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.
Nowadays 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.
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.”