Review (Guest): Alone Together — Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other

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Sherry Turkle

4.0 out of 5 stars Whoa! Let’s not get carried away, February 6, 2011

By Martin Zook “Martin Zook” (Virginia) – See all my reviews

There is much insight to be gained about our relationship with digital technology in reading Alone Together…but it’s equally informative to consider some of what’s not covered in Turkle’s book. When viewed through a broader perspective, perhaps we needn’t be as alarmed as one might think after finishing AT.

Sherry Turkle’s research indicates a loop. People design digital machines that make demands on us, their users. But people program digital technology such as robots and games to appeal to vulnerabilities. Turkle is most concerned with demands digital makes on our vulnerabilities, to the extent that some people are so attracted to the digital world that they run the risk of not being able to differentiate between reality 101 and digital illusions.

Even for someone who researches and analyzes the information technology such as myself, there are many eye-opening findings in AT. But the book is limited in scope, despite the fact that it is the cumulation of 30 years work by Turkle. For starters, Turkle’s Freudian approach to psychology leads her to focus on the pathological. Zeroing in on the pathological can be informative if it is the start of a path that is linked to more socially integrated behavior. In other words, examination of the pathological mind can yield insights into better integrated minds.

From some of the reactions here, I think there is a pitfall in translating Turkle’s findings directly to society at large, without taking into account how better integrated minds react to digital technology. And, I don’t fault readers. It’s a reasonable reaction and reflects a weakness in the book. “What’s wrong with the new and artistic world of computer games? Nothing is wrong with them. But looking to games for amusement is one thing. Looking to them for a life is another,” Turkle says on p.226. In other words, the digital world is what each of us collectively make of it. In that regard, it’s much like all phenomena.

Turkle’s diagnosis of the pathologies of the digital age seem right on. But I think that the illusory relationship with technology is transcended in individuals more integrated in a social setting. In other words, those who are not well integrated into their social settings, are vulnerable to the gravitational pull of the convenient and unambiguous digital world. Those who are better integrated will tend to view digital games as games. That’s certainly what I see in my teenage children (who seemingly are anatomically connected to their mobile phones yet somehow achieve leadership in their social activities), in their friends, in my work researching the business side of digital technology, and in those with whom I mix socially.

The fly in AT’s ointment is that Turkle’s findings are overly dependent on projecting the pathological directly onto the socially integrated. With children, she makes no allowance that they might outgrow their seemingly alarming relationship with digital toys. As pointed out in another review here, she doesn’t consider the many beneficial effects of digital technology, nor how well integrated people view the digital world.

I did think of Marshall McLuhan while reading AT, and his assertion that electronic media is controlled to a large degree by the user, in contrast to print, which is controlled by the press owner. AT illustrates that to a degree we are using our control over digital technology to address vulnerabilities. Some are confusing the illusions they perceive while using digital technologies to create alternative worlds that zaps their motivation for living in the real world. I’m sure some are. But I also question how many?

Another shortcoming of AT is the lack of prescriptive remedies. I suspect that the reaction of many is to deny access to the digital, just as many well-intended parents severely limit, or deny TV. It seems to me there are much more effective alternatives.

Turkle’s book is worth a read, but bring your skepticism along. Not only are you reading the findings of a Freudian, but one who projects a relatively narrow perspective onto a large canvas.

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Phi Beta Iota:  see also Shirley Turkle’s extraordinary book on the original hackers out of MIT, The Second Self–Computers and the Human Spirit.