The web is so darn fast--and decentralized--that we're 'on' all the time.
So 'on' it hurts.
That seems to be the overwhelming thesis of Sherry Turkle's new book “Alone Together”.
There's so much about Turkle's view that's right, it's just her conclusion that I think is misguided.
But, let's start at the beginning. Turkle is an MIT professor, and as such she's exposed to a potentially toxic mix of geeks and privilege. And unlike other MIT figures who present technology as a force for good--Turkle is something of a curmudgeon
The book represents 15 years of research in the world of teens and tech. And Turkle says that while the "triumphant message of tech and the web is one we want to hear, it may not be the right message."
She explains that people are become isolated from reality due to social networking sites because technology is dominating our lives and making us "less human".
This is a change in perspective for Turkle. Her previous works, “The Second Self” and “Life on the Screen”, were most positive about changing technology.
"We have to put technology in its place", said Turkle to host Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report.
"What's the possible harm?" asked Colbert. "Let's say I'm texting and tweeting, 'Pass the salt, dear.' What's the possible harm of that?"
"Well because there are times, there are places, we need to give each other our full attention," Turkle said.
"Says you! Why? Why do we need to give each other our full
Here's my take.
There's no doubt that the world was simpler when our friends and family where the folks we could see, touch, talk to. Then came the phone, and we could talk 'long distance.' But even then, phones were wired to the wall--and calls were expensive. Most of our lives were still real time, face-to-face interactions. Now we've unleashed an always-on, 24/7 connected world. A world where our business contacts, family, friends and even strangers can 'ping' us day and night.
Turkle is right that it's overwhelming--and invasive.
But where she's wrong is that it's neither inherently bad, nor unsolvable.
We simply need to create social rules and technical tools to catch-up to our connected lives.
The polite chitchat and 'bye' of phone calls (conversations with beginnings and ends) are far less useful in open-ended text messages or tweets. Which isn't to say it isn't demanding. Having thousands of friends connected to you takes more effort than engaging with what was formerly a handful of neighbors and co-workers.
It's what one of my college-age friends calls 'Social Homework.' And it is exhausting at times. Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, 4-Square, Tumblr, Yelp, texts and more--no doubt keeping all these social balls in the air takes a level of digital dexterity that may leave us exhausted. But I challenge the notion that we're less connected, less 'human' (Turkle's word).
It's easy to imagine a world in which social boundaries are re-established in a digital realm. That people in your close community are connected to you in real time, that work relationships have some boundaries, and uninvited texts and come-ons are relegated to the digital graveyard of junk mail. In fact you can already see the evolution of this emerging with new Facebook messages and Gmail's priority in box.
Turkle suggests that teens are overwhelmed with their 'always on' existence, as if the emergence of social media and connected devices hasn't impacted adults yet. Hardly.
"We talk about 'spending' hours on e-mail, but we, too, are being spent," says Turkle in Alone Together. "We have invented inspiring and enhancing technologies, and yet we have allowed them to diminish us."
Perhaps--but if so, then the challenge is to evolve our digital connected lives to allow more focus and meaning. Turkle's 'warning' is little more that stating the obvious. We've built a big new social dashboard, now we need to find uplifting and empowering ways to use it. That is certainly a reasonable request.