Final Major Project- Research

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In 1995, Sherry Turkle, a professor of the “social studies of science” at M.I.T., published a book about identity in the digital age called “Life on the Screen.” It was a mostly optimistic account, as Turkle celebrated the freedom of online identity. Instead of being constrained by the responsibilities of real life, Turkle argued, people were using the Web to experiment, trying on personalities like pieces of clothing. As one online user told her, “You are who you pretend to be.”

In Turkle’s latest book, “Alone Together,” this optimism is long gone. If the Internet of 1995 was a postmodern playhouse, allowing individuals to engage in unbridled expression, Turkle describes it today as a corporate trap, a ball and chain that keeps us tethered to the tiny screens of our cellphones, tapping out trite messages to stay in touch. She summarizes her new view of things with typical eloquence: “We expect more from technology and less from each other.”

Turkle abruptly pivots to the online world, in which we have “invented ways of being with people that turn them into something close to objects.” She rejects the thesis she embraced 15 years earlier, as she notes that the online world is no longer a space of freedom and re­invention. Instead, we have been trapped by Facebook profiles and Google cache, in which verbs like “delete” and “erase” are mostly metaphorical. Turkle quotes one high school senior who laments the fact that everything he’s written online will always be around, preserved by some omniscient Silicon Valley server. “You can never escape what you did,” he says.

But Turkle isn’t just concerned with the problem of online identity. She seems most upset by the banalities of electronic interaction, as our range of expression is constrained by our gadgets and platforms. We aren’t “happy” anymore: we’re simply a semicolon followed by a parenthesis. Instead of talking on the phone, we send a text; instead of writing wistful letters, we edit our Tumblr blog. (Turkle cites one 23-year-old law student who objects when friends apologize online: “Saying you are sorry as your status . . . that is not an apology. That is saying ‘I’m sorry’ to Facebook.”) And yet, as Turkle notes, these trends show no sign of abating, as people increasingly gravitate toward technologies that allow us to interact while inattentive or absent. Our excuse is always the same — we’d love to talk, but there just isn’t time. Send us an e-mail. We’ll get back to you.

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Conversation is Turkle’s organizing principle because so much of what constitutes humanity is threatened when we replace it with electronic communication. Conversation presupposes solitude, for example, because it’s in solitude that we learn to think for ourselves and develop a stable sense of self, which is essential for taking other people as they are. (If we’re unable to be separated from our smartphones, Turkle says, we consume other people “in bits and pieces; it is as though we use them as spare parts to support our fragile selves.”) Through the conversational attention of parents, children acquire a sense of enduring connectedness and a habit of talking about their feelings, rather than simply acting on them. (Turkle believes that regular family conversations help “inoculate” children against bullying.) When you speak to people in person, you’re forced to recognize their full human reality, which is where empathy begins. (A recent study shows a steep decline in empathy, as measured by standard psychological tests, among college students of the smartphone generation.) And conversation carries the risk of boredom, the condition that smartphones have taught us most to fear, which is also the condition in which patience and imagination are developed.

Turkle examines every aspect of conversation — with the self in solitude, with family and friends, with teachers and romantic partners, with colleagues and clients, with the larger polity — and reports on the electronic erosion of each. Facebook, Tinder, MOOCs, compulsive texting, the tyranny of office email, and shallow online social activism all come in for paddling. But the most moving and representative section of the book concerns the demise of family conversation. According to Turkle’s young interviewees, the vicious circle works like this: “Parents give their children phones. Children can’t get their parents’ attention away from their phones, so children take refuge in their own devices. Then, parents use their children’s absorption with phones as permission to have their own phones out as much as they wish.” For Turkle, the onus lies squarely on the parents: “The most realistic way to disrupt this circle is to have parents step up to their responsibilities as mentors.” She acknowledges that this can be difficult; that parents feel afraid of falling behind their children technologically; that conversation with young children takes patience and practice; that it’s easier to demonstrate parental love by snapping lots of pictures and posting them to Facebook. But, unlike in “Alone Together,” where Turkle was content to diagnose, the tone of “Reclaiming Conversation” is therapeutic and hortatory. She calls on parents to understand what’s at stake in family conversations — “the development of trust and self-esteem,” “the capacity for empathy, friendship and intimacy” — and to recognize their own vulnerability to the enchantments of tech. “Accept your vulnerability,” she says. “Remove the ­temptation.”

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