastic talk at the London School of Economics by MIT professor Sherry Turkle. I was already familiar with her work from my university studies, but she was here in London to discuss the major themes in her latest book; ‘Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less from Each Other.’ Much of her work looks at the human relationship with computers and technology from a psychological perspective, with her earlier works identifying the persona we create using technology and the internet as the second self.

But 15 years ago, before commencing the research for this book, which focuses on the American family and cultural attitudes to technology in the social sphere, she admits that she didn’t expect our public technological personas to exist simultaneously with our private self. This is seen now more than ever, as we spend more time communicating with each other on social networks, avoiding any face-to-face contact with our nearest and dearest. As technology has improved our lives and created simpler modes of communication, we seem to communicate less, in short 140 character messages, and in turn dumb ourselves down also. She argues that our increased reliance on technology it putting the ‘self’ in conflict.

Through technology we enter ‘a zone’, removed from real life. Developers ‘plug in’ to a zone when they are coding. We log in to facebook to connect with others. We are fearful of being disconnected with the world as we know it, if we leave our phones at home we feel naked and without the internet we can not function in our everyday lives. Being forever connected with each other via technology promotes the idea that we can not survive our own solitude, although physically we are alone. People don’t even want to talk to each other in person. I don’t want to talk to people in person half most of the time, so much of these themes she discussed rang true with me.

Some people don’t have a problem with this. For some, the internet persona that we create is a much safer world to exist, where we can control our image by photoshopping our profile pictures and construct our identities through likes and links; “I share, therefore I am”. While this technology is seductive, and some would say is addictive, Turkle argues that it is in fact our perspective of the internet that is actually distorted, particularly as use the online sphere to experiment with our personalities more. We believe what we want to believe, thinking technology will solve our problems, choosing to ignore that the internet in it’s relatively infant state can be easily manipulated can actually cause more harm than good to it’s users. We need to moderate our relationship and dependencies with technology, and some of us defiantly need to have a diet.

Turkle listed many examples to back up her point, such as the World of Warcraft and a 15-year-old’s birthday party, but for me these ideas perfectly echo the themes of the film Catfish. In the film Yaniv, a photographer, by chance builds an online friendship with Abby, who sends him paintings. From this he forms a bond with her sister, who in reality *SPOILER ALERT* turns out to be Abby’s  mother. Angela builds this online life as an escapism is tragically intertwined with the solitude that she feels in her real life, projecting the feelings and the relationship she wants to have with Yuri. Together, they are very alone. The self is in crisis, and has to connect to others to feel safe.

While we may not know it, our relationship with technology allows others to take advantage of our basic human rights. The idea of privacy is a relatively new one, but is grounded by the ideals of democracy. Turkle finished by telling an anecdote of a recent webby award party, where a web luminary used Bentham’s panoptican to argue that privacy is a negative in today’s world as nobody should have anything to hide – which sounds suspiciously like the Zuckerberg school of thought. This is wrong. Everyone should be able to have private ideas and actions as this is what makes us free, and allows us to experiment and grow as people. Assuming people have something to hide criminalises people into self-regulation and is not the basis of a democracy, but a forced dictatorship. With society is forcing it’s own dependency on technology this is breeding ground for a potentially dangerous situation.

While her views may some strike some as dark and gloomy and portrays herself as a luddite, Turkle thinks her views should be seen as refreshingly distant from the utopian interpretation we view on technology. Her book isn’t to say that everything is wrong, but that something has gone a-miss, and we need to take urgent steps before our children have their personal freedom taken away, before it they even knew it existed.

For a better explanation of the ideas described here, check out Turkle’s recent TED talk.

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4 thoughts on “Sherry Turkle at the London School of Economics: Alone Together

  1. I will have a listen to the talk over the weekend, but suffice to say that research points to quite the contrary – people that are social online tend to be even more social off.

    http://technosociology.org/?p=431

    Also most people use the same persona online as off. We all try and look the best we can, but we still have an innate urge to be authentic, even online.

    • Wow, thats a long article! I am not sure if I agree though. For some, I think that the internet can be a safe haven that allows them to get their social needs, and see that as an excuse not to leave the house. Not for everyone mind, but I think Turkle is painting a warning. But this is my personal opinion.

      Most of Turkle’s work looks at the idea of how computers allow us to experiment with our identity. While I agree with you that the majority of us want to be authentic, I think we still choose between usernames or real names, avatars instead of photos to mask or project our online image. This is no more true in the world of internet dating, with people posting 5 year old pictures and lying about the interests and dreams to score a date. Anyone that says they project a true version of themselves online is lying.

  2. OK as promised on Twitter I had a look

    Facebook’s success, the epiphany if you like, were using real identities. It’s part the reason why it blew up.

    In Egypt Facebook’s strength and power to challenge the regime came precisely because people too a risk and used their real identities to protest en masse. Authenticity has real power.

    I read her earlier work and it is interesting. And i am sure if I thought perhaps uncomfortable as a man, that actually I was a woman, ‘pretending’ to be a women online could be interesting and fulfilling in some ways.

    But psychologically humans have an urge to not have many selves, to be seen as an authentic whole. Ultimately until I have had a sex change and I’m accepted as a woman in the real world, their would still be something bugging me. This is not to belittle the chance that online media gives you to explore other identities.

    Most of these broadsides against social media come from westerners, and often people that don’t actually use it. Take Sherry for example. When did she join Twitter? Not even two years ago – she has sent 144 Tweets more than half of which is promoting her book? How many are @mentions? not even 10! Personally I think she took her eye off the ball and is out of touch.

    The dichotomy she presents between online and off is false distinction. Online is not disconnected from who we are in general.

    Even in our daily lives offline we pretend and try and give best appearances. It could be a push up bra. It could be a flattering suit. Online gives us ample opportunity to do give our best appearances. Dating sites are an extreme example. There is no wider community that knows you on a dating site to ‘discipline’ you if your image is too disconnected with how you really are. But even here people will find that they might get lots of dates, but not get laid/ love if the discrepancy is too great.

    Where I agree with Turkle is that people should also present their vulnerable / mundane sides on social media.

    PS: I don’t really look like my avatar above. My Twitter one is more accurate. 🙂 http://twitter.com/wildebees

  3. Opps this sentence:

    In Egypt Facebook’s strength and power to challenge the regime came precisely because people too a risk and used their real identities to protest en masse. Authenticity has real power.

    should have read –

    In Egypt Facebook’s strength and power *as a tool* to challenge the regime came precisely because people too a risk and used their real identities to protest en masse. Authenticity has real power.

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