Review by Andrea L. Meluch, Kent State University
Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other
New York, NY: Basic Books, 2012. 360. Nonfiction.
Sherry Turkle’s (2012) discussion of the current use of technology (both between humans and robots and in relationships), Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, examines the personal and societal implications of our modern uses of communication technologies. This book marks the third installment in Turkle’s analysis of uses of technology. Whereas in Turkle’s earlier works, she expressed excitement about innovation, in this book Turkle admits to a marked difference in her approach to analyzing the way society now uses and relies on technology. Specifically, Turkle has concern for the impact that technology has had on our expectations of each other. Turkle’s argument is not dystopian per se, but instead a critical examination of what technology, in such a short period of time, has altered in terms of human relationships.
Throughout Turkle’s analysis of technology uses she uses anecdotal evidence and scholarly research to demonstrate to the audience how technology is (re-)shaping our perspectives. This framework allows for an intricate weaving of personal stories (both from Turkle’s point-of-view and that of others) and scholarship that illustrates how technology has changed communication and societal norms. The book itself is separated into two main parts: Part One) the use of robots in our lives; and Part Two) changes to our social networks. Turkle delineates between these two technological phenomena by their connections to intimacy and solitude. For part one, our relationships with robots, Turkle argues that we find “In Solitude, New Intimacies” (p. 21). Whereas, for part two, our relationships with each other, Turkle argues that we now have “In Intimacy, New Solitudes” (p. 149).
Part One, Chapters 1-7: “The Robotic Moment”
Chapters one and two begin with a chronological history of Turkle’s personal and professional experiences with robots, specifically those that she was exposed to during her tenure at MIT. Many of these robots that were presented include robot toys, such as the Tamagotchi and Furbie. Growing up with these toys, Turkle explains, primed a generation for acceptance of robotic companions in their everyday life. However, the robots that we began interacting with from the very beginning of robotic technology were not confined only to the use of toys. Turkle also points to early computer programs designed to “talk” to others and even offer support in times of need. Although users of the computer programs understood the fact that these programs couldn’t really offer support or care, Turkle explains, that users still wanted to share with the computers their feelings and secrets.
In chapters three and four Turkle updates the discussion of robots to those that have been introduced to the public over the last decade. Robot technologies, now more than ever, are able to offer a sense of companionship. Turkle shows how robot pets give owners the impression of having a real companion with them without the commitment to a real animal. In chapters five and six Turkle returns to the idea of having a relationship with robots the same way relationships are had with other human beings. Turkle discusses the promises and dilemmas of having robot caregivers in our lives. For example, robot caregivers for the elderly seems like a good solution to help making sure loved ones are taking their medications correctly and are not in danger. However, Turkle questions the ethical concerns of having robots act as replacements to human connections for the elderly who are lonely.
Chapter seven finishes out the first part of the book with idea that robots have become immersed in our everyday lives. The reliance on robots to perform both practical duties and relational needs is only growing. Thus, Turkle leaves us with the idea that with robots we “expect more from technology.”
Part Two, Chapters 8-14: “Networked”
Chapter eight opens up with the idea that with smart phones and the Internet we are essentially always connected to each other. Instead of experiencing life in the moment Turkle discusses a shift toward multitasking, where we are constantly connected to each other at least a little bit, which prevents us from being entirely focused on any one experience at a time. Delving into the use of Second Life and other similar online gaming platforms, Turkle frames the argument that online we have the opportunity to present ourselves differently than how we are in everyday life.
Chapters nine and ten look at what communication technology does to children and adolescents. Turkle questions the development of identity in adolescents who are constantly in contact with their parents. Before the advent of the cell phone adolescents, at some point, were separated from their parents and had to navigate the world on their own. However, now with cell phones, children need to constantly check-in with their parents and they are never entirely on their own.
Chapters eleven, twelve, and thirteen return to the idea of how we present ourselves through technology and what this means in terms of our ability to manage everyday life. Online we can have different personas and relationships outside of our “real” selves; however, these options present new temptations, such as revealing ourselves online in ways that were previously reserved for intimate relationships. This experience of sharing one’s innermost secrets with others online parallels earlier discussion in the book where Turkle discussed the idea of having deep conversations with robots. Both examples of sending personal messages through channels that cannot elicit responses the way a partner or friend could demonstrates how comfortable we are with sharing our deepest feelings without the need for true intimacy.
Chapter fourteen ends with a sense of hope for the future based on the fact that the younger generation, in some ways, is also turning away from some of the limitations of technology. For example, some are going back to letter writing instead of texting and long phone calls on landlines instead of broken cell service. This rejection of technology is as important as our use of technology, as it represents the fact that technology has not left everyone completely devoid of need for connection. At the end of the second half of the book, readers have the sense that because of enhanced connectivity we “expect less from each other,” in terms of our relationships and attention; however, this is not always the case.
Turkle ends her book with a call for a conversation about the turn that society has taken with technology and what ethical and practical concerns we should be considering. The book itself is a valuable addition to the social sciences literature on the uses and abuses of technology. It poses questions of why socially we accept technology in place of real relationships. It also demonstrates the social barriers that technology creates, despite making individuals more connected than they have ever been before. Thus, we are left with the argument that for all the technological advances we have made, we are also actively foregoing relational needs that were previously socially ingrained.
Andrea L. Meluch (MA, The University of Akron) is a doctoral candidate in the College of Communication and Information Ph.D. program at Kent State University. Her research interests are centered at the intersections of health and organizational communication. She has also investigated the role of technology in our personal and professional lives.
© 2014 Andrea L. Meluch, used by permission