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From Issue Eight, March 2011 « Previous Article

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other

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"Technology reshapes the landscape of our emotional lives, but is it offering us the lives we want to lead?"
Alone Together

Ed. Note: Here at IONS we remain fascinated by the impact of technology in all its forms and are always open to thought-provoking perspectives on both its benefits and its challenges. It has certainly played a significant role in the events that continue to unfold in the Middle East, and there are many who have benefitted by its reach or the near-instantaneous sharing of information. At the same time, the technology itself is changing the way we engage with each other and the world around us, privileging certain behaviors and patterns of thinking – both conscious and unconscious – over others. It is this kind of impact that we are most interested in, and in that spirit, we offer the following book excerpt from psychologist and professor Sherry Turkle, founder and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self.

Technology proposes itself as the architect of our intimacies. These days, it suggests substitutions that put the real on the run. The advertising for Second Life, a virtual world where you get to build an avatar, a house, a family, and a social life, basically says, “Finally, a place to love your body, love your friends, and love your life.”1 On Second Life, a lot of people, as represented by their avatars, are richer than they are in first life and a lot younger, thinner, and better dressed. And we are smitten with the idea of sociable robots, which most people first meet in the guise of artificial pets. Zhu Zhu pet hamsters, the “it” toy of the 2009–2010 holiday season, are presented as “better” than any real pet could be. We are told they are lovable and responsive, don’t require cleanup, and will never die.

Technology is seductive when what it offers meets our human vulnerabilities. And as it turns out, we are very vulnerable indeed. We are lonely but fearful of intimacy. Digital connections and the sociable robot may offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. Our networked life allows us to hide from each other, even as we are tethered to each other. We’d rather text than talk.

Love and Other Robots

I received a call from a Scientific American reporter to talk about robots and our future. During that conversation, he accused me of harboring sentiments that would put me squarely in the camp of those who have for so long stood in the way of marriage for homosexual couples. I was stunned, first because I harbor no such sentiments but also because his accusation was prompted not by any objection I had made to the mating or marriage of people. The reporter was bothered because I had objected to the mating and marriage of people to robots.

The call had been prompted by a new book about robots by David Levy, a British-born entrepreneur and computer scientist. In 1968 Levy, an international chess master, famously wagered four artificial intelligence (AI) experts that no computer program would defeat him at the game in the subsequent decade. Levy won his bet. The sum was modest, 1,250 British pounds, but the AI community was chastened. They had overreached in their predictions for their young science. It would be another decade before Levy was bested in chess by a computer program, Deep Thought, an early version of the program that beat Gary Kasparov, the reigning chess champion in the 1990s.2 [IBM’s newest supercomputer, Watson, recently squared off against two top, former Jeopardy champions – and beat them soundly, though Watson lost its next competition with another Jeopardy alum.] These days, Levy is the chief executive officer at a company that develops “smart” toys for children. In 2009, Levy and his team won – and this for the second time – the prestigious Loebner Prize, widely regarded as the world championship for conversational software. In this contest, Levy’s “chat bot” program was best at convincing people that they were talking to another person and not to a machine.

Always impressed with Levy’s inventiveness, I found myself underwhelmed by the message of this latest book, Love and Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships (HarperCollins, 2007). No tongue-in-cheek science fiction fantasy, it was reviewed without irony in the New York Times by a reporter who had just spent two weeks at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and wrote glowingly about its robotics culture as creating “new forms of life.”3 Love and Sex is earnest in its predictions about where people and robots will find themselves by midcentury: “Love with robots will be as normal as love with other humans, while the number of sexual acts and lovemaking positions commonly practiced between humans will be extended, as robots will teach more than is in all of the world’s published sex manuals combined.” Levy argues that robots will teach us to be better friends and lovers because we will be able to practice on them. Beyond this, they will substitute where people fail. Levy proposes, among other things, the virtues of marriage to robots. He argues that robots are, of course, “other” but in many ways better. No cheating. No heartbreak. In Levy’s argument, there is one simple criterion for judging the worth of robots in even the most intimate domains: Does being with a robot make you feel better? [For a comedic but poignant send-up of this, see the movie Lars and the Real Girl.] The master of today’s computerspeak judges future robots by the impact of their behavior. And his next bet is that in a very few years, this is all we will care about as well.

I am a psychoanalytically trained psychologist. Both by temperament and profession, I place high value on relationships of intimacy and authenticity. Granting that an AI might develop its own origami of lovemaking positions, I am troubled by the idea of seeking intimacy with a machine that has no feelings, can have no feelings, and is really just a clever collection of “as if ” performances, behaving as if it cared, as if it understood us. Authenticity, for me, follows from the ability to put oneself in the place of another, to relate to the other because of a shared store of human experiences: We are born, have families, and know loss and the reality of death.4 A robot, however sophisticated, is patently out of this loop.

