The following book review was turned in for an assignment in my Research Methods class. We were required to choose a book that required intensive research in its development process. I chose Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, a book that was recommended to me by a friend after I started my indefinite hiatus from Facebook. I hope to add a less censored take on the book soon, but for now, here is my 1,000-word review designed to be more objective for this class assignment.
Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. Basic Books: Perseus Books Group. January 2011. c.360p. notes. index. ISBN 9780465010219. $28.95. Current Events/Sociology
Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other doesn’t exist to answer the question the book’s subtitle proposes. This nonfiction title instead provides more than 300 pages of evidence supporting her argument that something is wrong with human communication these days. Turkle’s book is the result of 15 years’ worth of research into humans’ interactions with technology, and culls 30 years of data on computer culture, reaching back into what she calls the “prehistory” of our modern technological era. Alone Together completes her trilogy on computers and people, along with The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit, first published 1984 (the year known first for the George Orwell novel on surveillance and second as the year an Orwellian commercial introduced the Apple Macintosh computer) and Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, published 1995.
Turkle has spent 30 years teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She is a psychoanalytically trained psychologist with a joint doctorate in sociology and personality psychology from Harvard University. Other accolades include being the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology, and she is the founder and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. The opportunities for observation her time at MIT has allowed proved rich sources for research on the social robotics highlighted in this book. Alone Together features several of MIT-produced robots, beginning with the mid-1970s ELIZA—a program that engaged the user in therapy-like dialogue—and continues on through the Domo, Mertz, Kismet, and Cog robots of the 2000s.
Sociable robots respond and react to stimulus, causing people in the room with them to believe they are interacting with the machines. When Turkle talks about putting technology in its place, as she did in a January 17 interview on The Colbert Report, she tiptoes around what places she might be referring to. She has studied sociable robots in schools and nursing homes, and does not come out in this book condoning their use in either those environments. Many of the human subjects she observes in her research report positive experiences with the robots and often don’t want to return them. However, her robot studies lead her to believe human relationships with the young and old are being neglected more and more, that even when a nursing home patient is abused by a staff member, the humanness that staff member brings to that abuse cannot be replaced by artificial “intelligence.” A son who saw his mother’s apparent happiness being with a robot named Paro said that it makes it easier for him to leave the nursing home. This causes Turkle to question, “have we come to think of the elderly as nonpersons who do not require the care of persons?” She reveals this question extends further, however, applying to each age and social demographic represented in her research.
Her studies on sociable robots inform the first half of the book, “The Robotic Moment: In Solitude, New Intimacies.” The second half, “Networked: In Intimacy, New Solitudes,” concerns the more ubiquitous experience of human communication in this wild, wired world. Parents texting at the dinner table or while pushing a child on a swing commit heavy offenses to Turkle, who has found the children reporting these stories exhibit feelings of abandonment and neglect. She also takes issue with children being tethered to their parents through the constant presence of the mobile phone, their opportunities for independent maturation being severely truncated. This, she finds, is not only due to this new breed of “helicopter” parents, who hover constantly over their children, but also due to adolescents choosing to text their parents about any minor inconvenience. The dinner table scenario conveys her concern that these communication devices prohibit in-person and in-depth opportunities for togetherness, while the mobile tethering example shows the barriers our current technological environment erect, prohibiting self-reflection in solitude. Both of which she finds very disturbing.
Part two provided a greater variety of examples of traps “social” media and technology set for its users. This second half of the book read much more quickly than the first half, whose interview data was so exhaustive it might become exhausting for the reader. Turkle observed human behavior not only through mobile communication media but also through communication networks like Facebook and MySpace, Second Life, confession websites, chat rooms, and instant messaging. Just as with sociable robots, the core of her concerns lie in humans getting less out of communication than they used to. This goes beyond the mere need for information, however, and extends to the psychological fulfillment people are gaining through their social bonds. Facebook and MySpace become a space for performance anxiety and performance exhaustion rather than a space for friends. Confessional sites exploit a person’s need for absolution while neglecting the personal development needs of the confessor. And instant messaging and texting prompt teenagers to invent elaborate social rules on when and how it is and is not okay to reach out to their peers. Communicating through devices and networks inhibits real communication and togetherness, and Turkle argues that isn’t a good thing.
The writing of Alone Together contains much poetry, irony, and powerful juxtapositions. Turkle’s research reflects a massive amount of data collection, including 450 interviews with adults and adolescents to further drive home her arguments. Her findings that might benefit the field of psychology were buried alive in the phenomena of social robotics, however, nearly suffocated by her extensive evidence. Her expertise and thoroughness shines the light on the deterioration of location-based communities and questions what democracy looks like in an age without privacy. Nonfiction lovers concerned with human connectedness in a rapidly evolving technological world will gain much insight from this book.