By Rob Clowes
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The social web: Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, and the host of other technologies that invite us to connect to each other through a variety of internet-based interfaces seem to be technologies that provoke existential questions. Who are we? What are we? Where are we going? Some, such as novelist Zadie Smith, even see the new tech as creating a new sort of person: People 2.0.
Only a few years back, this kind of questioning may have had an optimistic flavour, but now things seemed to have turned around. We may even be in the midst of an internet backlash, with a series of prominent writers and commentators: Susan Greenfield (2008), Nicholas Carr (2008; 2010), Viktor Mayer-Schönberge (2011) and even virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier (2010) writing high profile books or articles lamenting the possible and actual dehumanising effects of the internet. Given the social designation given to the new web, it at first seems paradoxical to claim that Web 2.0 could be undermining something about our social nature, yet this is precisely what is being claimed. So is this really the case? Sherry Turkle takes up exactly these questions in Alone Together.
Who is Sherry Turkle? She began an article written for Wired magazine back in 1996 by explaining:
There are many Sherry Turkles… There is the “French Sherry,” who studied poststructuralism in Paris in the 1960s. There is Turkle the social scientist, trained in anthropology, personality psychology, and sociology. There is Dr Turkle, the clinical psychologist. There is Sherry Turkle the writer of books.
The article, written shortly after the publication of her 1995 book Life on the Screen went on to analyse the new internet technology and the experiments in self-construction and self-experimentation she saw it making possible. The book, was the second part—Alone Together being the third—of what is now a trilogy of books Turkle has written over the last three decades which chronicle the transformation of computer technology from a tool for research scientists to a part of our everyday life and also a master metaphor which now plays a central role in our conception of mind, knowledge, and ourselves.
Arriving at MIT in the 1970s, Turkle became obsessed with how the new computer model of mind transformed our self understanding. Turkle, schooled in the psychoanalytic tradition, came as an outsider to the computational model of mind, but this did not stop her becoming one of the most influential analysts of how folk-psychology (the intuitive way that human beings think about and interpret minds) was being radically reshaped by work in the computational cognitive science and especially people´s interactions with the new computer-based technologies.
She was on the scene not only as the personal computer revolution was taking place, but as artificial intelligence became (albeit temporally) core to the project of understanding the mind. It was also at MIT that some of the most important theoretical and practical work on robotics has been undertaken over the past 40 years, perhaps culminating (at least in prestige terms) with Rodney Brooks stewardship of the humanoid robotics lab since the mid 1990s. Brooks robots rather than based on an older Good Old-Fashioned Artificial Intelligence (GOFAI)—or reasoning-based artificial intelligence—model of being programming robots to build detailed internal models of world coupled with sophisticated logic-based inferential engines, instead build ‘creatures’: robots which aimed to replicate animal level (especially at first insect level) intelligence which rather than reason about the world sort to dynamically respond to it (see eg, Rodney Brooks, 1991 and 1999; Rodney Brooks et al., 1998).
A major part of Turkle’s research method over this time was ethnographic. She lived among the computer scientists, roboticions, and AI researchers of MIT. Her influential 1995 book Life on the Screen held that the newly-created internet allowed us unprecedented possibilities for developing and experimenting with our sense of self through our interactions and use of constructed online identities through avatars. It focused on the use of the then nascent internet and gave a deal of attention to the users of the pre-eminent virtual world technology of the day: ‘Multi-user dungeons’ (MUDs). Computer pioneers created multi-user text-based virtual worlds (often sword and sorcery based—hence dungeon) in which through an avatar it was possible to interact with others, all made possible by the new network computers.
Turkle, leaning heavily on her psychoanalytic background and Eric Erikson’s ideas about personality formation, was enthusiastic about the online world of MUDs and the possibilities they afforded people to experiment through their online identities with their sense of self. Such experiments often involved creating other-gendered avatars but allowed users the possibility to explore the possibilities for presenting as people (or other beings) with radically different personalities. Broadly, she saw this as having at least in principle a therapeutic character, and endorsed (indeed was a principle developer of) the then highly fashionable notion that we were all decentred and plural selves which the strictures of contemporary society forced into a debilitating unity. She believed that users of MUDs were writing themselves into a new form of being through their fantasy world, which at least could have potentially beneficial effects in RL (real life, the acronym being used by MUD players of the time).
Turkle is now the Abby Rockefeller Mauze Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology in MIT’s Program in Science, Technology and Society. She has a unique position at perhaps the foremost world hub of technological research and is one of the world’s most respected authorities on the subjective side of our relationship with computer technology.
