On October 26th, Professor Sherry Turkle of MIT, author of the book Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less from Each Other, delivered a convocation speech at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. Titled “Technology as Evocative Objects”, her presentation examined how technology, which has now been firmly embedded into our everyday lives, is significantly impacting our social relations and human interactions. Her discussion on the appeal of technology as a tool, and the way it allows people to edit the content that people communicate to one another, highlighted how electronic devices are redefining social norms, perceptions of gratification, and the changing state of human connection.
Her talk was titled “Technology as Evocative Objects.” The promotional posters around campus boldly presented an artist’s concept of the iPhone, which was probably what attracted so many to MIT Professor Sherry Turkle’s speech, given that many Carleton students owned one . Few items in today’s world symbolize the constant connectivity, convenience, and convergence of multiple technologies - the cell phone, the music player, the handheld gaming device - as Apple’s smartphone line. Few items today have become such an icon in a variety of worlds; technology; telecommunications; design; and consumerism.
Professor Turkle examined the psychological implications of our increasingly cozy reliance and relationships with technology. She briefly outlined how she started thinking about this topic, referring to her academic origins in psychoanalysis and politics. “‘Technology is just a tool,’” she said, using the words of her colleagues, “and yet to me, the just part was key. As a tool, we partner with it, and as a result it gets into our head, and changes our minds, our hearts, and how we think.” While on the topic she discussed the pedagogical aspect of technology, strongly viewing it as a launching pad for important and “necessary conversations” that we as a healthy and functioning society needed to be having, particularly in higher education.
“I encourage my students to use technology and bring philosophy into everyday life.” She cited questions such as ‘can you love a robot?’ that are prompted by increasing human interactions with technology. Aside from how I’d probably ask that question in response to watching films like A.I. or Bicentennial Man, I nonetheless agreed, seeing that such cinema asked us to reevaluate our views of technology as strictly a tool for human purposes. What about when human livelihoods were negatively affected in a significant manner should man we separated from his gadgets? Turkle seemed right to point our attention to this area.
She recalled a story that was indeed quite telling. Arriving for an interview on NPR concerning her latest book Alone Together - a study of how the digital sphere has greatly altered human social life - Turkle realized she had forgotten her iPhone. Not misplaced it or had it stolen, but simply left it at home on her bedside table. Yet the resulting sense of panic that overcame her concerned itself with how much the electronic device represented: “My appointments and schedule, shopping list and photos, contact details and emails - they were all in the device, and at that point they weren’t with me.” This separation from what was suddenly a container for nearly everything in her life triggered the irrepressible feeling “that something was missing.” We all know how uncomfortable that is, but in pointing out that technology lay at the root of this unease, Turkle highlights how much we want to stay connected, to have the access when we need it.
I doubt anyone frequents their six-month old photos as much as their calendar or music player, but the sense all this and more is there at your fingertips is important. Actually, this sense is not even regarded as all that crucial until it suddenly disappears, and the access you knew you had is no longer an option. I get the same feeling when I suddenly erase my music library: I probably listen to less than ten percent of my total songs, and yet removing my access to the remaining ninety-percent by deleting files, I feel distraught because I realize that if I got the urge to play old tunes, that option was no longer a mouse click away. Perhaps a significant appeal of cloud computing and storage lies here: no need to expend brainpower on remembering where certain documents were stored, because they are everywhere all the time. Music streaming platforms like Spotify and Rdio have demonstrated a major appeal in the cloud - and a huge departure from the days of assembling mp3 libraries.
Back to Turkle’s sense of panic. Because her smartphone had introduced convenience into her life and thus became so integrated into her daily livelihood, being separated for a few hours became paralyzing. It was only after much reflecting, Turkle recalls, did she convince herself that it was actually okay to not be constantly connected, okay to not be on call, okay to be apart from samples of her digitized life. By remembering the acute psychological response she was having, Turkle thought about the major way technology was influencing her life.
She moved from there to her experience in the classroom, noticing that text messaging was the main means of communication amongst students. More importantly were the remarks from one student, who openly noted her attachment to texting - and her recognition that it was a sign of diminishing social abilities. “Someday, somehow - but certainly not now - I’d like to learn how to have a conversation.” Rather lyrical in nature, this student’s admission led Turkle to realize another significant way that technology was redefining social interaction, and human psychological perception of the self. Another student said that undergraduates like her loved to text because they “wanted to know who wanted them.” The hundred and sixty character forms of digital feedback on their devices had suddenly become a new form of social currency. Interactions in reality had become upstaged by the desire for communication in an electronic space. Turkle rightfully remarked the appeal of this change: “people are able to edit, delete, and retouch. They can correct mistakes.” Or even remove any traces that there were mistakes. Online and electronic forms of communication can provide a complete absence of slip-ups or language misuse. This isn’t to deny the comedic or frequently embarrassing digital mistakes and signals that do get transmitted, but oftentimes technology appealed because of what it provided: “a way of cleaning up the messiness of human relationships.” To Turkle, this is why we demand so much for technology.
