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Alone Together: Humans in the Digital World

4850372456_738037acf8_zPhoto by Mariam via Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Last week I wrote about ways in which the digital age has influenced the dating lives of young adults. Apps like Tinder have pushed the limits of casual sex further than ever before. I also mentioned the work of Sherry Turkle, a clinical psychologist who holds an endowed chair at MIT. A somewhat unusual figure in her field, with a background in psychoanalysis, Turkle has devoted much of her career to studying the tech world. She brings her rich perspective on human relations to the inquiry into the ways in which being wired has changed our world.

Turkle notes that when she began studying “computer culture” 30 years ago, home computers were owned only by “hobbyists.” Though it was clear that computers were going to be a big thing, until relatively recently they had literally been big things, and the idea that we would all be carrying one around in our pockets was imaginable to only a very few. Furthermore, the concept of the Internet and that kind of connectivity was new and the reaches of its power untested. Turkle approached her new position like an anthropologist. She was learning the language and studying the natives. But one thing made this “culture” different from others that anthropologists typically study: it changes very fast.

Since the publication of Turkle’s Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other in 2010 some of the assumptions that seemed true at the beginning of her research changed. That book, which is divided into two parts, one devoted to an exploration of robotic toys and machines and how humans interact with them, the other to networking, giving equal weight to both and implying that their influence on us might be similar. More recently, she has written Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age (2015). In this second book she picks up on many of the themes she began in the first: the impact of technology on the human world. She says:

These days, insecure in our relationships and anxious about intimacy, we look to technology for ways to be in relationships and protect ourselves from them at the same time.  (Alone Together)

Her conclusion is that though we are all more connected, networked, and wired than ever before, the price has been the erosion of intimacy, and decline in our powers of empathy as well. According to The New York Times:

In 2010, a team at the University of Michigan led by the psychologist Sara Konrath put together the findings of 72 studies that were conducted over a 30-year period. They found a 40 percent decline in empathy among college students, with most of the decline taking place after 2000.

The same article reported on this alarming experiment:

Timothy D. Wilson, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, led a team that explored our capacity for solitude. People were asked to sit in a chair and think, without a device or a book. They were told that they would have from six to 15 minutes alone and that the only rules were that they had to stay seated and not fall asleep. In one experiment, many student subjects opted to give themselves mild electric shocks rather than sit alone with their thoughts.

So while our devices give us the sense of connectivity and prevent us from being alone with our thoughts, they also keep us from being truly with each other. Turkle asserts that even a silent phone is a threat in that it keeps the conversation light and ready for interruption. Interviewing hundreds of subjects, she was able to uncover the unwritten rules that govern the way phones are woven into our daily interactions, such as the “rule of three”: in a group, as long as three people are conversing it’s OK for the rest of them to be checking their phones. But Turkle explains how this leads to a constant thread of superficial conversation in which the whole group is never truly committed to it or invested, let alone interested. There is an unsettled quality to these kinds of social interactions in which the participants are not involved with each other but are always looking over their “digital shoulders” for the next best thing. This is also one of the consequences of dating apps like Tinder: you never live in the moment (though you think you are). With these apps, people are always looking out for the next best thing, because of FOMO- Fear of Missing Out.

Impatience is a widespread problem too. The digital generation has never had to wait to get an answer to a question, let alone fiddle with rabbit ears to get reception on a TV set. These kids are what “the psychologists Howard Gardner and Katie Davis called the ‘app generation,’ which grew up with phones in hand and apps at the ready. It tends toward impatience, expecting the world to respond like an app, quickly and efficiently. The app way of thinking starts with the idea that actions in the world will work like algorithms: Certain actions will lead to predictable results.” 

However, it’s not just the kids who have become enslaved to their devices and Turkle has a lot to say about their impact on family life. Supposedly it works like this:

Parents give their children phones. Children can’t get their parents’ attention away from their phones, so children take refuge in their own devices. Then, parents use their children’s absorption with phones as permission to have their own phones out as much as they wish. (Reclaiming Conversation)

Turkle tells wrenching stories, like the one about a girl at a digital-free sleep-away camp who couldn’t get her father’s attention away from his smartphone when he came up on parents day.

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  • Brenda December 11, 2015 at 12:22 pm

    After reading this and agreeing completely, my first inclination was to put it on my Facebook and on Pinterest!
    And I’m a 72 year old grandmother!

    Reply