Sherry Turkle’s sobering thoughts on communication and alienation
May 11th, 2007

Sherry Turkle has always been a keen observer of socio-technological practices. Not only is she technically knowledgeable — she’s on the MIT faculty — but she has spent decades in direct empirical observation. So much armchair criticism is just that — based on ideas and anecdotal evidence, but not systematic observation. Although much of this article is anecdotal, Turkle also has spent years watching how people interact with computers and communication devices. I find her observations to be realistic and sobering. Read this article she wrote for Forbes if you blog, cellphone, text, IM, and/or Twitter:

I have traveled 36 hours to a conference on robotic technology in central Japan. The grand ballroom is Wi-Fi enabled, and the speaker is using the Web for his presentation. Laptops are open, fingers are flying. But the audience is not listening. Most seem to be doing their e-mail, downloading files, surfing the Web or looking for a cartoon to illustrate an upcoming presentation. Every once in a while audience members give the speaker some attention, lowering their laptop screens in a kind of digital curtsy.

In the hallway outside the plenary session attendees are on their phones or using laptops and pdas to check their e-mail. Clusters of people chat with each other, making dinner plans, “networking” in that old sense of the term–the sense that implies sharing a meal. But at this conference it is clear that what people mostly want from public space is to be alone with their personal networks. It is good to come together physically, but it is more important to stay tethered to the people who define one’s virtual identity, the identity that counts. I think of how Freud believed in the power of communities to control and subvert us, and a psychoanalytic pun comes to mind: “virtuality and its discontents.”

The phrase comes back to me months later as I interview business consultants who seem to have lost touch with their best instincts for how to maintain the bonds that make them most competitive. They are complaining about the BlackBerry revolution. They accept it as inevitable, decry it as corrosive. Consultants used to talk to one another as they waited to give presentations; now they spend that time doing e-mail. Those who once bonded during limousine rides to airports now spend this time on their BlackBerrys. Some say they are making better use of their “downtime,” but they argue their point without conviction. This waiting time and going-to-the-airport time was never downtime; it was work time. It was precious time when far-flung global teams solidified relationships and refined ideas.

We live in techno-enthusiastic times, and we are most likely to celebrate our gadgets. Certainly the advertising that sells us our devices has us working from beautiful, remote locations that signal our status. We are connected, tethered, so important that our physical presence is no longer required. There is much talk of new efficiencies; we can work from anywhere and all the time. But tethered life is complex; it is helpful to measure our thrilling new networks against what they may be doing to us as people.

Here I offer five troubles that try my tethered soul.

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1 - Geof Cain

Although I do not live in her glamourous world of Blackberrys and limosines, I do attend education conferences and the new technologies allow me to stay in touch with collegues and solve problems back at my college. As an instructional designer who works in a distance learning department and is meant to be available, I will use my lap top during a lecture to simultaneously take notes, send references to others, manage online course materials for my college, etc. Some sessions require my full attention, others don’t. I consider myself richly connected; I can work, communicate with friends and family, participate in online seminars in Scotland, and verify or counter statements made at a conference. I cannot afford to sit still, feet on the floor, eyes to the front, no matter how important the sage on the stage considers him or herself to be.

2 - Michael

I very much agree with her. The five points she makes are valid. We are in a different state of self and not here any more when we’re on the phone, messaging or emailing.
I guess, just as with everything else, it depends on the degree we do it. I used to use my laptop to take notes during conferences and also “live-blogged,” and must admit that it doesn’t work for me. The divided attention is like trying to be at two places at the same time. Now i take pictures and take notes in my “analogue,” paper notebook again. And it works. I memorise the content much better transcribing it later to a digital format. And have time to digest it and develop my own opinion.

I think we have also experienced the strange phenomenon that instead of spending time with the people we’re with, we connected with people that are far away and not present in the immediate reality. In the past we could dedicate our complete attention to the new peers present instead of connecting with remote friends. I think this is a loss. It prevents us of really engaging with a new place. Again, i think it depends on how excessively we do it. There have to find our balance.

When the things take place that Turkle describes we change as human beings and i think its worth paying attention to that. We adapt fast to new circumstances (thats why we are so “successful” all over the planet) – but at the same time i believe there are traits, desires and ideas within us that are hardwired, and need nourishment. If lost they will leave a void that is hard to fill.

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