Connectivity and Its Discontents

As we instant-message, e-mail, text, and Twitter, technology redraws the boundaries between intimacy and solitude. We talk of getting “rid” of our e-mails, as though these notes are so much excess baggage. Teenagers avoid making telephone calls, fearful that they “reveal too much.” They would rather text than talk. Adults, too, choose keyboards over the human voice. It is more efficient they say. Things that happen in “real time” take too much time. Tethered to technology, we are shaken when that world “unplugged” does not signify, does not satisfy. After an evening of avatar-to-avatar talk in a networked game, we feel at one moment in possession of a full social life and in the next curiously isolated, in tenuous complicity with strangers. We build a following on Facebook or MySpace and wonder to what degree our followers are friends. We recreate ourselves as online personae and give ourselves new bodies, homes, jobs, and romances. Yet, suddenly, in the half-light of virtual community, we may feel utterly alone. As we distribute ourselves, we may abandon ourselves. Sometimes people experience no sense of having communicated after hours of connection. And they report feelings of closeness when they are paying little attention. In all of this, there is a nagging question: Does virtual intimacy degrade our experience of the other kind and, indeed, of all encounters of any kind?

Online connections were first conceived as a substitute for face-to-face contact, when the latter was for some reason impractical: Don’t have time to make a phone call? Shoot off a text message. But very quickly, the text message became the connection of choice. We discovered the network – the world of connectivity – to be uniquely suited to the overworked and overscheduled life it makes possible. And now we look to the network to defend us against loneliness, even as we use it to control the intensity of our connections. Technology makes it easy to communicate when we wish and to disengage at will.

These days, whether you are online or not, it is easy for people to end up unsure if they are closer together or further apart. I remember my own sense of disorientation the first time I realized that I was “alone together.” I had traveled an exhausting thirty-six hours to attend a conference on advanced robotic technology held in central Japan. The packed grand ballroom was Wi-Fi enabled: The speaker was using the web for his presentation, laptops were open throughout the audience, fingers were flying, and there was a sense of great concentration and intensity. But not many in the audience were attending to the speaker. Most people seemed to be doing their e-mail, downloading files, and surfing the net. The man next to me was searching for a New Yorker cartoon to illustrate his upcoming presentation. Every once in a while, audience members gave the speaker some attention, lowering their laptop screens in a kind of curtsy, a gesture of courtesy.

Outside, in the hallways, the people milling around me were looking past me to virtual others. They were on their laptops and their phones, connecting to colleagues at the conference going on around them and to others around the globe. There but not there. Of course, clusters of people chatted with each other, making dinner plans, “networking” in that old sense of the word, the one that implies having a coffee or sharing a meal. But at this conference, it was 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 our devices. I thought of how Sigmund Freud considered the power of communities both to shape and to subvert us, and a psychoanalytic pun came to mind: “connectivity and its discontents.”

The phrase comes back to me months later as I interview management consultants who seem to have lost touch with their best instincts for what makes them competitive. They complain about the BlackBerry revolution, yet accept it as inevitable while decrying it as corrosive. They say they used to talk to each other as they waited to give presentations or took taxis to the airport; now they spend that time doing e-mail. Some tell me they are making better use of their “downtime,” but they argue without conviction. The time that they once used to talk as they waited for appointments or drove to the airport was never downtime. It was the time when far-flung global teams solidified relationships and refined ideas.

In corporations, among friends, and within academic departments, people readily admit that they would rather leave a voicemail or send an e-mail than talk face to face. Some who say “I live my life on my BlackBerry” are forthright about avoiding the “real-time” commitment of a phone call. The new technologies allow us to “dial down” human contact, to titrate its nature and extent. I recently overheard a conversation in a restaurant between two women. “No one answers the phone in our house anymore,” the first woman proclaimed with some consternation. “It used to be that the kids would race to pick up the phone. Now they are up in their rooms, knowing no one is going to call them and texting and going on Facebook or whatever instead.” Parents with teenage children will be nodding at this very familiar story in recognition and perhaps a sense of wonderment that this has happened, and so quickly. And teenagers will simply be saying, “Well, what’s your point?”

Only a decade ago, I would have been mystified that fifteen-year-olds in my urban neighborhood, a neighborhood of parks and shopping malls, of front stoops and coffee shops, would feel the need to send and receive close to six thousand messages a month via portable digital devices or that best friends would assume that when they visited, it would usually be on the virtual real estate of Facebook. It might have seemed intrusive, if not illegal, that my mobile phone would tell me the location of all my acquaintances within a ten-mile radius. But these days we are accustomed to all this. Life in a media bubble has come to seem natural. So has the end of a certain public etiquette: On the street, we speak into the invisible microphones on our mobile phones and appear to be talking to ourselves. We share intimacies with the air as though unconcerned about who can hear us or the details of our physical surroundings.

