Alone Together

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other
Lecture by Sherry Turkle at Dartmouth College

Alone Together book coverSherry started her presentation by thanking her high school teacher, a particular inspiration, and who was in the audience.

I was drawn by the title of the lecture, which expresses some of the ambivalence I have with technology, and with social media in particular. Her presentation was a number of anecdotes related to her anthropological research on technology and its effects on various age groups.  Her stories were very accessible, but you had the sense that there was serious and dense research behind it all.

Some phrases that I liked:

  • We are the computer’s killer app!
  • Teenagers feel more secure with phones near, and yes, they tell you that they need to sleep with their cell phone because of the alarm.  Their phone has become a phantom limb.
  • Addiction is a misnomer.  Technology is powerful, useful, and we shouldn’t be trying to do without “cold turkey”.
  • Technology provides the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship.
  • We need to keep technology, while keeping the sacred spaces that make us human.  Example? Texting at funerals, one of those events where we are supposed to be all together, focussing on one another.
  • A teen who talks longinly about a sit down phone call where you give your full attention.
  • What is democracy without privacy; what is intimacy without privacy?
  • A teen who receives 100 text messages received during an interview, and who says, after looking at them: “How long will I have to do this?”
  • What does it mean as a child progresses from adolescence to adulthood to always have a grown-up on tap?  Example: the college kids who text their mom 10 times a day.
  • The tragedy of the 15-year old birthday party, and that moment when they all pull out their phones and start texting.
  • Feelings must be validated by texting them.
  • Technology creates an illusion of privacy.
  • Too busy communicating to think, to create.
  • But there are advantages and lots of people are already writing about that.  For example, what would we have known about what’s happening in Egypt right now?

After her presentation, she entertained some questions from the audience.  In particular, she was asked about the caliber of students today vs. 15 years ago. She said the writing is worse, they pay less attention. Technology helps some writers, by making it easy to do lots of drafts, but for others it hinders, by making your first draft look like you can hand it in.  The quality of writing is also affected by less reading.  Internet search seems to encourage shorter reading efforts (avoiding the “long form”, or books over 40,000 words).

In a cautionary note, she sounded the alarm on our surrender of privacy, and alluded to her grandmother’s flight from a totalitarian regime in Europe. What if government isn’t benign?

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