"Alone Together": An MIT Professor's New Book Urges Us to Unplug

In her new book, an MIT professor shares her ambivalence about the overuses of technology, which, she writes, "proposes itself as the architect of our intimacies."

Sherry Turkle, has been an ethnographer of our technological world for three decades, hosted all the while at one of its epicenters: MIT. A professor of the social studies of science and technology there, she also heads up its Initiative on Technology and Self. Her new book, Alone Together, completes a trilogy of investigations into the ways humans interact with technology. It can be, at times, a grim read. Fast Company spoke recently with Turkle about connecting, solitude, and how that compulsion to always have your BlackBerry on might actually be hurting your company's bottom line.

I didn't realize MIT hired Luddites.

Well, I'm no Luddite. I think this book is not the book of a Luddite. This is the book of someone deeply appreciative of technology, who took her time to see how our use of this technology unfolded, and who thinks like with any technology, it's had some effects, good and bad. 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? And if not, the opportunity to make corrections. This book is meant to be part a conversation to make corrections. 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, to the detriment of our families and to our business organizations.

You conducted a lot of fieldwork and clinical interviews to write this book. Who did you talk to?

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 constant; 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.

What advice do you have for businesses who increasingly use this technology--smart phones, social networks, and the like?

What businesses need to do is remember that these technologies are precious. My book doesn't put these technologies down. It puts these technologies in their place. You need to put a fast deal in Abu Dhabi? There's nothing better, and nothing in my book suggests this technology should not be used widely and deeply to solve such problems. What I'm against is a kind of technological promiscuity, where that technology, so perfect in that [Abu Dhabi] circumstance, is the technology you think is perfect for people to bring into a board meeting, when they need to be working on a problem together. In that case it's not the technology of choice. They're not physically present with the people they need to bond with and deeply connect with, and need to make very consequential decisions with. I hate the metaphor of addiction: it implies we have to get it away, give it away, wean off. This is great stuff. It's not heroin. It's just something we need to learn to use when most appropriate, powerful, and in our best interest.

So I don't need to throw away my iPhone?

Absolutely not! It's a precious technology, when used in accordance with your social, professional, and personal values.

The title of your book, Alone Together, is chilling.

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.

You only mention Twitter a few times in the book. What are your thoughts on Twitter?

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. Is Twitter fun, is it interesting to hear the aperçus of people? Of course! I certainly don't have an anti-Twitter position. It's just not everything.

You write in your book that we today seem to view authenticity with the same skittishness that the Victorians viewed sex.

For some purpose, simulation is just as good as a 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.

You mention how when people see the little red light on their BlackBerry, indicating a message has arrived, they feel utterly compelled to grab it. Do you personally experience that compulsion?

I recognize it with my email. 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.

[Author photo: Peter Urban]

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19 Comments

  • jesse clark

    This is a great interview and it touches on some of the best points made by the book. The fact is that no one is taking a step back to put these technologies in place. We immediately and voraciously consume the next great thing until it becomes necessary in our lives. The reality is that Facebook, Twitter and other sites are reducing us to high school yearbook cults by collecting acquaintances, sharing our narcissism updates, and getting validated through likes and comments.

    I made this website in light of this conversation and others similar:

  • Sherry Bastion

    Imagine there's no Facebook
    It's easy if you try
    No "Friends" or "Status"
    No pages you can "Like"
    Imagine all the people
    Living yesterday...

    Imagine there's no Linkedin
    It isn't hard to do
    No "Add connections"
    No "People you may know"
    Imagine all the people
    Living in the past...

    You may say, I'm a luddite
    But I'm not the only one
    I hope someday you'll join us
    And the world will be unplugged

    Imagine there's no Twitter
    I wonder if you can
    No tweets or "fail whale"
    A social media ban
    Imagine all the people
    Sharing only words...

