When author Sherry Turkle talks about the role that technology plays in our lives and how it has affected the way we interact as a society, you should listen. This woman not only boasts a joint doctorate in sociology and personality psychology from Harvard, but she is also a licensed clinical psychologist and a professor at MIT, amongst other notable successes. So if anyone is qualified to wax poetic about the wedge that technology has inserted into our interpersonal relations, it’s Turkle. And she does just that in her audio book, ‘Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less From Each Other”, a thoughtful and thought-provoking exploration of the incredible technologies that have insinuated themselves seamlessly into our lives and changed the way we interact with one another.
This audio book is ostensibly broken up into two main sections. The first half deals with advances in robotics, which used to be nothing more than space age fantasy, before moving on to the internet, a natural progression of the marriage of computing and communications. Listeners might find it strange that she chooses to start with the technology that is still beyond the reach of the average person, going from the virtually unknown to the technologies that have become intrinsic to our everyday lives and modern communications. But like everything else in ‘Alone Together’, it is a calculated move designed to make a point for listeners. By starting with robotics she is saying that the things that are strange to us today could be commonplace tomorrow, just as mobile communications, once featured on sci-fi programs like ‘Star Trek’, are now so common that even children would rather text their friends than make a phone call.
But of course, the meat of this audio book is hinted at in the title. Turkle’s real goal is to provide listeners with information about the growth and expansion of technology and how it has made human interaction far less convenient than using our toys to correspond remotely. Further, it has created a certain atmosphere of instant gratification. Do you even remember the last time you had to wait to get home to check your phone messages? Do you remember what it was like to go out for the day without being tethered to a communications device? How about a time before answering machines, where you might not even know that someone was trying to reach you if you weren’t there to hear the phone ring? Now, if you don’t text someone back immediately, you might get ten texts in a row, culminating in one that asks if you are dead.
Over the last 30 years our technology has changed so quickly and so radically that most of us are simply running to keep up, never stopping to wonder what affect these devices are having on our lives and whether or not they are improving our situation. It is part of the human condition that we strive to make our lives easier, but along the way we must ask ourselves if what we are giving up in return isn’t worth more somehow. The convenience of these modern devices cannot be denied, but what is the cost of confining our communications to email and text? What is the cost of perfecting robots that can do the job of a human (albeit without emotion or insight)? The conversation is complex indeed, and there are no easy answers. Time moves forward and so must we. But you might want to take a few minutes to ponder these questions when you find smartphones and tablets listed amongst the top toys for Christmas 2013. What are you really passing along to your children when you hand over these devices, and what effect will it have on their lives and their ability to carry on basic human interaction?