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Antisocial media

An MIT professor and psychologist argues our modern wired lifestyle is damaging us and our relationships, but she may be a bit premature

(Tatsuro Kiuchi)
By David Weinberger
Globe Correspondent / January 16, 2011

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In her important, controversial new book, Sherry Turkle reads our leap into digital technology not as the unfettering of a deep, human urge to connect, but as a dire symptom to be understood within an older framework: psychoanalysis. Whether you find this book’s analysis convincing depends on how you read the Rorschach test that is the Internet.

Turkle, an MIT professor and licensed clinical psychologist, was one of the first cartographers of the new digital territory. In “Alone Together,’’ she lays out technology’s effect on the self by presenting dozens of stories drawn from 15 years of observing people, especially youths, interacting with it. She unfailingly acknowledges the benefits technology brings, but in every case then moves to a far longer catalog of harms. “Alone Together’’ reads like a cry from the heart of the researcher, parent, and trained psychologist that Turkle is.

In the first half, Turkle worries about our willingness to believe that robots can care about us — although this “robotic moment’’ is perhaps further off than Turkle thinks: Few of us have gotten close to robots, and the stores were not filled with robot toys this holiday season. In the second half, she turns to our current technologies of connection, particularly the Internet. Joining the two halves is the central question of the book: “Technology reshapes the landscape of our emotional lives, but is it offering us the lives we want to lead?’’

Turkle’s answer is a resounding no. According to her, our uses of new technologies demean real friendships, lead us to treat others as objects, lower our expectations for real human connection, create immense stress, turn emotion into performance, make us confused about when we are alone and when we are together, and is creating a generation of narcissists so fragile that they need constant social reassurance.

Turkle reads as diseased much that many of us see as signs of robust social health. So, for Turkle, those posting cellphone photos from the presidential inauguration in January 2009 were not sharing the moment with distant friends, but were pathologically escaping from the here and now. Turkle reads teens’ texting not as a sign that they’re more socially connected than ever, but as evidence of a need for constant reassurance. When a teen reports that she was glad that news of a friend’s death came via an instant message because “she was able to compose herself’’ and “had time to think, ’’ Turkle sees it as retreating to the “safe haven’’ of the Internet to avoid strong emotions, rather than as a reasonable way to deal with a fraught moment.

There are enough of these unexpected interpretations that the reader is likely to start attempting a diagnosis of the book itself. Turkle is an immensely smart, sympathetic thinker. Why does the Internet seem so obviously to look this way to her?

Primarily, it’s a consequence of the psychological framework Turkle brings to the topic. For example, one of her subjects says, “For the first time people can stay in touch with people all of their lives.’’ That would seem to be a strength of the Internet. Yet, this subject goes on to complain that it means he can’t take on a new identity after high school. Turkle concludes that the persistence of data on the Internet means that teens lose the “moratorium’’ that Erik Erikson says is essential to the stabilization of identity. But she provides no systematic evidence that the persistence of data is actually causing identity problems. Similarly, she asserts without support that anger sometimes flares on “confessional sites’’ because people are projecting onto others what they dislike about themselves. Likewise, she tells us that author Kevin Kelly’s love of the Web is “erotic’’ with no support for this startling reading other than the theory that is the stage on which her explanation is set.

Factual support for Turkle’s interpretation of technology-as-symptom comes from the stories she tells as an observer of subjects. Many do, indeed, seem unhappy. But many also seem atypical: Leo texts his mom 20 times a day. Audrey dislikes using the phone because ending a call makes her feel rejected. Turkle’s use of these dramatic examples weakens them as evidence of a more generalized pathology.

Beyond the theories and the facts, Turkle is guided in this admirably personal book by a gradually revealed idea of what the good life is. Turkle personally prefers telephones over Facebook, letters over Skype, dolls over animatronic toys. She holds up Huck Finn and Thoreau as models. She says technology “gives us more and more of what we think we want,’’ but what we really want, she informs us, is solitude and intimacy. Her psychological training and personal beliefs tell her that shifts away from those old values are pathological.

But, suppose human nature is more malleable than her psychological model allows. Suppose the Internet is devising a self that is social in new ways that include intimacy, but that also find real human value in thinly spread connections. Turkle’s observations raise disturbing issues, but her theoretical framework so colors her conclusions that, although her book will spark useful debate, it settles less than she seems to think. The changes our technology is bringing are challenging our conceptual frameworks for understanding those changes, including the psychological standpoint Turkle takes as secure.

David Weinberger is a senior researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. He can be reached at self@evident.com.

ALONE TOGETHER: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other
By Sherry Turkle
Basic, 360 pp., $28.95