The New Real?

I once described the computer as a second self, a mirror of mind. Now the metaphor no longer goes far enough. Our new devices provide space for the emergence of a new state of the self, itself split between the screen and the physical real, wired into existence through technology.

Teenagers tell me they sleep with their cell phone, and even when it isn’t on their person, when it has been banished to the school locker, for instance, they know when their phone is vibrating. The technology has become like a phantom limb, it is so much a part of them. These young people are among the first to grow up with an expectation of continuous connection: always on and always on them. And they are among the first to grow up not necessarily thinking of simulation as second best. All of this makes them fluent with technology but brings a set of new insecurities. They nurture friendships on social-networking sites and then wonder if they are among friends. They are connected all day but are not sure if they have communicated. They become confused about companionship. Can they find it in their lives on the screen? Could they find it with a robot? Their digitized friendships – played out with emoticon emotions, so often predicated on rapid response rather than reflection – may prepare them, at times through nothing more than their superficiality, for relationships that could bring superficiality to a higher power – that is, for relationships with the inanimate. They come to accept lower expectations for connection and, finally, the idea that robot friendships could be sufficient unto the day.

Overwhelmed by the volume and velocity of our lives, we turn to technology to help us find time. But technology makes us busier than ever and ever more in search of retreat. Gradually, we come to see our online life as life itself. We come to see what robots offer as relationship. The simplification of relationship is no longer a source of complaint. It becomes what we want. These seem the gathering clouds of a perfect storm.

Technology reshapes the landscape of our emotional lives, but is it offering us the lives we want to lead? Many roboticists are enthusiastic about having robots tend to our children and our aging parents, for instance. Are these psychologically, socially, and ethically acceptable propositions? What are our responsibilities here? And are we comfortable with virtual environments that propose themselves not as places for recreation but as new worlds to live in? What do we have, now that we have what we say we want – now that we have what technology makes easy? This is the time to begin these conversations, together. It is too late to leave the future to the futurists.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher from Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, © 2011 Sherry Turkle. Published by Basic Books, a division of Perseus Books. All rights reserved.


1. See “What Is Second Life,” Second Life.

2. See “The Making of Deep Blue,” IBM Research.

3. See Robin Marantz Henig, “Robo Love,” New York Times, December 2, 2007.

4. See Emmanuel Lévinas, Alterity and Transcendence, trans. Michael B. Smith (London: Athlone Press, 1999).

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  • Anonymous Icon

    raj108 Mar 18, 2011

    I have for sometime observed the encroachment of technology into human consciousness.

    The movies Star Wars, Terminator and Matrix illustrate the eventual Armageddon of human verses machine. The creation of such stories confirm that there is a knowing, a fear, a warning of the inevitability of the face-off.

    Am I implying that technology is the evil? Not so, technology is our helpmate that provides the substrate of expanding communities, cities and countries. It is technology that saves lives. So what is this uneasiness I feel about the predominance of battery-driven lifestyles? What is truly the danger of being “tethered to technology”?

    Well, in the latter question it is not the word technology that hits me but “tethered”. This term implies relationship. So it is not technology itself but our relationship to technology. Technology is merely a tool. However, in the social arena technology is exalted as a Savior.

    The elusive knowledge of self has been escaping our nets since Socrates. The “Avatar” or what I call the techno-persona, the conjured image catapulted into the world of connectivity, is contrary to Jung’s individuation-the quest for wholeness is dying.

    On the History or Science channel there was a documentary about robotics. The question of whether the robot had a spirit was asked. It was stated by some that spirit is in everything. Therefore the robot being a thing had a spirit. But I make a distinction: 1. Spirit or soul as the essence of the individual human and 2. The projected creative energy of the scientist. Only the latter I will apply to the robot. But even if it concluded that a robot has a soul, bottom line it is still artificial.

    There was a time when someone who uses life-size blow up dolls for sexual pleasure was kind of kooky. But now that these dolls have evolve into sexual gymnast true (the new real) love is in to air.

    Our relationship with technology is defining techno-gadgets as icons of psycho-emotional attachment where the social network is the new fellowship. The cell phone has become the talisman; a portal to the mysteries of the virtual psychosocial realms-Linus has traded in his blanket for a blackberry.

    Is the discontent of connectivity the degradation of the collective unconscious or are we witnessing the emergence of some kind of neoarchetypal cosmology?

    If there is to be an Armageddon, the bad guys are way ahead in their recruiting program. Armed with pods, pads, droids and 4G coverage they are a very formidable foe.

    Rashied Jibri

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