the educational technology journal

Vol 20|No 3|March 2011
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Alone Together: Why we expect more from TECHNOLOGY and less from each other
A Review

By Jamie McKenzie
About Author

Sherry Turkle's latest book reads like a novel, as she tells stories about the people of this decade and their avid embrace of text messaging, social networking and constant connection. It is a cautionary tale — one that deserves reading by all of us, but especially parents, their children and teachers who work with the young.

Alone Together takes a very serious look at relationships — those that grow between people, between people and robots and those between people in virtual worlds. The subtitle of the book, "Why we expect more from TECHNOLOGY and less from each other," gives a strong sense of the book's theme. A professor at MIT who has spent the past three decades exploring these relationships, Turkle brings the depth, perception and skill of a psychologist to the challenge. She backs up her insights and concerns with field research that takes us well past the glib speculation of the pundits to the carefully grounded wisdom of the clinician and the researcher.

Turkle does not mince words. Having studied the reactions of children and the elderly to the care and attention from robots, she says, "A machine taken as a friend demeans what we mean by friendship."

And she extends that concern to online friends who may not be who they say they are, may never make an appearance and can easily be deleted or ignored if things get too real. In looking at the way families spend time together, she points out that people may be sitting in the same room without actually being present in the emotional sense.

Nick, seventeen, says, "My parents text while we eat. I'm used to it. My father says it is better than his having to be at the office.
Today children contend with parents who are physically close, tantalizingly so, but mentally elsewhere.
Page 267

As you read through Turkle's thoughts and observations, certain concepts stand out as especially important. Here I will mention a few that made a strong impression on me:

  • Realtechnik — a way of thinking about the impact of technologies and the choices we can make about their uses.
What I call realtechnik suggests that we step back and reassess when we hear triumphalist or apocalyptic narratives about how to live with technology. Realtechnik is skeptical about linear progress. It encourages humility, a state of mind in which we are most open to facing problems and reconsidering decisions. It helps us to acknowledge costs and recognize the things we hold inviolate.
Page 294
  • Tethered — while there are many advantages and conveniences that flow from being digitally connected to one another, Turkle provides examples of ways this can bind and fetter us unhealthily.
These days cultural norms are rapidly shifting. We used to equate growing up with the ability to function independently. These days, always-on connection leads us to reconsider the virtues of a more collaborative self. All questions about autonomy look different if, on a daily basis, we are together even when we are alone.
Page 169
  • Intimacy — throughout her book, Turkle gives many examples of people being in the same space without actually being present and she also explores the readiness of many to accept virtual or robotic attention.
My own study of the networked life has left me thinking about intimacy — about being with people in person, hearing their voices and seeing their faces, trying to know their hearts. And it has left me thinking about solitude — the kind that refreshes and restores. Loneliness is failed solitude.
Page 288

There are many other important concepts in this rich study of cultural and emotional shifts as Turkle looks at attention, anxiety, separation, attachment, multi-tasking and solitude, among others. It is a book likely to cause each reader to reconsider the way these tools have shifted relationships in what Turkle calls rather powerfully, "life" in contrast with relationships that exist primarily through digital connections.

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