Turkle’s Turn

09Sep11

MIT professor Sherry Turkle is no longer optimistic about the impact of technology on social relationships. In her book Alone Together she explains why. In her early work, in particular her book “Life on the screen” (1995), Turkle celebrated the freedom of online identity, but now she feels the internet has become more like a prison. Back in 1995 Technology lovers around the world celebrated her work, now they dismiss it altogether. But perhaps the book deserves more serious thought. I must admit that I am not convinced by many of the ideas Turkle expresses, but some are strangely compelling. A big part of Alone Together is about social robots, but I will skip those, and talk about her ideas about social media and the mobile web. Look at her TEDxUIUC or RSA talk to get the gist of her ideas.  Here is an excerpt of that RSA talk.

“There is a point in a fifteen year old birthday party where everyone wants to leave, and that’s the point where things get hard. Because the fifteen year olds have to talk to each other and, particularly if some of them are boys and others are girls, it is rough. And what happens at this fifteen year olds 3 birthday party is that they do. They tough it out. They talk to each other. And by the end of that birthday party they have done it and they’re one step closer to being sixteen”.

Turkle feels a generation is growing up without having to work through the “burdens” of face-to-face contact and choosing the “easier option” instead.  But her concerns are more general. In some sense she believes we are all behaving like the fifteen year olds in the example. We all escape to the comfort of our virtual words whenever it is “more convenient”. As it turns out, this is all the time: with the sweet, virtual attention grabbing world at the palms of our hands, we act as if we live in a constant LSD trip, bringing our imaginary friends wherever we go. In her words: “We always have the option of bailing out with each other at any time all the time”. We are never really there. The title of Alone Together refers to this situation of being immersed in our private virtual worlds in a face-to-face setting.

So do our kids still learn to handle intimacy when they grow up? I believe they do. Once, I witnessed a newborn romance between two fifteen year olds on a summerschool. They were sitting side by side: texting in silence. It was a very intimate scene. So, maybe these lovers used texting to ‘dial down’ the fidelity of their contact, but they weren’t trying to keep each other at a distance. I think texting helped them to get closer to each other. Apparently they crossed a border, they would not have done face to face. It is difficult to tell where Turkles concern is justified, but it seems clear that social media offer opportunities as well as challenges for kids that are growing up. Opportunities are to play out identity and to experiment with it trough (imaginary) anonymity. A challenge is to ‘tough out’ face-to-face conversation while instant Facebook gratification is waiting for them in their pockets. Digital natives do things at fifteen, which we didn’t dream of doing until much later and they’ll learn other stuff -toughing out face-to-face conversations – later than we did.

More general: are the imaginary friends on our mobiles spoiling our daily life? Are we “life swiching”? Mobile internet is a key concern for Turkle, and I must admit that I do recognize myself in her anecdotes. I tend to switch to my mobile at dull moments in meetings or at home and when I do I am less accessible and attentive. Our face-to-face world is getting cluttered. There are ever more screens in our life, and more opportunities to look at them. And when we do, we are less available for our surroundings. But are there detrimental side effects of mobile internet use? I don’t believe so. Screens will not rule my life that easily. The attractiveness of my mobile phone is decreasing now the newness has worn off, and I learned to neglect distracting environmental screens. Besides, I spend most time with my phone when I am alone. The competition is reading feeds versus reading books, not virtual versus real life contact. For me at least, the netto effect is a “more social life”.

But still, there is something about Turkles ‘tough out’ story that does bother me. Perhaps, rather than extrapolating my personal experience, I should look at it in a more statistic way. Say that I can preserve a bigger network of like-minded people, because of social media. What would that mean for society?  In response to Turkle, critics are often quick to point at research which shows that the internet makes us more social, we have bigger networks and we have greater social capital (This Pew report is an often cited example). Indeed if I get a bigger network, my social capital goes up. But what about the birds eye perspective:  is it positive for everyone?

When I can choose who I interact with, I may be less inclined to ‘tough it out’ with people I don’t like. If ‘everyone’ acts like this, the quality of your network can increase while the quality of –for example – your neighborhood can decrease. Your circle is getting bigger, but the circle as a whole gets less connected. The birds eye picture is one of hardly connected cells of like-minded people rather than diverse networks that transcend boundaries of affiliation and technology use. The digital divide would be a particular case of this selective connectedness effect. I am not sure if this dystopian view is what is happening, but the statistics allow it. So maybe we need to be more inclusive in our analyses. If we want say anything sensible about the effects of social media on our society, we need to look at both sides. We need to take what we do do because of this technology into account but also what we don’t do anymore. Call my “Turkle turn”, but the conclusions of such a dual analysis may be less cheerful than what I thought before.

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3 Responses to “Turkle’s Turn”


  1. 1 The Traveling Influence Problem « @koenvanturnhout MacroBlog
  2. 2 Evaluating the NetGen Argument « @koenvanturnhout MacroBlog
  3. 3 Reading Dhiraj Murthy’s Twitter: Social Communication in the Twitter Age « @koenvanturnhout MacroBlog

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