Given this history, it perhaps comes as something as a surprise that Turkle has taken such a turn against technologies which are in many ways the direct descendents of those that she viewed in ultimately hopeful ways only a decade or so ago. She now views Facebook, Twitter, etc. as really anti-social technologies which are undermining human capacities for empathy, intimacy, and are ultimately challenging our abilities and desires to engage with other human beings. For Turkle, we are becoming alone together because, while we are ever more connected to each other by parallel channels of communication technology, that same technology is now inviting us to step back from deep engagements with each other and be satisfied with something altogether more shallow.
In Alone Together, Turkle once again attempts to chart the subjective side of our relationships with computer technology. While ‘the self’ and especially its online avatars remain at the core of Turkle’s interests, her opinion of what the new tech is doing for the self has been radically downgraded. While in her first two books on this theme she was broadly optimistic about the potential for self-exploration offered by MUDs, she has become pessimistic about how successor technologies now threaten to diminish and dehumanise us.
The main theme of the new book is that the extension of the technologies Turkle examined in the 1980s and 1990s, are, rather than setting us free into a newly experimental selves, in fact diminishing our abilities to relate to each other, and, at the limit, in danger of undermining our humanity. Turkle contends that intimacy is an increasingly problematic area for 21st century people and we are likely to take refuge from these our difficulties with ‘the Other’ when shielded by a variety of technologies. She believes we are becoming immured to our isolation, settling for interactions with rather than through our technology, and are dangerously close to withdrawing from social contact altogether. It is a dour view indeed. All of this begs the question: what has changed?
Part of the answer according to Turkle is a profound change in how we regard and encounter some of our technologies. In essence, we have stopped treating them instrumentally as tools, but as significant others in themselves. The first half of the book looks at our, and especially children’s, relations with ‘sociable’ robots. In this category, Turkle includes everything from the once ubiquitous Tamagotchi (irritating and needy electronic toys for children that ‘die’ if not regularly ‘fed’), through Furbies (moderately responsive fury robots from late 1990s that burble to entertain children), the sony AIBO (moderately expensive cat/dog robot which had some sophisticated visual recognition abilities and which was used as development platform by universities until Sony discontinued it) to Paro (creepy seal-like robot targeted mainly at providing some companionship for the elderly). She also includes the sophisticated humanoid research robots COG and KISMET produced at MIT in order to study embodied intelligence in human beings.
Turkle’s research over the last dozen years has involved observing and documenting how mainly children, but also the elderly, relate to and understand these technologies. Children and the elderly are indeed the main market segments that the sociable robot manufacturers are looking at and indeed Rodney Brooks even back in 2002 saw robots are carers for the elderly, at least in Japan, as a major future application of robotics (Rodney Brooks, 2002). Some at the time saw this as in part desperation as visions of robots in home never really been quite realised. Since that time, battlefield robots (drones etc.) have proved a valuable source of funding for the further development of ‘creatures’. Turkle was present at MIT through one of the most dynamic phases of the humanoid robotics lab run by Brooks.
Brooks’ idea—as we have seen—was not to focus on symbolic intelligence (formal logic driven reasoning and decision making) but instead on creatures which was to replicate insect-level intelligence, but more than this build reactive robots whose behaviour was based on online dynamic interactions in the world more than offlline reasoning. It is the progeny of Brooks outlook, the robots of MIT laboratory in all their embodied and dynamic glory, which are the backdrop to Turkle´s meditation on technology and what it means to be human.
It was a natural extension of this approach to attempt to build social robots who, rather than attempt to deeply understand minds, attempt to respond in ways that might be interpreted as social by interacting with human movement and gesture. One of Brooks’ students, Cynthia Breazeal, built a robot Kismet more or less to play on human emotions and invite the projection of complex mental states on them.
In many ways Kismet, if not a particularly clever robot, was a very clever robot design. Kismet with its big eyes and cutesy features reminiscent of Gizmo the Mogwai from the film Gremlins attracted interaction first because of its sympathetic appearance and because of its responsiveness to social cues. Kismet was designed to dynamically interact with people by registering superficial aspects of their behaviour such as how fast they moved, how close they got to the robot, how quietly or loudly they spoke, and use these variables as control parameters for its movement and chattering. It also implements a system of artificial emotions which regulate how it responds to its various interactions. Central to Kismet’s control was that it internally modelled emotions; really just certain numeric thresholds which could trigger the modulation of a behaviour.
