Is technology destroying our ability to socialize? Sherry Turkle certainly thinks so. One of MIT’s most notable professors, Turkle is the author of a book called Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, and a rather poised critic of social media’s impact on the human experience. The argument in Alone Together comes in two parts, the first being that we are currently going though a “robotic moment.” In other words, Turkle dedicates the first half of the book to exploring the possibility of a world in which people see robots as an apt replacement for human interaction. Admittedly, this idea initially seems more appropriate for a 1950’s science fiction novel than a piece of academic writing. Using the success of the Furby as evidence of her claims, Turkle begins a provocative discussion regarding the substitution of humans for robots. Turkle documents her findings when interviewing a five-year-old about whether or not her Furby is alive. “Well, I love it. It’s more alive than a Tamagotchi because it sleeps with me,” (28). Although this is a rather surprising anecdote, it’s quite hard to believe that words from an age group notorious for having imaginary friends are indicative of an impending social apocalypse. Luckily, Turkle has more in her arsenal than this. Turkle’s discussion of Paro, a robotic harp seal, is a bit more compelling. Miriam, a lonely and elderly woman, begins to develop an affectionate relationship with the lifelike creation. “On this day, she [Miriam] is particularly depressed and believes that the robot is depressed as well,” (9). Alarmed, Turkle declares this scenario as a prime example of the “robotic moment”, and notes that she believes this, as well as other examples of human-robot interactions serve as proof that people are “willing to seriously consider robots not only as pets but as potential friends, confidants, and even romantic partners,” (9). Though these examples are rather shocking, the reader may rightfully question their validity and universal applicability. However, that is not to say this entire section is without merit. The idea of artificial intelligence has long been a fantasy for many people, so at the very least, Turkle calls the reader’s attention to a subject that is often overlooked.
The second half of Alone Together explores more relatable territory—the consequences of social media and electronic methods of communication on real world social interactions. Turkle provides various thought provoking stories of young people who feel trapped by social media—ranging from themes of painstaking creation and maintenance of fabricated identities, to the regret of teenagers who come to the alarming realization that their personal information has been permanently logged into the searchable world of cyberspace, to fear-inducing tales of the degradation (and sometimes total absence) of real world interactions. Turkle notes that nowadays, “we express ourselves in staccato texts.” She goes on to say, “in text messaging, and e-mail, you hide as much as you show. You can present yourself as you wish to be ‘see’. And you can ‘process’ people as quickly as you want to. Listening can only slow you down,” (207). Through such shifts, Turkle believes, we voluntarily give up the emotional content of interactions, and rely on the coldness of technology to convey simplified, and borderline meaningless messages. Combined with Turkle’s captivating writing style, such revelations create the potency of Turkle’s message. Alone Together is a certainly a worthwhile read that will, for better or for worse, leave its audience questioning the place of social media in their lives.
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Review and PowerPoint presentation by Nicholas Doherty and Katelyn O’Sullivan