At a recent house party, I briefly found myself exchanging texts with a non-attending friend. I plead that this particular friend is rarely available — nonetheless, I was the only person texting at the party, and during that time I was, although physically present, not entirely there.
This Information Age (mis)behaviour is exactly the kind of thing Sherry Turkle studies at MIT, where she is the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology in the Program in Science, Technology and Society. We shape technology, certainly, but technology also shapes us. Her new book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, is the latest instalment in her series of intermittent reports on her discoveries.
The biggest change since 1995's Life on the Screen is pervasiveness: back then half-presence was limited by the fact that you had to be physically sitting at a computer. Commonplace physical needs could sever the connection between you and your virtual world. Now, robot toys and companions, mobile phones and wireless networks mean that one must make a conscious decision to disconnect and give full attention to the people in the same room. The stakes vary: a missed business call for an adult, the electronic pet that may 'die' if it's not fed when it chirps.
Turkle is too smart and hard-working to see technology solely as a cause of social or psychological disorders: this is not the book to read for shallow complaints that young people don't care about privacy or for scare stories about internet addiction. Instead, through many personal interviews and much reading on the web (she regularly reads confession sites for six months), she teases out how her subjects think and feel about the technologies that populate and mediate their world and the decisions they make. Is creating a Facebook profile part of shaping an identity or another performance? What are we losing and gaining as voice calls become characterised as too intrusive for casual communications and are replaced by texting, email and Facebook? How much does connecting — via text, IM, ChatRoulette or Second Life avatar — anchor us to or disconnect us from our real lives?
Turkle identifies many mismatches. Teachers want mobile phones turned off in class — but for those who were young children when New York's twin towers fell, turning off causes anxiety. Yet kids may also be unhappy that they can't get the full attention of their parents, who obsessively scroll through their Blackberries and check their email during time spent together. One couple celebrates their new pregnancy by blogging it together; a close family members resents not being told personally.
Turkle herself clearly has a near-nostalgic taste for the 'old days' of physical connections: for letters, phone calls and physical presence. I think it's safe to say her experience isn't universal. Parents were just as distracted by newspapers and television 40 years ago. And the asynchronicity of letters made it just as easy to present a false persona. But she still makes you think.
Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other By Sherry Turkle Basic Books 360pp ISBN: 978-0-465-01021-9 Price: $28.95