Sitting with friends or family, a realization dawns as you look around – the whole group is staring down at their phones, silently engrossed. It is an experience with which we are all familiar. A recent Buzzfeed article lists “18 Tiny Ways Your Phone Has Ruined Your Life,” pointing out that, among other problems, “you’re pretty damn addicted to the thing” and “nothing can come between you [and your phone], not even sleep” (Barnicoat). There’s a certain irony in a website designed around mobile use (from its coding, to its advertising, to its article titles) asserting that smart phones, and more importantly the online worlds they connect us to, might have some ‘tiny’ harmful effects. But according to the author and MIT professor Sherry Turkle, these effects are not tiny at all. In fact, they are much greater than we currently imagine. In her most recent book, Alone Together, Turkle confronts the “the triumphalist narrative of” Silicon Valley, “the reassuring story that people want to hear and that technologists want to tell” (Turkle 18). She asks the “nagging question” on all of our minds as we notice that those around us are lost in their gadgets: “does virtual intimacy degrade our experience of the other kind and, indeed, of all encounters, of any kind” (12)?
The famous mid-century physician Lewis Thomas witnessed many medical miracles in his lifetime, as his profession made discovery after discovery, curing previously incurable diseases and raising life expectancy by decades. However, he once mused, even though the “new medicine works” – works beyond the wildest expectations he had as a young doctor in depression era America – “there are costs…the close-up, reassuring, warm touch of the physician…the comfort and concern…this uniquely subtle, personal relationship” that he saw disappearing behind the “immense, automated apparatus” that is the modern hospital (Lewis 58-59). Often, as miraculous as technological and scientific advancement can appear, these costs become obscured. And Turkle is interested in bringing these costs, particularly as they relate to the social dynamics of online interaction, to light. As she writes in the introduction, “if you’re spending three, four, or five hours a day in an online game or virtual world…there’s got to be someplace you’re not” (Turkle 12). The internet has ostensibly brought the entire world closer together, but she wonders whether or not it is instead driving us apart.
At one time, not too many years ago, inter-connectivity was a novelty. Online enthusiasts in the 1990s labeled themselves ‘cyborgs’, and these “cyborgs were a new kind of nomad, wandering in and out of the physical real” (152). Parents would warn their children not to put too much of themselves online, and would limit their child’s time online – the internet was the realm of ‘nerds’ and ‘geeks’. But in 2017 we are all always online, parents and children, and “in simulation culture we [all] become cyborg, and it can be hard to return to anything less” (209). The question of ‘less’ is central to the book. Do we lose something by disconnecting? Do we lose something by connecting? Turkle is an anthropologist by training, and she approaches these questions through the ethnographic interviews and studies that remain central to her field. “Over 450 people have participated in my studies of connectivity,” she notes, and these people’s stories are spread throughout the text – lonely computer scientists, suicidal teenagers, and feuding siblings on opposite sides of the country (xiii). In his seminal text book on New Media, Lev Manovich worries that “analytical texts from our era…mostly contain speculations about the future rather than a record…of the present” (Manovich 33). It is an understandable concern, and one that Turkle takes seriously. She is very much interested in the present, in the ways that titanic technological advancements interact with our primitive primate brains, still biologically stuck in the stone age. “I’ve never taken opiates, but I imagine it’s an electronic version of that…this is an opiate,” one interviewee muses (Turkle 228).
If the internet is an opiate, it is also a place where you can buy opiates – where you can seemingly buy, or do, or be anything. Turkle discusses the world of Second Life, where individuals ‘become’ (and intermingle with other) idealized avatars, the site PostSecret, where users can anonymously vent their innermost thoughts to the world, and the random, no strings attached personal communication of Chatroulette. But much of this interaction is superficial – “when technology engineers intimacy, relationships can be reduced to mere connections…and then, easy connection becomes redefined as intimacy” (16). Turkle readily admits there are no “simple answers” to the questions and concerns she’s posing, and that the purpose of this book isn’t so much to provide solutions as it is to put forward “good terms with which to start a conversation” (277). And it is a conversation that many people seem to want to have. “There are days i [sic] wish cellphones had never been invented,” reads one comment below the Buzzfeed piece – likely typed out on a phone (Barnicoat). And that is the difficulty. These technologies have quickly become indispensable, and their very indispensability is frightening. “We have agreed to an experiment in which we are the human subjects,” Turkle worries (299). And the results of that experiment are yet to be fully realized.
Barnicoat, Becky. “18 Tiny Ways Your Phone Has Ruined Your Life.” Buzzfeed, 19 May 2017, www.buzzfeed.com/beckybarnicoat/tiny-ways-your-phone-has-ruined-your-life.
Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. MIT Press, 2001.
Thomas, Lewis. The Youngest Science: Notes of a Medicine-Watcher. The Viking Press, 1983.
Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. Basic Books, 2017.