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We expect more from technology and less from each other

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10th Jan 2014
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This article is a summary of Sherry Turkle’s TED talk, ‘Connected, but alone?’ in which the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology discusses our obsession with technology and the way it impacts on our social and emotional lives.

We’re all massively excited by technology, but we’re letting it take us places we don’t want to go.

Our little devices in our pockets are so psychologically powerful that they don’t only change what we do, they change who we are.

People text during corporate board meetings and they text and shop and go on Facebook during classes and presentations. People text and do email at breakfast and at dinner while their children complain about not having their parents’ attention, while children do the same thing to their peers. People talk to me about the important new skill of making eye contact while you’re texting; they explain to me that it’s hard but it can be done! We even text at funerals – we remove ourselves from our grief and reverie and go into our phones.

Why does this matter? It matters because we are setting ourselves up for trouble in how we relate to each other but also trouble in how we relate to ourselves in our capacity for self-reflection. We’re getting used to a new way of being alone together.

People want to be with each other but also elsewhere, connected to all the places they could possibly be, but people also want to customise their lives. The thing that matters most to people is control over where they put their attention, so you WANT to go to the board meeting but you only want to pay attention to the bits that interest you.

Across the generations I see that people can’t get enough of each other, if and only if they can have each other at a distance in amounts they can control. It’s a goldilocks amount – not too close, not too far, but somewhere just right. But what might feel just right for the middle age executive could be a problem for the adolescent who needs to develop face to face relationships

The adolescent says to me “Someday, someday, but certainly not now, I would like to learn how to have a conversation.”

I ask people “What’s wrong with conversation?” They say, it takes place in real time and you can’t control what you’re going to say.

Texting, emailing, posting – they all allow us to present the self as we want the self to be. We get to edit, and that means we get to DELETE, and that means we get to retouch the flesh, the body, the voice – not too little, not too much – but in a just right way so we can present the side of ourselves we want to present.

Human relationships are rich, messy and demanding and we CLEAN them up with technology. When we do, one of the things that happens is we sacrifice conversation for connection – we short change ourselves and over time we seem to forget this.

Stephen Colbert asked me a profound question: “Don’t all those little tweets, don’t all those little sips of online communication, add up to one big gulp of big conversation?”

The answer is NO – connecting in sips may work for gathering discrete bits of information and they may work for saying ‘I’m thinking about you,’ or even for ‘I love you,’ but they don’t work for learning about one another. Yet we are supposed to use conversations with each other to learn how to have conversations with ourselves. So a flight from conversation can compromise our capacity for self-reflection. For kids growing up, self-reflection is the bedrock of development

So many people say “I would rather text than talk.”

People get so used to getting short changed from real conversations, used to getting by with less, that they become almost willing to dispense with people altogether.

Some people wish that Siri – the advanced voice-recognition software on Apple – will become much more advanced until it is more like a best friend, someone who will listen when others won’t. I believe this wish reflects a painful truth I’ve learnt in the last 15 years, that no-one is listening to me. This is very key in our relationships with technology. That’s why it’s so appealing to have a Facebook page or a Twitter page, with so many automatic listeners, and this feeling that no one is listening to me makes us want to spend more time with technology.

We are tempted by machines that offer companionship – and now there are robots being designed that are specifically designed to be companions, particularly to children and to the elderly.

Have we so lost confidence that we will be there for each other?

During my research I worked in nursing homes and I brought in sociable robots. One woman who had lost a child was talking to a robot in the shape of a baby seal and it seemed to be looking into her eyes and following the conversation. It comforted her, and many people found it amazing. That woman was trying to make sense of her life with a robot that had no experience of the arc of a human life.

We are vulnerable. People experience pretend empathy as though it were the real thing.

So, during that moment when that woman was experiencing that pretend empathy I was thinking, “that robot can’t empathise, it doesn’t face death, it doesn’t know life” and as that woman took comfort in that robot companion, I didn’t find it amazing, I found it one of the most wrenching, complicated moments in my 15 years of work. When I stepped back I found myself at the cold, hard centre of a perfect storm.

We expect more from technology and less from each other.

And I ask myself, why have things come to this and I believe it’s because technology appeals to us most where we are most vulnerable. And we are vulnerable.

We’re lonely but afraid of intimacy.

We have the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship – this is what we want from our technology. We turn to technology to help us feel connected in ways we can comfortably control, but we are not so much in control, not so comfortable. These days those phones in our pockets are changing our minds and hearts.

They offer us three fantasies – we can put our attention wherever we want it to be, we will always be heard and we will never have to be alone.

That third idea is central to changing our psyches: the moment that people are alone, even for a few seconds, they become anxious and panicky. They reach for a device.

“Being alone feels like a problem that needs to be solved.”

So people try to solve it by connecting. But connection is more like a symptom than a cure.

Connection expresses but doesn’t solve an underlying problem. But more than that, constant connection is changing the way people think about themselves – it’s shaping a new way of being. The best way to describe it is, “I share, therefore I am.”

The problem with I share therefore I am is that if we don’t have connection we don’t feel like ourselves, so we connect more and more, but in the process we set ourselves up to be isolated.

How do you get from connection to isolation? You get to isolation if you don’t cultivate the capacity for solitude, the ability to be separate and to gather yourself. Solitude is where you find yourself so you can reach out to others and form real attachments

When we don’t have the capacity for solitude, we turn to other people in order to feel less anxious or in order to feel alive. When this happens we aren’t able to appreciate who they are, we are using them as spare parts to support our fragile sense of self.

We slip into thinking that always being connected is going to make us feel less alone but we are at risk because it’s the opposite that’s true. If we aren’t able to be alone, we’re going to be more lonely, and if we don’t teach our children to be alone, they will only know how to be lonely.

What can we do about all this?

“Those who make the most of their lives on the screen, come to it in a spirit of self-reflection.”

That’s what I’m calling for now – and more than that, a conversation about where our current use of technology may be taking us, and what it may be costing us. We are smitten with technology and we are afraid, like young lovers, that too much talking might spoil the romance. But it’s time to talk – we grew up with digital technology so we see it as all grown up, but it’s early days! There is plenty of time to reconsider how we use it and how we build it.

I don’t think we should turn away from our devices, but we need to develop a more self-aware relationship with our devices.

  1. Start thinking of solitude as a good thing and make room for it. Find ways to demonstrate this as a value to your children.
  2. Describe sacred spaces at home and reclaim them for conversation. Do the same thing at work. We are so busy communicating we don’t have time to think or talk about what matters. Change that.
  3. Most important, we need to listen to each other, including the boring bits. It’s when we stumble or hesitate or lose our words that we reveal ourselves to each other. Technology is making the bid to redefine human connection – how we care for each other, how we care for ourselves, but it’s also giving us the opportunity to reaffirm our values and direction.
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