Connectivity and Its Discontents

A book review by Edward Cornish

Once a cheerleader for new electronic technologies, an MIT professor now worries about their long-term effects.

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Ourselves by Sherry Turkle. Basic Books. 2011. 360 pages. $28.95.

Sherry Turkle, a clinical psychologist and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has spent more than 15 years studying the relationship of humans with robots and other electronic technologies. Once a techno-cheerleader, she now questions whether our relationship with new electronic technologies will work out well over the long run.

“Technology now reshapes the landscape of our emotional lives,” Turkle writes in her new book, Alone Together, “but is it offering us the lives we want to lead? Many roboticists are enthusiastic about having robots tend to our children and aging parents, for instance. Are these psychologically, socially, and ethically acceptable propositions?… And are we comfortable with virtual environments [e.g., Second Life] that propose themselves not as places for recreation but as new worlds to live in?”

Overwhelmed by demands on our time, says Turkle, we turn to technologies that promise to help us but in fact make us more harried than ever, so we eagerly escape to the Web. “Then, we gradually come to see our life on the Web as life itself!”

Technologies like BlackBerrys and cell phones do connect us to friends all over the world, and robots can serve us as helpers, friends, lovers, and playthings. But such technologies also impose serious costs.

One problem is that these technologies distract us from attending to the people we are actually with. Coming home after a long day, a schoolteacher talks to a robot dog because her husband is too busy on his cell phone to listen to her.

Children longing for a bit of “quality time” with their parents find that mothers are online chatting with faraway friends while fathers text-message during Sunday dinner.

Meanwhile, in schools, students update their Facebook status instead of listening to teachers.

Affectionate Robots, Dialed-Down Friends

Deprived of meaningful contact with human friends, many people now turn to robot pets such as the Furby—a highly sociable, owl-like robot that plays games and seems to learn to speak English as its owner plays with it.

A robot owl or other pet that can speak soothingly to older people at bed time can be a comfort to many people, both old and young. So in a few years, airlines may routinely distribute Furbies, Tamagotchis, and other sociable robots to passengers wanting to get a little rest and relaxation on long overseas flights.

At the same time, we may be losing the real human touch of other people, even as we try to stay more connected: “I don’t use my phone for calls any more,” reports a college student. “I don’t have the time to just go on and on. I like texting, Twitter. Looking at someone’s Facebook wall, I learn what I need to know.”

Young people now expect to be continuously connected to their friends wherever they are and to be always “on.” Meanwhile, people have become increasingly impatient with dealing face to face with other people. Hardly anybody now seems to have time for a relaxed conversation; instead, people compulsively text-message while driving to work, despite the risk.

Alone Together

offers a wealth of information about the numerous uses being made of new technologies, but Turkle does not offer a clear answer to the problems she describes. It seems highly unlikely that these technologies will disappear (unless they are replaced by even more powerful technologies) or that people will refrain from using them in ways that many of us will not always be happy with.

On the other hand, a glance at history reveals that major technological innovations have frequently alarmed the contemporary world when they first appeared but became completely accepted as time passed.

About the Reviewer

Edward Cornish is founding editor of THE FUTURIST and the World Future Society’s futurist-in-residence.