Kismet, who I met’ on a visit to MIT some years back, is one of the most interesting of the MIT robots. Truly an evocative object in Turkle´s sense, Kismet’s design was based on not trying to model deep features of social intelligence, but instead by being a dynamic interactive partner able to elicit and respond to emotional cues. There is undoubtedly something interesting about the human capacity or need to project complex psychological states onto technology and robots, and Kismet brilliantly exploited this phenomenon. Back in the 1970s, the philosopher Daniel Dennett coined the term the intentional stance for the ways that human beings interpret not just humans, but other animals, the forces of nature and under some circumstances. Kismet appeared to have emotions because it was able to interact responsively by picking up on clever but superficial aspects of human behaviour.
For Turkle, these encounters have serious implications, because the children who she interviewed and observed as they played with the MIT robots understand these encounters not as imaginative play in a traditional sense (involving the psychology of projection) but treat the robots as though they are themselves significant Others (the psychology of engagement). Essentially, children relate to them not as toys but as playmates.
Referring to these childhood encounters with Tamagotchi, Furbies but also the range of sociable research robots being pioneered at MIT, Turkle worries we are all starting to treat technology as though it were a social other in itself. The idea is that we have become—or may soon become—so habituated to interactions with robots (and game characters) that we have started to prefer these constrained interactions to the possibilities with humans. But the robots are not Others but are clever facsimilies, designed to play on our tendencies to project mindfulness onto anything that has the right kind of responsiveness profile.
That analysis of sociable robots is fascinating, but offering this as part of an explanation of our supposed social withdrawal which seems highly problematic, perhaps mainly because the general public’s encounters with such robots has been so limited. Moreover, it is by no means clear that even children’s experience with the MIT robots have so far muddled them about what real and ersatz emotions in general. Turkle’s many interviews with children demonstrate is they have a tendency to project mindfulness onto machines, which as we have seen, was already a much-commented-on phenomenon (children are particularly good of course at sustaining such projections in play).
Moreover, given the prime place set for robots—which are far more capable and personable than anything yet invented—in children’s fiction, it is hardly surprising that when confronted with Kismet, or even tamagotchi, children are willing to suspend disbelief and treat them as social others, at least in play. But this is not really evidence that outside the play setting or as children mature into adults with a more sophisticated understanding of real minds, that they are likely to be content with relationships with only virtual social partners. What is more, Turkle offers little evidence that this is really happening. If we have become content to retreat from real social encounters with people to ersatz ones with robots, then the explanation lies elsewhere.
The second part of Turkle´s answer is that the current crop of social technologies have changed and now rather than offering us opportunities to experiment and develop, they tend to constrain and diminish us. Each chapter of the second half of her book chronicles ways in which we are purportedly being diminished by practically every social technology developed in the last ten years. Chapter 8 argues that thanks to our access to mobile connections, we feel unable to switch off—we have become ‘always-on’. Unable to disengage ourselves enough from our gadgets and mobile devices, we ourselves have dissipated our attention and our ability to be with others have diminished. Chapter 9, ‘Growing up Tethered’ discusses how we (but especially children) find ourselves tied to the profiles set up on various social networking sites to diminishing effect. Chapter 10 claims that having becoming habituated to the controllability of the new social technologies, many teens are withdrawing from even talking by the telephone as they have become uneasy with the rich expressive power of voice. Chapter 11 through 13 continue this theme of how we all supposedly being reduced through the constraints offered by the new media and that has brought with it the widespread experience of presentation anxiety as we find it difficult to live up to the claims of our online profiles or are constantly driven to massage our online presence. We have become, she believes, tethered to our use of social network sites in such a way that our ability to have rich relationships with others and ultimately ourselves is being diminished.
Many of Turkle’s reservations coalesce around the traces we unavoidably leave when we use social network sites and how this tends to limit and restrict us. She worries that the young in particular will fail to develop properly as socialised people, their future possibilities tethered to online profiles which retain information about them that they might otherwise wish to forget. Referring to the work of Erik Erikson, Turkle believes that we are all constantly going through stages of identity development. Erikson claimed that adolescents need to experience a phase where they can experiment with who they are essentially without consequences: a social moratorium (where actions had few consequences for later life and consequently the sort of self exploration she once championed is foreclosed).
Most of what goes on through Facebook and other social network sites is really a kind of pimping one’s profile, or ‘self’ (the persona one adopts). Turkle has a whole chapter on how teens obsess about to what to write on their Facebook profiles. She also thinks that these profiles are avatars (which in a sense they are, but only in a very thin sense). Yet it is far from clear that this is all teens are really doing on SNSs or that they are as constrained in quite the way that Turkle insists. To be fair, one’s teenage years are of course deeply involved with projecting a certain (ideally a cool) persona and it is unsurprising then that Facebook etc. are used by teens for these purposes. But Turkle is wrong if this is all the teens are doing. They are of course negotiating their relationships with others and looking for a space unconstrained by too much adult intervention to do this.
