Q&A: Why our digital devices are making us lonelier than ever

Our increasing use of mobile devices is changing our culture, perhaps making us lonelier and less able to form meaningful relationships. SmartPlanet speaks with expert Sherry Turkle to find out how and why.
Written by Christie Nicholson, Contributor

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We may have 700 friends on Facebook but do we have the ability or want to maintain a sustained real-life conversation with them? Can we pay attention to the eulogy at a funeral, when our mobile phone is buzzing silently in our pockets? The rise of mobile technology is increasingly turning us into an 'always on' and 'always elsewhere' culture. And this change has profound consequences for the very thing that motivated the innovation in technology in the first place: Connecting with others. In fact this cultural shift may destroy the very thing we seek most in our lives. We are inherently social creatures, after all.

SmartPlanet caught up with Sherry Turkle, a psychologist and professor of social studies of science and technology at M.I.T., to get a better idea of just how the shift to mobile devices is changing our daily habits and relationships with people.

She recently wrote Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other.

SmartPlanet: You've said that our mobile devices have changed "who we are." In what ways?

Sherry Turkle: More and more people are willing to sacrifice conversation for mere connection. They shortchange themselves. Worse, they begin to not see the difference.

Additionally, constant connectivity makes us three seductive promises: One, that we will always be heard, two, that we can put our attention wherever we want it to be, and third, that we never have to be alone.

SP: And it's this last one that you are most concerned about?

ST: It turns out that this third promise is having extraordinary effects on our emotional lives. Constant connection has made being alone feel like a problem that needs to be solved.

But here connection is more like a symptom than a cure: It doesn't get to the underlying problem.
Constant connection is changing how people think of themselves. It's shaping a new way of being. I sometimes call it: "I share therefore I am." We use technology to define ourselves by sharing our thoughts and feelings as we're having them.

SP: And what is the main problem with that?

ST: The problem with the regime of "I share therefore I am" is that if we don't have connection, we don't feel like ourselves. So what do we do? We connect. More and more. But in the process, we set ourselves up to be more isolated.

SP: This sounds counterintuitive.

ST: It may seem counterintuitive to some, how we get from connection to isolation. It has to do with how important solitude is to our capacity for attachment. We end up isolated when we don't cultivate the capacity for solitude, the ability to be separate, to gather ourselves.

If you don't have the capacity for solitude, you turn to other people to feel alive or less anxious. We are at risk of turning this into our cultural style.

If you don't have the capacity for solitude, we're not able to appreciate other people for who they are; it's as though we're using them as spare parts to support our fragile self. We slip into thinking that always being connected is going to make us less lonely. But it is actually the reverse: If we are unable to be alone, we will be more lonely.

SP: You've mentioned that such devices teach us "different habits." Could you give a couple of specific examples of these new habits?

ST: With the seductions of always-on/always-on-you technology people feel free to absent themselves from where they are. People text during corporate board meetings. They text and go on Facebook during classes. Parents do their email at breakfast and dinner, while their children complain about not having their parents' full attention. But in turn, children deny each other their full attention. I go to birthday parties, and kids are often into their phones, texting and messaging rather than talking to the other kids at the party.

I find this "I'd rather text than talk" behavior particularly poignant at parties when kids are about fifteen. This is an age when at boy-girl parties, it is hard for the kids to talk to each other. But when they do, well, an important developmental step has been taken. But today, at that awkward moment, adolescents take out their phones and go on Facebook. Of course texting rather than talking can be a "toe in the water" step towards moving to fuller relationships. But it can also be a way in which we hide from each other. What I see, across the generations, is that we are using our new communications devices to keep each other at a distance, a distance we can control. I call it the "Goldilocks effect." We want people "not too close, not too far, just right."

SP: Because these devices allow us to essentially be in two separate places at once, you've noted that their attraction lies in this: "The thing we value most is control over where we focus our attention." Why do you think we value attentional control so much, at the expense of relationships?

ST: Yes, the centerpiece of our new sensibility is control. That is the essence of the Goldilocks effect. We want to be where we are but also elsewhere. We want to go to a corporate board meeting, but text during the parts that don't interest us. We want to go to our children's football games and do our email during the parts that don't interest us. We want to go to funerals (truly, I study this!) and only pay attention to the parts that grab us. We want to interrupt our grief or our reverie and go into our machines. When I talk to a businessman who works on several important corporate boards, and does his email during meetings, he is unapologetic. He says, "I belong to a tribe of one and I know what is best for my tribe." This habit of seeing ourselves as a tribe of one, I think this is the most important new habit of mind that mobile connection has enabled. It undermines our ability be with each other and our participation in our communities.

SP: The author Nicholas Carr has written about the dopamine effects of receiving brand new information, and how addictive this is. We get a shot of dopamine every time we receive new info, regardless of the importance of the content. Do you think this chemical reaction to new information lies at the real root for why we are so attached to our devices why we have that reflexive impulse to constantly hit the refresh button on our email?

ST: Nicholas Carr has done a brilliant job of talking about the neurochemical bases of our behavior around our phones, our texts, our email, indeed, every aspect of our "respond now, search now" online lives. My work, in which I interview people about how they are thinking and feeling about their connected lives, tells another part of the story.

When you watch people interrupt conversations with loved ones in order to respond to a text - they typically hold up a hand, a finger and say something like, "just a sec." In their mind, they are stopping time. Emotionally, we respond to what comes in on our phones as though it may bring us that thing we are missing in life, that bit of "good news." That is what the ping of the text or the announcement of an email is for us. It tells us we are wanted, that someone cares for us, is thinking of us.

SP: Are people really afraid of demands of a relationship?

ST: I believe that technology is most seductive where what it offers speaks to a human vulnerability. And it turns out that in the area of relationships, we are very vulnerable indeed. We are lonely but afraid of intimacy. People want to be in relationships, but they are hard and they demand a great deal. What online connections do is offer the illusion of friendship without the demands of real intimacy.

There are many consequences when we turn away from conversation. Certainly a loss of listening and empathic skills. And a greater shallowness in what we offer each other in terms of understanding. But for the moment, I want to focus on one developmental issue that depends on conversation. We learn how to have conversations with ourselves by having conversations with each other. For children growing up, this skill is the bedrock of development.

SP: What steps can we take to preserve our real life relationships, and our real life connection to the physical world?

I believe that we should be very thoughtful about preserving "sacred spaces" - for example, our kitchens, our dining rooms, our cars - that we keep as places where we talk with each other. Where we remember to value conversation over mere connection. And we need to do the same thing at work. At work, we are paying a price in innovation, creativity, productivity, and leadership. For all of these things, you need the capacity for solitude. You need the capacity for conversation, for being able to put yourself in someone else's place, for really knowing how to listen, for being able to feel part of a group and understand its rhythms. Beyond that, I believe that we need to slow down. We need to take the time to really listen to each other. In the workplace, I suggest that you answer an email with the message "I'm thinking" and see if this stand for reflection goes viral!

This notion that we only have to listen to what is interesting, that what is "boring" is not part of the conversation, that has to go. In my view, it is when we hesitate and stutter and fall silent, it's in those moments that we reveal ourselves to each other. I think we need to recognize the seriousness of the moment. Technology is very powerful. It technology promises to make relationships simpler, less filled with risk. We can talk to our phone - just look at how the new ads for Siri, the digital assistant on Apple's iPhone has us befriending our phone. Or we can go to Facebook instead of hanging out with our friends. I think we are at a moment of temptation. I like to think that we'll be tempted but see that the wiser path is to reaffirm what makes us special as people.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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