    You may say, I'm a luddite,
    But I'm not the only one
    I hope someday you'll join us
    And the world will be unplugged

  • Howard

    It is this kind of 'study' that always reminds me why these kinds of areas of study can never be called a 'Science'.
    The truth is that this opinion book is essentially an examination of the author's own perceptions of what it means to communicate with friends, family and colleagues in a new age of constant communications. Her 'analysis' is not scientific' analysis because it gives no perspective to the differing uses of texting by kids for example. She constantly brings up quaint examples of people who she has researched such as the Mother who claimed that the kinds at a party lost interest in the middle and started checking out to text with absent friends. WHat meaning does a story like this have in a serious analysis without context; a context of professional study of how widespread this is. What I see here is a book that arose after author formed her ideas and individual stories of the extremes used to justify and set the tone.
    The 'study' is full; of subjective assertions about the 'value' of social interaction standards that clearly are standards held by the author and not necessarily supported as good or bad.

    So a disappointing study overall with far too much of the author's personal prejudices and assumptions and far too little real research and neutral analysis of what exactly is goo, better not so good or bad.

  • Linda Lee

    I am a web designer and on the computer all day long. People are amazed I have an old cell phone, I do not text, and when I am away from my job, I do not want to be plugged in.
    I get emails in "text talk" from grown ups occasionally and I find it very odd. I think the disconnect that is happening is very real. An entire family can be in the same room and all be a million miles away on their phones, computers, or video game players. That is sad. I am hired to help people with social media, but with twitter, I find no joy reading those ugly hash marks and short burst type conversations. I love books and the written word, and twitter is the epitome of the sloppy creep in style that is invading conversations today. I only use Facebook for my business and I do not spend a huge amount of time on it.
    I believe a backlash is on the horizon for all this social media frenzy and we will see a movement to re-connect in a more real way between people. The cell phone problem however is here to stay.

  • Laura Nicholas

    Thank you Ms. Turkle for your insights. Social technologies are meant to reinforce NOT replace human face-to-face interactions. We are social animals with highly developed sensory systems that need to be activated to form true human bonds and relationships. Text on a screen cannot replace this.

  • Terri Ladd

    Or perhaps this is the new reality. There are always those who really aren't comfortable with the shift in reality when it is happening. Youth recognize this and not only embrace it as a way to free themselves of the archaic thinking of the last 2 generations (yes, it is always 2 generations they must struggle free from) but it is a way for them to forge forward. Not all Youth are iPod addicted, facebook obsessed, electronic junkies. Some of them are quietly USING this technology to scream by you at machspeeds you have no idea even exist. Time researching would better be spent (if that's your thing) on how to keep up! (No, I'm not under 25 years old)
    Miami Olivia

  • stephen Coughlin

    I think this opinion is just a way of wanting to feel hip and in touch with the youngsters. We can never know what's on their mind, much less what's in their heart. I too use to think they were "screaming by at machspeeds," but now I think they are stuck in a never ending loop of shallowness, loneliness, and low self-esteem. There is nothing that's bad, just misused by human beings. We must learn to be contented alone, before we can relate in any meaningful way. Let's take out the ear buds so we can hear the birds singing.

  • ESmith

    I was trying to have parent's condo baths and kitchen remodeled this summer and noticed bad contractors whom I should have gotten rid of right away were constantly on their cells when I left them alone in condo to work. All the good self-employed contract work was done by people who didn't answer cells while working.

    Therefore when people complain about their contractors lack of to work and details I tend to believe this is result of many self employed people who turn in shoddy performances because they have cell phones to entertain them when they should be working and concentrating on solving problem in front of them.

  • Jeff Costello

    I witnessed a musician in a Waikiki jazz combo answer his cell phone on stage in the middle of a set. No class.

  • Lisa Gallagher

    Sherry's insights resonate with me and my observations of my own emotional reaction to the blinking red light. Electronic connections do give us a sense of validation and belonging, though upon thoughtful examination the depth of our relationships cannot possibly be measured by the number or frequency of emails and texts. Additionally, our ability to address and solve complex problems requires the hours long thinking that can only be optimally performed in the white space that is alone. Let's not forget the sublime sense of gratification experienced by strategically and creatively thinking alone. Technology then represents such a valuable tool to share our thinking allowing others to collaborate with us to build upon our solitary accomplishments.