Turkle claims teens today are unable to experience ‘normal’ teenage years because SNS have cancelled the moratorium. Even teens who have not experienced anything different feel what they have lost, she calls them the nostalgic young (Chapter 14) for they are wish for a previous simpler (golden) age where their parents were not always distracted by mobile phones and where they were not oppressed by the needs to continually keep up with the personae they are trying to project through various online avatars.
For those who keep up with research on social network sites, there is a glaring omission in Turkle’s book. It takes no account at all of the work of her main rival: dana boyd (yes, she really does spell her name in lower case). Boyd came to prominences in the light of her (2008) PhD work Taken out of Context: American Teen Sociality in Networked Contexts and is now a researcher for Microsoft. The reason that the absence of any attempt to deal with boyd´s work is so striking is that boyd´s work also deals with teens and their experience of social network software but comes to radically different conclusions from Turkle. Boyd´s work covers the experience of young adults some of the same age rages as Turkle, yet, whilst Turkle find a fragile and vulnerable bunch of teens, boyd finds teens resourcefully using social network sites to stake out a little autonomous space for themselves against a background of increased adult surveillance and reduced autonomous space for themselves.
Reading the excerpts of Turkle’s interviews with her subjects, one would indeed assume that teens are those very fragile being she suggests. Yet as boyd makes clear, teens are using these technologies in order to negotiate challenges that are all too similar to what the rest of us face. Social network technologies are irrevocably leaky technologies, technologies that encourage us to interact and give perhaps more than we might like, but that does not stop us attempting to use them to address real problems. While no one would doubt that teens do spend a lot of time thinking about how they are seen by others, Turkle expands this frame of reference to obscure what they are actually doing with the technology.
For boyd, teenagers have only existed in the later part of the 20th century; they, and their particular problems, are a social construction. This is helpful, I think, as the very idea that there is a natural state for teens is in many ways mistaken. Moreover, body notes that teens continue to exist in an uncomfortable space between adult autonomy and childhood dependence and are represented as a group in society as both risky and at risk. One of the problems of teen life is the struggle for autonomy and one of the new facts of both the lives of children and teens is that they have left time for interaction with their peers which is unsupervised by adults. For boyd, teens are struggling to assert some autonomous private space, which is indeed a space for experimentation, but the problem is not so much worries about what the future may hold, but a struggle to keep their space of experimentation away from the prying eyes of significant adults.
Whether the new denizens of the social web are really as alienated as Turkle depicts them seems to depend on what we see them as doing. For boyd, teens are really busy negotiating relationships with their peers and the main space of potential autonomy left open to them: the social web. For Turkle, teens—and by implications the rest of us—are locked in a reductive and rather autistic mode of self-expression tending toward an ever-reduced ability to relate to each other as fully realised human beings. The outlooks is grim. Deciding between such irreconcilable frameworks is difficult from a purely empirical perspective, but as we shall see in a moment, some of the most up-to-date and extensive empirical research runs counter to Turkle’s position.
When you compare boyd’s picture with Turkle´s, it is clear the latter has a rather ahistorical character. Worse, Turkle’s teenagers are pictured as fragile individuals with little autonomy and their capacity for self-expression being undermined by technology. Turkle’s teens always seem to be complaining that their parents do not have time to talk to them while at the same time admitting that they cannot bear to disconnect from their smartphones and instant messaging for even a second. (It is of course really true that many of us who are users of these technologies find it difficult to switch them off.) But the picture of teens as being unable to probably socialize or to form rich relationships with others starts to dissolve.
In fact, Turkle is obsessed with the notion of ‘the self’ at least as much as the teenagers her books. The term figures in the title of the first book, The Second Self and it was of central importance to her analysis in Life on the Screen. (It might be better if there were more focus on what we do with technology apart from merely presenting through it. It is noticeable for instance that there is little analysis of what we do with these technologies at work.)
This does not mean that Turkle is always very clear about what she means by the term. Turkle’s use of the term self does not designate what you are, but rather a persona that you project. It can sometimes mean your online internet avatar or profile. This can get confusing. If what we are trying to understand is how and whether our encounters with the social web may be changing the sorts of people we are, then we want to presumably understand what we are as people, not merely how we present through websites. It is true some of Turkle’s analysis does touch on how her subjects virtual screen lives intersect with their real lives, but in all but a few cases what we see here is uses of the media which seems to Turkle to be diminishing, rather than really a sense that her subjects are themselves feeling disconnected. Rather, what Turkle does is extrapolate from the way people use multiple channels of difference bandwidth (texting, emails, instant messaging, the occasional phone call) to a future where all higher bandwidth interactions are cut off. Yet, there is little sense that this is something we are seeing. Another reading of many of her interviews are people who fell somewhat cut-off from each other—when invited by Turkle—obsess about their use of technology.
