Alone Together

Sherry Turkle has written a very good book, called Alone Together, and this clip from a NYTimes article gives a good feel for where her book takes us in depth:

Think of it as “I share, therefore I am.” We use technology to define ourselves by sharing our thoughts and feelings as we’re having them. We used to think, “I have a feeling; I want to make a call.” Now our impulse is, “I want to have a feeling; I need to send a text.”

So, in order to feel more, and to feel more like ourselves, we connect. But in our rush to connect, we flee from solitude, our ability to be separate and gather ourselves. Lacking the capacity for solitude, we turn to other people but don’t experience them as they are. It is as though we use them, need them as spare parts to support our increasingly fragile selves.

We think constant connection will make us feel less lonely. The opposite is true. If we are unable to be alone, we are far more likely to be lonely. If we don’t teach our children to be alone, they will know only how to be lonely.

I am a partisan for conversation. To make room for it, I see some first, deliberate steps. At home, we can create sacred spaces: the kitchen, the dining room. We can make our cars “device-free zones.” We can demonstrate the value of conversation to our children. And we can do the same thing at work. There we are so busy communicating that we often don’t have time to talk to one another about what really matters. Employees asked for casual Fridays; perhaps managers should introduce conversational Thursdays. Most of all, we need to remember — in between texts and e-mails and Facebook posts — to listen to one another, even to the boring bits, because it is often in unedited moments, moments in which we hesitate and stutter and go silent, that we reveal ourselves to one another.

I spend the summers at a cottage on Cape Cod, and for decades I walked the same dunes that Thoreau once walked. Not too long ago, people walked with their heads up, looking at the water, the sky, the sand and at one another, talking. Now they often walk with their heads down, typing. Even when they are with friends, partners, children, everyone is on their own devices.

So I say, look up, look at one another, and let’s start the conversation.


"So you are saying that hurting people is okay, if you claim you did it ..."

If The Church Disarmed: What Did ..."
"I have responded to the "two moments where Jesus taught nonviolence". In one of them, ..."

If The Church Disarmed: What Did ..."
"Do not all people live in a nation state now?Paul was at one and the ..."

If The Church Disarmed: What Did ..."
"There's a lot that could be addressed here, but I'll limit it solely to "the ..."

So What’s Mutual Submission?

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Tom F.

    I read Turkle’s book when it first came out a few months back, and found it pretty convincing. Turkle’s book reminds me of Bonhoffer’s dictim (paraphrased): Beware of the one who can only be in community, but who can not be alone with God; Beware of the one who can only be alone with God, but who can not be in community.

    Indeed, I think Bonhoffer was intuitively picking up on the two different ways that people cope with the messiness and brokenness in human relationships: either we become so anxious about our need for other people that we can never be alone, or we defensively deny our need for others and so we pretend we don’t need others (or God) and isolate ourselves. (For those who know, I am thinking primarily about attachment styles here).

    Technology doesn’t necessarily change this basic human problem, but it can nudge us towards a certain strategy. For example, if current technologies suggest that we need to always be connected (perhaps really driven to keep us connected in order to sell us things: Facebook), than we might end up normalizing anxious strategies, and people may not realize the need to grow in trust of others and God (that we can be apart from other people but that they will still reliably be there when we need them; and when people fail God is always there for us).

  • I was expecting to dislike this book by Turkle, but it was a good read and while I disagree on many many points, there is substance to her arguments, and she lays out an excellent case — there are a number of points of which I am in agreement.

    But on the whole, Turkle’s analysis is short-sighted and is burdened by looking at affairs with eyes half-open — for every valid criticism and concern logged, there is the wondrous gift that extends “human communication” onto a realm hitherto inconceivable. Even on a personal, anecdotal level, connecting “online” has not only blessed me with “virtual” relationships, but also spawned IRL forging of relationship, as well as augmenting “physical” relationships with friends and family. It’s exposed me to thought streams, ideas, books, and thinking that an internet less world would be impossible to fathom.

    This review captures my sentiment: People don’t fantasize that they don’t need to be with each other. Humans are social animals and the urge to connect is basic survival, practically, emotionally, and genetically. I think that’s a strength, not a potential pitfall. Every computer-mediated communication is in pursuit of more, not less connection. Or, as Mom said, “Technology brings a small cozy community to family life and friend life that would never have been possible without it.”

  • Tom F.

    Naum, I respect your disagreement, but I don’t think Turkle would disagree that the internet has brought great things, right? The book by no means suggest that we should get rid of the internet. I read the basic thesis as “To the extent that digital communication crowds out embodied communication, we should be concerned”. Most of her examples don’t talk about the negative effects of technology, but the negative effects of technology replacing human to human interaction.

    I wasn’t satisfied with the review you posted either.