According to her, theses expectations drive us away from one another. Back to Turkle’s MIT student - she knows that texting is radically different from a real conversation, but the use of communication through technology provided a platform that removed the stress of making mistakes. Setting aside the social taboo of asking someone out on a date via text message, it’s obvious that many have benefitted from being able to read over texts and emails and run through their minds the messages they wish to send. Improvisation is largely subtracted from the equation, leaving what Turkle rightfully pointed out: the ability to edit and correct, to evaluate and reflect before hitting the submit button. Such privileges certainly don’t exist in real social settings - hence the discrepancy between electronic and personal communication. Turkle strongly laments the preference of the former at the expense of the latter.
Technology is tempting because of its usefulness. That’s probably the obvious conclusion to come to when evaluating how we psychologically regard our gadgets. Yet Turkle highlights the disproportionate tradeoff that is occurring: amidst our desires for constant connection, we sacrifice real relationships. By privileging connectivity - to the internet, our old photos, or upping the number of Facebook friends - we lose out on real conversations. The flight from real human companion ship is largely due to the instant connectivity provided by smartphone devices and technology. Texting is appealing because things can be instantly transmitted in small bursts, and are immediately received. What Turkle says about us “being lonely, yet afraid of social intimacy” is illuminating, because one can instantly find someone via electronic means, but is not required to sustain the contact for long periods of time. The more traditional way would be a phone call or chatting over coffee, where the meet-up itself usually revolved around the tacit agreement that the conversation would last beyond a few phrases. Via the constant connectivity of technology, a brief exchange of text on a screen is never deemed inappropriate should either respondent not reply in real time. In addition to the appeal of re-editing digital communication, users of technology are able to effectively remove themselves from the conversation when desired, usually with minimal repercussions too.
Furthermore, Turkle’s students at MIT - and my view of my music library - demonstrate that technology has an allure in the instantly gratification it provides. This is the very purpose of constant connectivity, because anytime anywhere - whenever the appropriate whim takes over - technology can be employed to access something, and reach or be reached by someone. I feel this is the largest factor of change in our social dynamic: we are accustomed to and demand the instant response. In the past floppy discs were tremendously helpful at transporting files from computer to computer, though I remember my first time realizing that hitting the ‘Save’ button each time for a document needed several moments for the computer to take care of the memory process. Now even a delay of a few seconds from typing in one’s username and password can be a cause for concern - and having to wait several minutes to transfer files?
No wonder people hop onto Youtube or Reddit during that waiting time and don’t return until hours later.
I think this opens up a whole new area of digital etiquette that has resulted from our heavy reliance on technology. As a senior undergraduate, I think back to my freshmen orientation week and recall getting advice on how to stay polite and formal on email when contacting faculty and staff. Three years later while facilitating the orientation of incoming freshmen, I see their supervisors giving them the same advice - with the noticeable exception that now even smartphone or ‘texting etiquette’ is included. As a new norm of communication is introduced, and available technologies provide platforms for various means of contact, the discussion of what constitutes appropriate social standards is nonetheless still present. Yet the rules themselves are clearly changing: in emails it was wise to give a brief introduction at the beginning of the email to state the reason of writing, emphasizing brevity without sacrificing politeness and respect.
Shift over to the cell phone, and the discussion of etiquette is still in place, but suddenly the emphasis is on getting as quickly to the point as possible - in the fewest of characters - without degenerating into acronyms that now most youth but few adults are equipped with. Here technology has vastly changed things for the better in terms of convenience, and yet it is also becoming clear that the bare minimum of what is socially acceptable transforms each time as well. In addition, the small bursts of the text message displace the necessity for longer, descriptive passages of the email. Users actively recoil and make clear their displeasure that someone “just texted me a whole email” - demonstrating that by virtue of form, different modes of digital communication are demanding their own rules.
To me, technology is certainly redefining aspects of human communication in many ways. There are plenty of occasions where even a conversation between two close friends can be hijacked by the need to text or take a call. Yet just like social norms are demanding redefinition in the face of technological ubiquity, so are certain coping methods. I have seen groups of people at restaurants who acknowledge their chronic addictions to connectivity; to address the issue everyone at the table puts their smartphones and electronic devices in a pile, and the first to interrupt the gathering and respond to a text or call must treat everyone to dinner.
With similar optimism, Turkle concluded her talk by highlighting that humans are not addicted to their devices: “we’re vulnerable, and we can be less vulnerable.” To her, technology is a fascinating new dimension of human livelihood that is also making a bid to redefine human connection. With all of its uses and conveniences and purposes - moments where we certainly cannot imagine being separated from it - technology has and will continue to play a major role in shaping what norms constitute human interactions. They will act as tools, prompt discussions, and provide instant gratification in ways that we can relish as well as need to be cautious of. Aptly, the end of Turkle’s talk was loudly announced by the pre-set alarm clock on her iPhone. Appropriate too were the mass of students I spotted logging into social network sites and checking their email inboxes as we rose to leave her talk.