Connectivity and Its Discontents

I’ve borrowed the title for this post from a clever line in Sherry Turkle’s 2011 book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. Turkle, a clinical psychologist who is director of MIT’s Initiative on Technology and Self, has of course been paying a little attention to the great Dr. Freud.

I first read Turkle back in the mid-1980s when the magazine I worked for carried an excerpt from her book The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit. In those days, as Turkle recalls, the problem was figuring out what an average citizen could do with this new thing just then becoming widely available – the personal computer, then known as a “home computer.” In 1978 MIT had called a conference of weighty thinkers to ponder the question and answers were not easy to come by. Some computer theorists thought maybe calendars, or tax preparation, or teaching children to program would be what people would want to do on these devices. Nobody thought anybody but a scientist would want to use a computer to write anything.

Bookcover of Alone TogetherNowadays we face a new set of problems generated by our massive and near-constant usage of connectivity – that is, the full blooming, buzzing glory and chaos of  the Webverse, by which I mean the Internet, email, social media, smart phones. In a recent TED talk Turkle, who has a gift for one-liners, gives a marvelous 16-minute summary of the ideas in her most recent book.  Here are some highlights:

We are lonely but fearful of intimacy. Digital connections…may offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship.

We’d rather text than talk.

“….once we became tethered to the network, we really didn’t need to keep computers busy. They keep us busy. It as though we have become their killer app.

As Tonto purportedly once said to the Lone Ranger, “What ‘we’ you talking about, Kimosabe?”

Well, Turkle’s “we” refers to most citizens of this digital age, but especially to the always connected young. She talks about “the Goldilocks effect” that many strive for in the Webverse. Subliminally, the appeal of new media is that they allow for control of that basic but highly problematic human need, intimacy. In Turkle’s words from her book:

A thirteen-year-old tells me “she hates the phone and never listens to voice-mail.” Texting offers just the right amount of access, the right amount of control. She is a modern Goldilocks: for her text puts people not too close, not too far, but at just the right distance. The world is now full of modern Goldilockses, people who take comfort in being in touch with a lot of people whom they also keep at bay.”

Turkle points out that the flood of constant communication also stunts the development of the self. What many in Generation Y have not cultivated is the virtue of solitude, the ability to be alone fruitfully.

Photo of Hillary Clinton texting

The call of the smart phone.

Turkle doesn’t like to use the metaphor of addiction to describe our love-hate relationship with social media. The reason: there’s only one solution for addiction – to go cold turkey – and she’s far from ready to suggest that.

Turkle’s TED talk and her book are far more interested in analyzing our current dilemma than in suggesting concrete solutions. “We will begin with very simple things,” she says in last chapter. “Some will seem like just reclaiming good manners. Talk to colleagues down the hall, no cell phones at dinner, on the playground, in the car, or in company.”

I think one can do more than this. Tune in tomorrow for my take in a post I’m calling, at least in draft ,“Take Back Your Fingertips: A Seven-Step Guide to Mastering the Webverse.”

8 Responses to Connectivity and Its Discontents

  1. I text because I have teenagers, but I do actually like to communicate via email…but only for the simple reason that sometimes my old brain can’t tell the difference if I’ve actually done something or whether I just thought about doing it. The fact that I have an email trail can confirm this for my feeble brain! Along those same lines, one of the many reasons that I love Stone Harbor so much is that I feel it is one of the few places that I can really disconnect from technology, although it’s getting harder to do each year. I leave my computer at home, stash my cell phone for most of the time and even though we have TVs now I try not to tune in. I find it essential to my well being to unplug, just wish i could do it more often!

    • Well said, Suzanne. In my view life without email is unthinkable. (In fact, I don’t know how humans got along without it for all those centuries before computers came along.) Still, the chance to escape the grid from time to time is something we could could all benefit from. Long before email, I had exactly the same feeling as you about a beach vacation at Stone Harbor, NJ – a place where time slows down.

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