The web is so darn fast–and decentralized–that we’re ‘on’ all
So ‘on’ it hurts.
That seems to be the overwhelming thesis of Sherry Turkle’s new book “Alone
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
“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
“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
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
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.