  • James Johnson

    Has anyone noticed how the younger generations are becoming more and more illiterate due to these technologies. A lot of young adults don't even know how to form a sentence, or use proper grammar. It's all shorthand and abbreviation, with little or no punctuation. A lot of these kids don't know any better either, and that is really sad. These technologies are turning our youth into functional illiterates.

    I know it's probably true in a lot of companies, but I will not hire a person who cannot articulate themselves at least fairly well. I don't expect perfect grammar, but entire paragraphs without a single comma or period? Or people who don't know how to use there/their/they're correctly, or your/you're. It drives me nuts to see how poorly these kids express themselves. I hate to say it, but half of them are unemployable.

  • Jeff Costello

    There's more than a hint of H.G. Wells' "The Time Machine" in all this. The techies and their devoted consumers are the Eloi, not cavorting playfully in a park all day, but they might as well be, spending all their time pushing electrons around in little devices that convey a sense somewhere between self-gratification and meaningful urgency. When they do participate in three-dimensional life, it's off to the bike trails, properly costumed of course, or the gym or the like. Perhaps a hike along a well-maintained trail. It is best not to consider what might happen if the electricity went off.
    Somewhere out there however, are the Morlocks, doing the actual work that enables everything to function. Someone must grow and prepare the food, build and repair the cars and dwellings, plow the snow, clean the toilet. Where did that toilet come from, anyway? Home Depot?
    In Wells' story, the Morlocks would occasionally emerge from the hidden underground work area, round up some Eloi and eat them. In any post-apocalyptic or emergency scenario - or just Life 101, survival would depend on certain skills, and managing email folders or writing apps will not be among them.

  • Allan

    Wow, great analogy. Spot on. I'm more impressed with your comment than the article. You have achieved the proper mix of nitro and glycerin.

  • Chris Reich

    I guess I'm okay. I don't even charge my cell phone, an old Nokia, unless I'm headed out for a road trip. Can't see the need to charge up a cell phone when I'm at my desk producing work product most of the day. When I take a break to walk in the woods, I'm taking a break and refuse to take a phone with me.

    I turn the phone off when I'm in a meeting or having a conversation with a client.

    What is interesting, I've noticed the higher the level of importance the client, the less they use the remote technology. They understand the need to be in the "now" and focus on the task at hand. They know it's rude to constantly interrupt a conversation to take calls. And they know that anything that comes through the Blackberry can wait 30 minutes.

    Most people I work with who are constantly on the I-Phone or Blackberry have a somewhat distorted sense of their importance.

    Chris Reich
    www.TeachU.com

  • Traci Gregory

    "What I'm against is a kind of technological promiscuity," How true! And as the technical promiscuity increases, true intimacy decreases. I get tired of having conversations (meaningful or not) interrupted by the beep that announces a text has arrived, and the person I'm talking to leaving the "in person" conversation for the text conversation. How is live human interaction less valuable than the text?

  • Patrick

    As a 25 year veteran techie and academic I completely agree with Dr. Turkle. The term I use is Gen-i - generation isolated, internet driven, interactive, etc... It si a very dangerous lope towards actual lack of communication. A loss of social skills and the like. It i very amusing to see people who are with each other and yet communicating with someone else. I am co-authoring a book called "gen-i: the rise of generation interactive or imlmao@ulol. The future is bright we jut need to assimilate this skill set into our culture it always is a big wave at the beginning and then it tapers off.

  • Erin Slater

    Great article. I have pretty much surrendered to the fact that I am a slave of my Blackberry. At night, as I sit down to read or watch TV, I have one eye on the phone to wait for the red light to go off to immediately respond. I know I need to do a better job of finding ways to remove myself from work, recharge and just take a break. I read a few tips from CMOs in this article:
    http://blogs.imaginepub.com/or... .

    Vic Walia of Hotels.com says when he has a creative block he goes to sleep. At least then we are forced away from that red blinking light!