    “In Japan, there’s this giant push for robots for the elderly. They argue there aren’t enough people to take care of the elderly. There’s a second vulnerability at work, as well: The guy who visits his mother and says, “If I leave her staring at a wall when I leave the nursing home, I feel terrible; if I leave her staring at the television, I feel not so terrible; if I leave her playing with a robot, I feel OK.” It makes us feel better as children to see the interaction. But not all interaction is equal.”This scenario is a moral judgment about the behavior of the guy visiting his mother. Of course all interaction is not equal. Even hypothetically, this presumes that the guy who visits his mother should be providing personal care. That is the ideal. But this is the real world. What is the available menu of options? Is a qualified human caretaker a feasible financial option or even available? We should be asking, is this a reasonable alternative to a less than perfect situation?”

    God forbid we make a moral judgment. (Seriously, Psychology Today’s should adopt a new motto: We will make moral judgments left and right while ridiculing those who make traditional moral arguments. Soooo many of their articles are morally evaluative while supposing to be morally neutral.) Furthermore, this appeal to the “real world” is awful convenient. Societies far less affluent than us were able to provide decent, personal care for elders. The Bible is clear about honoring your father and mother. And we want to give our elders…robots? God have mercy on us.

  • Tom F., like I stated, I liked the point, and there a number of points on which I agree with Turkle, but her narrow focus and putting IRL into one box and online into another is problematic. She’s ensconced in an ivory tower and delineates cleanly online from IRL, when in fact the two realms are not mutually exclusive, and actually augment and extend each other.

    No, it is not 100% nirvana — no technology comes without a dark side, and there we should be cognizant of such negative effects and factors and mitigate accordingly. But her fundamental thesis is flawed — technology is NOT replacing human interaction; on the aggregate, it’s augmenting it, enhancing it, germinating it, etc.… And it will likely even be more so as the technology advances — richer interfaces (higher resolution multimedia, 3D, etc.…). Of course it will never replace human touch or even face-to-face experience, but anything else conducted IRL can also be manifested in an online space.

  • Tom F.

    Naum, we may just disagree, and that’s fine.

    “Of course it will never replace human touch or even face-to-face experience, but anything else conducted IRL can also be manifested in an online space.”

    I would humbly submit that online space is simply different from physical space. Online space encourages self-presentation (i.e., Facebook profiles) more than physical interaction does. Online space is non-local: I can be close to you one second, and then totally unreachable the next. Online space gives context-poor information: even on video chat, the cues of a common context/environment are absent. Online space encourages divided attention: this interaction must inevitable compete with the multitude of other possible websites/videos/music. Online space can (not that it always does) shape us so as to prefer this sort of interaction. For example, the teenagers Turkle interviewed grew to prefer text messaging to calling, even when talking about emotionally siginificant things. Why? Isn’t a phone call a more “rich interface” than texting?

  • I would humbly submit that online space is simply different from physical space.

    Different, yes, but not in an either/or sense. More like in a and/but modality(s)…

    Online space encourages self-presentation (i.e., Facebook profiles) more than physical interaction does.

    Which is just *one* facet of online space. True, the online space contains all the “space” of previous communication technologies PLUS opportunities and usage hitherto unimaginable. Are bloggers clipping links and adding commentary, writing and sharing essays, posting reviews, editing Wikipedia articles all about “self-presentation”? Maybe, for some, but I do not believe that is the overarching thread here.

    Online space gives context-poor information…

    Yes AND no. True, at surface level, much less *context*, but if one acts upon interest and desire, one can delve into deep contextual study.

    …prefer text messaging to calling…

    Because of the push/pull factor — texting is more suited to your own volition — whereas a phone call displaces you from 100% (well, not always as many still are able to “multitask” while on the end of a phone call) from other stimuli and puts you on “another’s schedule”. Granted, I accept the point about demands on “attention” — it can wreak harm, but that is not the default outcome — it just means we need filtering skills.

    I did like the book (even as I expected to sharpen the cutlery on it before reading ;)), but Turkle seemed way detached about some technology aspects, especially when it came to smartphones.

    Another book in the same vein you might like is Jaron Lanier *You Are Not a Gadget* — while I have fundamental disagreements and think he goes off the deep end over creative works / music toward the end of the book, he scores big in addressing the fallacies of the techno-utopians that forecasted a wonderful nirvana that the internet would magically deliver. He also does a better job (though his book is not a “research” work like Turkle’s) fleshing out the quandaries of humans affixing *human* attributes to computing machinery.

  • Tom F.

    Naum, thanks for the extended interaction. One point worth considering a bit more:

    Texting over calling amongst teens
    “Because of the push/pull factor — texting is more suited to your own volition — whereas a phone call displaces you from 100% (well, not always as many still are able to “multitask” while on the end of a phone call) from other stimuli and puts you on “another’s schedule”.”

    Yeah, but Turkle’s examples (at least some of the time) have to do with situations that demand 100% displacement, such as dating relationships, emotionally significant things such as tragedies and the like. Why are teenagers choosing not to use the “richer” medium of telephone in these situations?

    Thanks for the book recommendation as well!