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Remembering September 11, 2001

Phone, home

How September 11, 2001, changed the way a generation is growing up.

By Sherry Turkle
September 11, 2011

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My daughter was 10 and at school when the Twin Towers fell. I was supposed to teach a 3 o’clock class at MIT, but as I saw the first tower fall, I knew I couldn’t; I needed to be with my daughter. The professor with whom I co-taught the class was a bachelor who did not have children. Later I would get him on the phone, and he said he would meet with our students. I was grateful. They would appreciate having someplace to go. They could watch the news together.

A decade ago, people turned to television to know what was going on. It was comforting to watch it together. These days we would probably be online, glued to our laptops and phones, following Twitter feeds and texts from the towers and doomed planes. But then, for most of us, there was just television and the phones we had in our homes.

As the second tower melted, I stood in my bedroom, staring at the television, and began to try to call the people I loved. I couldn’t reach anyone. There was no way to get through to my daughter’s school. The lines were busy and stayed that way. I don’t remember my drive to the school, but I do remember the 20-minute walk from where I had to park my car. The neighborhood was flooded with parent cars. The walk stays with me because I had to keep reminding myself not to enjoy it. I wondered whether this was what war felt like: The weather stays beautiful, heartbreakingly sunny and crisp. But people are dying all around you.

When I finally had my daughter at home, most of the stores in our neighborhood were closed. But a 24-hour convenience store was open, although there was hardly anything left on its shelves. People were getting ready for a state of emergency. We bought Twizzlers and other movie-theater candy, which made it seem right that our local video store was open. My daughter picked out a movie she had watched several times before: Miss Congeniality. A young plain-Jane FBI agent is turned into a swan in order to pose as a contestant at a beauty pageant. Along the way, she uses her brains to save lives. On the evening of September 11, we watched Miss Congeniality several times before I realized what I was watching. My 10-year-old had chosen a fairy tale of a pretty young woman saving the day.

I have studied the psychology of mobile connectivity since the mid-’90s, and am convinced that the shadow of 9/11 falls on our relationships with our devices. Without 9/11, we would certainly still have had the mobile revolution. But the fact of 9/11 has made the idea that we need a phone with us at all times seem obvious. More than that, it has made the idea that our children need a phone with them at all times seem obvious, too. After 9/11, no parent or child wanted to be out of touch again. Technology made it possible to make an idea concrete: From this point on, one need never experience an emergency alone. And from there, another idea: that even being alone could be a thing of the past.

And so now I study families where parents say that they would never walk to the corner store without their phone in hand. There might be an emergency. When they go to dinner with friends, they bring their phones and put them on the table “in case of emergencies.” And their children, as young as 8, insist on a phone.

***

When I interview teenagers about cellphones, I often hear stories about 9/11. Remembered through the prism of connectivity, 9/11 was a day they could not be in touch. Many teachers and school administrators, who grew up hiding under desks in fear of an atomic attack, reacted to the news of the attack on the Twin Towers by isolating the children under their care. Students were taken out of classrooms and put in basements, the iconic hiding places of the Cold War. So, for example, “Julia,” an East Coast-based high school student who was in fourth grade during 9/11, spent many hours in this improvised quarantine. (I interviewed the girl I’m calling Julia in 2008  –  she was 16 – as I researched my book Alone Together, which includes chapters on children and connective technology, from cellphones to social media. The terms of my research required confidentiality for all participants, so Julia is a pseudonym.) During this time, she and her classmates had no way to contact their parents. “I didn’t have a cellphone then,” she told me. “I needed to talk to my mother.”

For Julia, 9/11 was all the more frightening because one of the girls in her class had an aunt who worked in the World Trade Center. And one of the boys had a relative who was supposed to be flying that day, but he didn’t know to where. Only later in the afternoon, with communication restored, did Julia and her friends learn that everyone they had worried about was safe. She talked about what it was like to be at school that day.

“It was scary ’cause my teachers didn’t know what was going on and they all brought us into a room, and they didn’t really know what to tell us. They just told us that there were bad guys bombing, crashing planes into buildings. We would ask questions, but they didn’t know how to answer. We asked if they caught the bad guys. And our teacher said, ‘Yeah, they are in jail.’ But none of them could have been in jail because they crashed the plane. So our teachers really didn’t know what was going on, either.”

The trauma of 9/11 is part of the story of our new connectivity culture. After the destruction at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Americans accepted an unprecedented level of surveillance of both their persons and their communications. For a generation, 9/11 marked childhood with the experience of being cut off from all comfort. In its shadow, cellphones became a symbol of physical and emotional safety. After the attacks on the World Trade Center, parents who really had not seen the point of giving cellphones to their children discovered a reason: continual contact. What Julia took from her experience of 9/11 is the firm conviction that it is “always good,” she said, to have your cellphone with you.

