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Sherry Turkle's Keynote: "Cyber Intimacy & Solitude"


This morning’s keynote, “Cyber Intimacy and Cyber Solitude” with Sherry Turkle, perfectly fit the theme of this year’s Symposium, “Braving New Worlds”—and Rich Simon’s musical production of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” also appropriately fit the theme of exploration. Turkle, the director of MIT’s Initiative on Technology and Self and a clinical psychologist, spoke about the evolution of our relationships with technology, as illustrated by her extensive studies, as well as her own, changed perspectives and understanding of our beloved electronics.

In the 1970s, she was hired by MIT to teach sociology, but was so struck by the “love affair” she reported students having with computers that she decided to change her role at MIT to instead study and track these shifting relationships.

In 1978, she said, home computers were on the market, but the question was what to do with them! She vividly remembers a meeting in which academics were musing over how the average person might actually use computers. Tax preparation? (Maybe.) Word processing? (No, they decided.) Calendars? (No, datebooks are perfect.) Games? (A resounding “yes” was the only function everyone agreed about!) Clearly, these predictions weren’t completely on target.

Although Turkle was initially—and for many years—an optimistic advocate, she now has some concerns about our increasing use of digital gadgets. After extensively tracking our relationships with technology, she concludes that our 24/7 tech use, particularly in the ways we communicate, is seriously affecting our relationships with each other. Therapists, she says, have a vital role in understanding the important effects of technology on our person-to-person connections.

Prior to 1995, she says she didn’t foresee that we’d have gadgets like cell phones, that we’d carry everywhere with us. She compared our cells to a phantom limb, as we feel anxious when we don’t have it with us—some “feel” phones vibrating, even when they aren’t.

Second Life, an online world where users can select avatars to play themselves on screen, exemplifies her unease. Its advertising slogan promises “Finally a place to love your body, love your friends, love your life,” which she believes implies that our “first lives” aren’t the place to do so. Social networking also affords us opportunities to create a profile, social life, and so on, in which we’re able to present ourselves in a better light—more attractive or wealthier—than in the real world.

Turkle explains that technology enables distractions, and many of us are too busy communicating with others, that we’re unable to truly connect with the people who matter to us. So in this way, we are alone. . . together. This overarching concept is what prompted her to title her most recent book, Alone Together.

We all can probably name positive effects of technology—efficiency and convenience—but Turkle claims that our new, multitasking culture actually makes us less productive when it comes to getting work done. New norms of texting at family meals (and really, all of the time—she says that studies show people text even at funerals!) has fundamentally changed our human relationships.

She says people use technology to avoid face-to-face conversation. Communications technologies don’t allow us time to sit and think because they require instantaneous responses. Our deluge of e-mails and text messages and so on make it so we’re overwhelmed by the need to respond, and have become much less willing to make a phone call or have an in-person conversation.

Young people, in particular, who’ve been raised among these technologies, are comforted by being in touch with thousands of people online, but often keep real-life connections at a distance. It’s not abnormal for teenagers to sleep with their cells, reportedly to use them as alarm clocks, but in interviews, some have admitted to Turkle that it’s comforting to have their cells nearby. 

Turkle said that teens, these days, seem to grow up with a fantasy that they’ll never have to be alone. For example, she’s spoken to young adults who talk to their mothers 15 times a day! Constant—and instant—communication has become standard. Does adolescence still mean an extent of separation the way it once did, she wonders. People are losing the capacity for the “kind of solitude that regenerates and restores us,” she notes.

In a final, somewhat surprising plea, Turkle requests that her audience not use the metaphor of addiction when reflecting on technology. She believes that therapists have an essential role in considering how technology is affecting our human relationships and mental health, but that addiction isn’t the way to think about it. It’s true, Turkle says, that we get a little shot of dopamine when messaging each other and using social networking, so she’s sympathetic to psychologists who use the metaphor of addiction when considering the uses of technology.

However, to end addiction, we must discard the addictive substance—and it’s clear that this won’t happen. We aren’t exactly about to throw away our cell phones or go back to sending letters via the mail. It’s not our inventions that are causing the trouble, she says, but we are in need of new and better conversations about the ways in which we’re using them.

“Does technology serve our human purposes?” she asks. “We need to consider what these purposes are.”

03.25.2011   Posted In: Keynotes   By Jordan Magaziner
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