Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Sherry Turkle's "Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology And Less From Each Other" (Steak Knives)

I mentioned to my wife that this text was like the classic shrink-wrap package deal on DVDs.  “Weekend at Bernie’s II” bundled with “Ben Hur”, for example.  Priced to move, but you have to take the good along with the bad.  My wife felt this was a clever (if not original) metaphor, and I think it captures my reaction to this text perfectly.  The first half of this is brutally poor, and the second, while not quite Judah Ben Hur, is a great study of the role the internetz, texting and social media in shaping our relationships with each other. 

To split this text in half is easy.  Part I, a treatise on the role of ‘social’ robots in culture at large.  Part II, the close look at texting, Facebook and similar in mediating our relationships.  I’ll take a crack at each in turn.

Part I is the “Weekend at Bernie’s II” portion.  Turkle explores the growing place of robots in entertaining the young and caring for the elderly.   While I don’t discount what she offers here, her primary examples are Aibo, Tamagotchi, Furby and such from the turn of the Millennium or earlier.  In a 2011 publication, I’d simply and reasonably demand more contemporary sources.  She makes good points, but they’re rooted in what I’d call 'technological pre-history' given the break-neck speed of technological change in the last decade.  This portion should have been published 14 years ago, while I was still hitting raves and artifacts like Tamagotchi were still thick in the cultural air.  

Her point here, in coarse summary, is that the expectations we have of such virtual creatures provide form for how we come to expect our relationships with other humans to develop, and how children come to determine what is alive and what is not.  The most compelling part of this half of the text is how she considers elder-care by robots to be particularly problematic, asking  good questions of such technology in a context when even children beg the question ‘Aren’t their people for these jobs?’  Skip this half of the book, I think.

An aside for context:  I used Turkle’s fantastic “Life On The Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet” extensively in researching my Masters’s thesis.  In part, I explored how anti-globalization activists' online connections represented something more, something bigger, than simply one more touch point in their activist experience.  Rather, these online connections act as key identity referents that signaled a truly 'global' identity (transcending identity framed on national or local ones - e.g. 'I'm acting as a global citizen, not a Canadian.')  Of course, the irony is that anti-globalization activists are enacting 'globalized' identities in the process of their protest, literally 'being the truths they speak.'  An emergent social internet was seized as a mainline to a world-wide network of activism that provided a symbolic more than a pragmatic 'global interconnectedness' (at least for the turn of the Millennium).

It was a great read, and a timely one for my own academic purposes.  The second half of Turkle’s text here delivered on this pedigree, and was a pleasure to read as a thoughtful and intimate take on how social media has evolved to dominate and regulate our relationships with each other.  Start the book here

What if I only want Ben Hur?

In Part II (the Ben Hur half), she argues persuasively that we loose much in such technologically mediated relationships - hence, 'Alone Together.'  This is not done with the tiresome, plaintive tone of a Luddite complainer.   Most of her respondents are youth, ‘digital natives’ who grew up saturated in an online world.  As an anthropologist/psychologist teaching technology and culture at MIT, Turkle is as well positioned as anybody could be to comment on the subject.  It's a cautionary consideration of what is lost and what is gained in funneling meaningful social exchanges through the still narrow channels of social media, at least as they compare to rich face to face human interaction.

It's not an argument calling for a devolution and retrogression.   We all recognize that social media is an exploding part of our social dynamic, growing in scope and occupying more of our 'life mix' as we enact our selves in online and offline relationships.  We have to appreciate and make visible how things like our Facebook, Twitter, Blogger and Pinterest selves reflect facets of identity - partial not whole, if a positive dialogue about where our sense of person-hood is headed in all of this.

Her anecdotes from the field shed much light on how this plays out with digital natives as well as those of us who remember fondly their first clunky experiences with email, bulletin boards, and chat rooms, with primitive cell phones ('dumb' phones?) still a luxury of the rich and privileged.  For example, she recounts a young girl's 'relief' at finding out a classmate and friend had died via text message.  It gave her time to absorb and react to the blow.  By the time she returns to the face to face reality of the school yard, it didn't need to be addressed in full.  'Did you hear?'.... 'Yeah...'  There's an important benefit in the social experience of grief that's been denied here.  Something important, and something really human has been lost in running the experience through the narrow pipes of txt.  

A more modest example, familiar to too many, is being dumped via text (or FB).  The tension of this prospect sits at the fuzzy border zone of a new decorum, and challenges us to settle on a new norm to fit the medium.  Online avatar weddings in MMORPs, adopting new sexual and gender identities for role-playing and the like all present great outlets for personal discovery, but how do we fit these puzzle pieces back into the greater whole of a 'me.'  Are they different but equal representations of who we are, or potentially damaging retreat into a medium that demands less of us - preventing us from coming out or sharing our deepest needs with those who physically surround us.

She uses the idea of 'life mix' to grapple with all of the different social media modalities we adopt in creating our 'lives on the screen.'  It's a useful and apt lens, I think.  When we consider these different pieces as a concert of constructed identities, we can make better sense of their role and potential.  She makes the obvious connection to McLuhan - the medium is the message.  Twitter me is most definitely not an analog to Blogger me.  Facebook becomes an artfully crafted social representation of who we'd like to be seen as, rather than a faithful representation of who we are at core.   [Post the picture of you with duckface, but not the one blowing chunks into the toilet.]  Managing all of this becomes a new and novel stressor.  Others have access to our 'walls' as virtual representations of who we are.  We've all been tagged in photos we'd rather distance ourselves from, and having threads co-opted by marginal associates or embarrassing relatives is a new irk.  We're still learning (creating?) the emergent mores and norms on the fly.

What can we learn from how different parts of our identity erupt into these different channels as a less conscious but carefully executed process?  What can we learn from the fact that identity construction has become socially participatory at an unprecedented scale and scope?

Turkle misses (or ignores) an important dimension of the larger argument, IMHO.  Primarily, what it means to have a large and inseparable portion of our identity mediated by a brand/corporation (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Blogger, etc.).  What does this mean in terms of ownership, control and privacy in the long term?  While I'm not expecting the big squeeze any time soon, lets assume FB were to shut down or move to a radically different business model tomorrow.  What agency do we ultimately have to reconcile our junior position in crafting our online identities?  This is a big, big, big question that still hasn't been directly addressed, even as we give over more, more and more of ourselves to these brand 'mediated' social interactions.

That this text creates so many questions speaks to its strength.  More than that, it's a call to action for thinkers and policy makers on the subject.

Sherry Turkle

Follow the link below to see a fine TED talk given by Turkle on this very subject.


Side note:  I just celebrated my 39th birthday and had 50+ greetings from Facebook friends, as well as several txt's and emails.  Humbling.  The scale of engagement is far larger than I'd ever have expected in my youth, but it's certainly much thinner.  I appreciate all of them, but it's not a cake with candles on it either.

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