Today, at schools all over the country, teachers try to discourage just this. Some schools ask that phones be silenced and out of sight in class. Others ban phones to lockers in halls. At Julia’s school, teachers try to convince students that they don’t need their phones with them at all times. Julia quotes them derisively: “They say, ‘Oh, there’s a phone in every classroom.’ ” But Julia makes it clear that she will have none of it: “I feel safer with my own phone. Because we can’t all be using the same phone at once.” This is a new nonnegotiable: To feel safe, you have to be connected. “If I got in a fight with somebody,” Julia says, “I’d call my friend. I’d tell my friend if I got in trouble with the teacher. I’d tell my friend if there was a fight and I was scared. If I was threatened, I’d tell my friends. Or if someone came in and had a knife, I’d text my friends.” For all of this, the phone is a comfort.

September 11 brought its message of an unsafe world to a prepared terrain. Before that day, Julia’s public school already had metal detectors at its entrance and uniformed security guards that patrolled its halls. As we talk about the importance of being connected, Julia’s thoughts turn to Columbine and Virginia Tech. “I’m reading a book right now about a school,” she says. “It’s about two kids who brought a gun to a dance and keep everyone hostage and then killed themselves. And it’s a lot like Columbine. . . . We had an assembly about Columbine just recently.” She continues: “At a time like that, I think I’d need my cellphone to tell my mom I’m OK or not OK and stuff like that. That’s a time that I feel I’d need a cellphone.”

The media have told us the story of “helicopter parents.” They hail from a generation of people who do not want to repeat the mistakes of their parents (too much independence too soon) and so hover over their children’s lives. But my research has taught me that their children hover as well. They have experienced 9/11 or its cultural memory. They do not assume safe passage, and they want to be connected. There is the desire for emotional support, certainly. But 9/11 also taught a measure of distrust in authority. If something goes wrong, people may have to take care of themselves, and we’ll need our phones. So, high school students explain to me that if a fight breaks out in class, a text network can bring other students to the scene to help.

One time, in Julia’s school, there was a snow emergency, but school was not dismissed. Students took matters into their own hands and a text went around, virally. It said: “Everyone meet after fourth period. We’ll all walk out together.”

Julia is careful to tell her mother where she is at all times. She checks in after school, on the train, when she gets to a friend’s house, and if she is going out, “when we got to the place and got home.” She avoids disconnection at all costs: “It is really hard to think about not having your cellphone. I feel like” – she pauses – “I try never to leave my house without it. I couldn’t picture not having it, especially in time of emergency. . . . I feel like it’s attached. Me and my friends say, ‘I feel naked without it.’ ”

Naked without our phones. Exactly. For adults as well as teens, when we misplace our mobile devices, we become anxious, impossible. People tell me that they sleep with their phones and that even when their phones are put away (for teens, say, relegated to a school locker) they “know” when they have a message or a call. Mobile technology has become like a phantom limb, it is so much a part of us.

***

With a phone always with them, today’s young people have grown up with the fantasy that in some way, they will never have to be alone. Adolescents still have the developmental job of separation, but it can be worked through in smaller steps. Feelings of being a bit stranded in adolescence used to be considered a step toward being comfortable with autonomy. Connectivity makes it possible to bypass these kinds of feelings; one moves to a new sensibility. Let’s call it: “I share therefore I am.”

Julia turns texting into a kind of polling. “If I’m upset, right as I feel upset, I text a couple of my friends,” she explains, “because I know that they’ll be there and they can comfort me. If something exciting happens, I know that they’ll be there to be excited with me, and stuff like that. So I definitely feel emotions when I’m texting, as I’m texting.”

For Julia, as for so many of the hundreds of teenagers I have studied, things have moved from “I have a feeling, I want to make a call” to “I want to have a feeling, I need to send a text.” Technology does not cause but encourages a sensibility where the validation of a feeling becomes part of establishing it. Our contact list has become like a list of “spare parts” to support the fragile adolescent – or adult – self. But when we use people in this way we reduce them as we turn them to our own purposes. We take what we need. It is not the way to appreciate other people as full human beings. More than this, what is not being cultivated is the capacity to be alone, to gather oneself. The psychoanalytic tradition suggests that loneliness is failed solitude. If we don’t teach our children to be alone, they will know only how to be lonely. And as adults, always connected, we are often too busy to think, too busy to create, too busy to be attentive to one another in the ways that matter. Always connected, we risk losing our capacity for the kind of solitude that refreshes and restores.

Across the generations, adult and child took the same message from the experience of 9/11: the firm conviction, as 16-year-old Julia puts it, that it is “always good” to have your cellphone with you. I write this essay at the end of a summer on Cape Cod. I get to walk the dunes that

Thoreau walked as he meditated on the meaning of connection and the meaning of solitude. I have walked these dunes for decades. And for decades I have seen people walk them alone and in little groups, looking up at the sky and water. Now, many walk them looking down at their mobile devices. And when they walk with a partner, adult or child, it is not unusual for each to carry a device. Together or solitary, we have gained a world of connections. But when alone, we have lost solitude. And when together, immersed in our devices, we walk alone.

Sherry Turkle, professor of the social studies of science and technology at MIT, is the author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other (Basic, 2011); this essay expands on ideas introduced in her book. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.