‘Friends’ Without a Personal Touch
Interesting review of Sherry Turkle’s research on kids and technology. How much should we try to restrict our student’s modern means of communication? Is the solution to encouraging student interaction restricting technology or teaching the value of real relationships? What policies does your school use in regards to technology?
“Friends’ Without a Personal Touch By Michiko Kakutani
Teenagers who send and receive six to eight thousand texts a month and spend hours a day on Facebook. Mourners who send text messages during a memorial service because they can’t go an hour without using their BlackBerries. Children who see an authentic Galapagos tortoise at the American Museum of Natural History and can’t understand why the museum didn’t use a robot tortoise instead. High school students who wonder how much they should tilt their Facebook profiles toward what their friends will think is cool, or what college admissions boards might prize.
As Sherry Turkle notes in her perceptive new book, “Alone Together,” these are examples of the ways technology is changing how people relate to one another and construct their own inner lives. She is concerned here not with the political uses of the Internet — as manifested in the current democratic uprisings in Egypt and other countries in the Middle East — but with its psychological side effects.
In two earlier books, Ms. Turkle — a professor of the social studies of science and technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a clinical psychologist — put considerable emphasis on the plethora of opportunities for exploring identity that computers and networking offer people. In these pages, she takes a considerably darker view, arguing that our new technologies — including e-mail messages, Facebook postings, Skype exchanges, role-playing games, Internet bulletin boards and robots — have made convenience and control a priority while diminishing the expectations we have of other human beings.
Ms. Turkle’s thesis here — some of which will sound overly familiar, but some of which turns out to be savvy and insightful — is that even as more and more people are projecting human qualities onto robots (i.e., digital toys like the Furby and computerized companions like the Paro, designed to provide entertainment and comfort to the elderly), we have come to expect less and less from human encounters as mediated by the Net.
Instead of real friends, we “friend” strangers on Facebook. Instead of talking on the phone (never mind face to face), we text and tweet. Technology, she writes, “makes it easy to communicate when we wish and to disengage at will.” In writing this book, Ms. Turkle interviewed hundreds of children and adults about technology, and her anthropological generalizations sometimes seem based on largely anecdotal evidence; we often never know just how representative her examples really are. Still, the author has spent decades examining how people interact with computers and other devices — her first book on computers and people, “The Second Self,” was published in 1984; the next, “Life on the Screen,” in 1995 — and by situating her findings in historical perspective, she is able to lend contextual ballast to her case studies.
Many of the adolescents cited in her book express a decided distaste for using the phone. One high school sophomore says telephone calls mean you have to have a conversation and conversations are “almost always too prying, it takes too long, and it is impossible to say ‘good-bye.’ ” Another student says: “When you talk on the phone, you don’t really think about what you’re saying as much as in a text. On the telephone, too much might show.”
Texts, in other words, offer more control — and the ability to keep one’s feelings at a distance. Many young people “prefer to deal with strong feelings from the safe haven of the Net,” Ms. Turkle writes. “It gives them an alternative to processing emotions in real time.”
While teachers must contend with distracted students, who may be texting or surfing the Web in class, says Ms. Turkle, young people must contend with distracted parents — who with their BlackBerries and cellphones may be physically present but “mentally elsewhere.” Noting that the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson regarded identity play as part of the work of adolescence, she argues that the Net not only supplies teenagers with lots of opportunities to explore who they are and what they aspire to but also generates added anxiety, heightening peer pressure and encouraging many to construct, edit and perform a “self” in an effort to win friends and influence.
Of an interview subject she calls Brad, Ms. Turkle writes: “Brad says, only half jokingly, that he worries about getting ‘confused’ between what he ‘composes’ for his online life and who he ‘really’ is. Not yet confirmed in his identity, it makes him anxious to post things about himself that he doesn’t really know are true. It burdens him that the things he says online affect how people treat him in the real. People already relate to him based on things he has said on Facebook. Brad struggles to be more ‘himself’ there, but this is hard. He says that even when he tries to be ‘honest’ on Facebook, he cannot resist the temptation to use the site ‘to make the right impression.’ ”
As Ms. Turkle sees it, online life tends to promote more superficial, emotionally lazy relationships, as people are “drawn to connections that seem low risk and always at hand.” This tendency to treat other people as objects that can be quickly discarded, she says, is embodied at its most extreme by the social Web site Chatroulette, “which randomly connects you to other users all over the world”:
“You see each other on live video. You can talk or write notes. People mostly hit ‘next’ after about two seconds to bring another person up on their screens.”
There are other consequences to constant networking as well. When we are always tethered to our offices, our families, our friends — even when hiking in the woods or walking by the ocean — then solitude becomes increasingly elusive, and creative, contemplative, carefully considered thought increasingly gives way to immediate, sometimes ill-considered reactions.
At times, Ms. Turkle can sound primly sanctimonious, complaining for instance that the sight at a local cafe of people focused on their computers and smartphones as they drink their coffee bothers her: “These people are not my friends,” she writes, “yet somehow I miss their presence.” Such sentimental whining undermines the larger and important points she wants to make in this volume — the notion that technology offers the illusion of companionship without the demands of intimacy and communication without emotional risk, while actually making people feel lonelier and more overwhelmed.
“Once we remove ourselves form the flow of physical, messy, untidy life — and both robotics and networked life do that — we become less willing to get out there and take a chance,” she writes. “A song that became popular on YouTube in 2010, ‘Do You Want to Date My Avatar?’ ends with the lyrics ‘And if you think I’m not the one, log off, log off, and we’ll be done.’ ”
This article published February 21, 2011 in the New York Times. Click here for the original post.