Is Technology Making Us Lonelier?

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Digital communication is so pervasive that most of us don't even bother to question its role in society. That's not the case with Sherry Turkle, who has tracked the way we interact with computers and artificial intelligence since the 1970s. Founder and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, Turkle has written a new book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, that asks a simple question: Do digital methods of communication connect us the way interaction in the real world does? In late December, Turkle sat with TIME to discuss robot puppies, teen texting and what "full attention" means in an age of smart phones.

Alone Together concludes a trilogy of books that started with your exploration of the very first computer programs. Now, 26 years later, we have this giant soup of communication methods. How has that changed our relationship to technology?
It took a while for things to evolve to show [just] where we were vulnerable. This changed dramatically with mobile communication. Who would have known that a little red light on the BlackBerry — that doesn't even say who a message is from, but simply that you have a message — would drive people crazy? So [crazy] that if their baby is in the car next to them, and they know they can't text and drive, they will [still fiddle] with the steering wheel at 65 miles an hour in order to know who sent that message.

You start the book off with observations from watching people interact with some artificial intelligence that isn't quite mainstream yet: caretaking robots, robot pets and even robots meant for sex. How do robots relate to digital communication, to that flashing BlackBerry light?
The reason that I put the robot part first, even though it hasn't really arrived yet, is that with robots, there's this new diction of "alive enough." This generation of kids has something very specific in mind when they say that things are alive enough: "[The robot] is alive enough to be a friend — it's alive enough to do X with me." They're willing to move the whole discussion of what it means to be alive off of the philosophical terrain and onto the pragmatic terrain, where things become alive only for various purposes.

I've been watching children [interact with robots] for 30 years, and this is an extremely dramatic shift, and it's a conversation that we really want to have. What does it mean that something is alive enough to be a robot teacher? Alive enough to be a companion for the elderly? I believe very strongly that there are certain human values that come from living a life that no robot is alive enough to have.

So how will we relate to these alive-enough machines?
We start to consider what I call the "better than nothing" argument: that the robot would be better than nothing, which is really going down a slippery slide. Eventually the robot starts to be seen as "better than anything." The story begins with, "Oh, a robot puppy. That will be nice because I'm allergic to dogs. So a robot would be better than not having anything." And then all of a sudden it's, "Oh, the robot puppy, you can always keep it a puppy at that cute puppy stage, and it will never die and leave you alone." All of a sudden the robot puppy becomes better than any real puppy could ever be, because it offers you things that living beings never could: a kind of total control, no surprises, a made-to-measure relationship where you can have things exactly as you want them.

And what's so dangerous about a made-to-measure relationship?
People would rather text than talk, because they can control how much time it takes. They can control where it fits in their schedule. When you have the amount of velocity and volume [of communication] that we have in our lives, we have to control our communications very dramatically. So controlling relationships becomes a major theme in digital communication. And that's what sometimes makes us feel alone together — because controlled relationships are not necessarily relationships in which you feel kinship.

One of the things I chart, which is a parallel with the robots, is that people begin to have relationships where they use each other for validation. I talk about the groups of teenagers who went from "I have a feeling — I want to make a call" to "I want to have a feeling — I need to send a text." People start to use each other for validation, not really for relationships. And when we use each other for validation, we're really just picking and choosing little bits of each other to use and to respond to. It's not a full exploration of another person, it's turning a person into a part object.

Much of your research focuses on the reaction of children and young teenagers to technology. What are the potential effects of technology on the social learning of young people?
After dinner, let's say your parents pull out their BlackBerrys, or during dinner, people have their BlackBerrys next to their plates, which was the situation for so many of the kids I interviewed. Or, while your mother is reading you Harry Potter, she has her iPhone on the bedside table in case an important call comes in. You're learning that taking that half-hour to be in a little bubble with your child — with everything that entails — is not really important. So I think these kids are learning that they never really get what they call "full attention." And full attention becomes this [unattainable] jewel in the crown.

So these kids yearn for attention, but then, as you said, the idea of a phone conversation is too intimate for them — they'd rather text and chat.
They feel confused. That's why I called the book Alone Together — because they shimmy back and forth. On the one hand, they're so together that all they can do is text. And I identify with these teenagers, because it's the way we're all living our lives: you wake up in the morning, and you have 500 e-mails or 100 messages, and you say, "I don't have time to do anything but respond to this." So your life becomes completely reactive — you don't feel alone, but you don't feel connected.

What you certainly don't have time to do is experience solitude. One of the most important things that we're really losing is the ability to just be alone in a restorative way. If you don't know how to be alone, all you can ever be is lonely. If we don't teach our children how to be alone, all they can ever be is lonely.

What's the solution, then? Will there be a backlash against technology?
It's not a question of throwing out the baby with the bathwater or saying everything is bad or negative. It's just about saying, "O.K., we've had a chance to see this unfold, what do we think?" I [wouldn't] call it backlash — I'd call it making corrections, because I don't think we're going to get rid of any of the technology. I don't think people aren't going to want new tablets or fewer phones. Just because we grew up with the Internet, we think the Internet is all grown up. I think it's time to say, "No, the Internet is not all grown up — the Internet is just starting, and it's our responsibility." The more we convince ourselves that it's immature, the better off we'll be, because then we'll be prepared to make it the way we need it to be for us. We can take the red light off the BlackBerry.