I finished Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together and Garth Nix’s Shade’s Children on the many hours I’ve spent on planes and in airports recently, so time for a couple of quick reviews…Nix will be my next, much shorter posting…
I’m a fan of Turkle’s work anyway, having read Life on the Screen and Second Self in grad school. I enjoyed both because she came from a perspective I did not expect – she didn’t fall into either the technophobic or technophiliac camp, instead taking a measured, calm, graceful, and well-researched approach to discuss the ways in which we use technology. This book meets those standards.
In those books, however, she also viewed the intertoobz as a basically benign structure, a Rorschach test that revealed more about those who use it than it does than the medium itself. She justified that approach with lots of research, of those who play games, of those who inhabited MOOs and MUDs (look those up youngsters), and of those who simply spent a lot of time on and in the machine.
In this book she views our continuing experiment with digital culture a bit more negatively, and she makes some compelling arguments. Propelled by the research power of MIT, she traces the fifteen years between books through a couple of mediums, sociable robots, games, Second Life, and the ubiquitousness of social media and its ilk. To do a proper review of this text will take more time than I have, but her results are, again, well-thought-out, graceful, thoroughly researched, and achingly humanistic.
What they are not, however, is as unconcerned with the effects of this ecosystem on us as her earlier books were. In fact, her final chapter is a long meditation on just how we can start to change the course that she sees us embarking on, one in which we experiment on ourselves with technology that has subtle but damaging implications. She almost becomes nostalgic, a feeling that I had never associated Turkle with previously, and this shift marks, I think, her own level of anxiety with the results that her research led her to.
In that last chapter, she makes some observations that strike me as profound. She notes at one point that the dystopic fears about SkyNet have shifted: “we will not care if our machines are clever but whether they love us” (286). She makes this comment after invoking Blade Runner, but it resonates throughout the text, as her research has led her to the conclusion that sociable robots, social media, games, and the like are helping us move ourselves away from a dependence on others and to that state of being alone together that gives the text its title.
This place is not a comfortable one, and she particularly notes its impact on children. In fact, she takes the usual villains of this type of examination – those damned kids and their obsession with technology – and carefully maps the anxieties that these children are developing, and the ways in which they try to resist these pressures. She notes the parents who don’t even look up from their screens upon picking up a child from soccer or softball or play practice, and talks about child after child who noted that this was typical behavior from their parents. She sees this movement as indicative of individuals who do not want to make phone calls because they are too intrusive, and she uses her therapist’s lens to consider the consequences.
As I mentioned, the last chapter particularly struck me, mostly because it is such a humane, liberal argument for the need for urgency in looking at where we are going. She discusses the ways in which robot nannies and caretakers for the elderly are becoming not only possible but preferable, as these types of robots are cited by person after person as potentially kinder than the humans who do this work. This change is one that concerns her greatly, and I’ll be damned if I didn’t find the arguments compelling.
How does this affect us? In my remarkably unclear and muddy vision for the future, I think that the space she opens up is one that small faith-based institutions can enter. Here’s a place where we can do oral histories of people in nursing homes (and their reactions to their benevolent robot overlords), and we can look at infants and their reactions to robot nannies. We can tell those stories, and we can think about ways to look at the damages to empathy that are already documented. We can document the process of addressing these questions that I’m guessing software and hardware engineers are engaged in, and we can write screenplays and other types of texts that will help us imagine these futures (and then look at changing our course).
- She documents thoroughly, and has the resources to do her own studies. In my mind this is incredibly important work, and studies like this one are critical if we don’t want to be surprised by the future.
- She invokes the term ‘sacred space’ in an interesting way, looking at it from the perspective of software and hardware engineers from the 1980s, especially those involved in simulation studies. She described how they term to be one that was a space “inviolate,” a place in which they used their bodies (hand drawings, etc.) as well as their digital space (277).
- She incorporates (or coins?) the term realtechnik to describe what she calls “technology’s true effects on us,” rather than what we think those effects are (243).
- This book also makes me think of the connections between Foucault and Eggers’s The Circle – why bother with a police force when we will police ourselves? Facebook is a beautiful forerunner of this…