We are for Turkle Alone Together because while we are in constant contact with each other (always on) the qualitative nature of this contact is ever more impoverished. Rather than enjoy rich, embodied one-to-one interactions, we are instead ever more likely to be dissipated with one ear always open for an incoming text message. This state for Turkle has been provoked through our engagement with technologies that encourage us to settle for less from each other and ourselves. At the limit, we may be in danger of even losing the ability by becoming habituated to a narrow experience of ersatz intimacy and retreat altogether from each other altogether content. Although Turkle does capture something of our present condition, it does seem remarkable that social technologies could achieve all of this.
Turkle’s book really turns on the idea that the readiness of interviewees to accept ersatz contact over the real human variety is the same phenomenon that draws people to using social network sites. She is probably right. I think that some of our responses to both robots and the new social network technologies are driven by difficulties in our intimate social relations, but there is no real demonstration here that social alienation is being driven either by children playing with robots or the rest of us using social network sites. Indeed, one recent report The Pew Internet Survey (Hampton, Goulet, Rainie, & Purcell, 2011), which surveyed 2255 people, seems to find exactly the contrary relation.
The central finding is that the supposed isolation of the surveyed American people seems to be declining in crucial regards. The average number of discussants (close ties) that people report has gone up to 2.16 rather than 1.93 as reported in 2008. Internet users were found to score higher on scores of total support, companionship, and instrumental aid. But Facebook users who use the site multiple times per day score higher in total support, emotional support, and companionship over those with similar in demographic status. The headlines of the study are that social network site users have more close confidants, are more trusting of others, get more social support when they need it, and are more politically engaged than others.
We should of course be cautious of asserting based on this study that Facebook or the internet causes people to have more friends, as this is only a correlational study, and clearly more surveys will need to be done to ascertain if there is really a trend here. But the study is compelling not just because of the large number of people surveyed, but because the evidence seems to run exactly counter to the assertion that the use of SNSs is intrinsically alienating. Of course Turkle´s analysis is not so easily refuted, but it does seem that contrary to her expectation all of those people reaching out through social network technology are not just feeling more alienated.
Ultimately, Turkle blames the seductive powers of technology for what is going on rather than looking at the background which has shaped the technologies adoption. To be fair, she realises that something beyond technology is going on here, but seems to mainly attribute to a cultural mood that follows 9/11. In the decade after 9/11—and before in fact—our insecurities have surely shaped our relationship to technology, but it is far from clear that it is the technology that is causing us to withdraw from intimate relationships. In fact, the corrosion of intimate relationships can be seen as back as far as the 1980s. This underlying cultural trajectory has deeper roots and has left almost all deep emotional connection as understood as potentially damaging and the whole idea of passionate engagement as at risk. Turkle´s pinning this withdrawal from intimacy on 9/11 is just historically myopic as attributing it to sociable robots. This leaves one to doubt much of Turkle´s basic thesis.
The mistake is really then apparent in the second part of the book where she carries over her critique of the mechanisation of the object of feeling (our tendency to project humanity onto objects) onto what people are doing with social networking sites, but this analysis is really too reductive and leaves out the real sociological background. And without noticing the cultural trajectory, the danger is that we end up with the problematisation of the technology in itself. The biggest danger in this approach is that in so doing, we foreclose the possibililty of using the new technologies in liberating ways.
The irony here is that regardless of outcomes, many are using the technology precisely in the hope they counteract their feelings of disconnection. The danger in Turkle´s approach is that in misunderstanding what is driving our use of technology its potentially liberating powers become foreclosed.
boyd, d. m. (2008). Taken out of Context: American Teen Sociality in Networked Contexts.
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Brooks, R. (1999). Cambrian Intelligence: The Early History of New AI. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press,.
Brooks, R. (2002). Robot: The Future of Flesh and Machines. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Allen Lane: The Penguin Press.
Brooks, R., Breazeal, C., Irie, R., Kemp, C. C., Marjanovic, M., Scassellati, B., et al. (1998).
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Hampton, K. N., Goulet, L. S., Rainie, L., & Purcell, K. (2011). Social Networking Sites and Our Lives: How People’s Trust, Personal Relationships, and Civic and Political Involvement are Connected to Their Use of Social Networking Sites and Other Technologies: Pew Research Centre.
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Turkle, S. (2011). Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York: Basic Books.
Written under a Creative Commons License, with edits: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/1.0/
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