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September 13th, 2013

Left to Our Own Devices

“Technology proposes itself as the architect of our intimacies.”  –Sherry Turkle

Have you seen this Charlene deGuzman video that went viral over the weekend (i.e. the pre-Mileysian Age)?

Ouch. I watched this video while sitting at a computer as my kids played nearby. One thought triggered by the video and a follow-up conversation with my wife: what exactly are we doing to ourselves and each other? Why is it that I’m tempted to pick up my iPad when I get home from a workday largely spent in front of a computer? Why is my first impulse when my kids say something funny to run and document it on Facebook? Why is my Twitter feed like crack? And must we tolerate that loathsome term, “the selfie”?

Common responses to the social effects of technology include the following: 1) uncritical appropriation of the latest gadget or social media outlet; 2) conscious appropriation that focuses on the benefits, sees resistance as futile, and/or accuses those who resist as being a Luddite; 3) seemingly implausible rejection of latest technology while citing a Wendell Berry essay; 4) expression of angst but no real sense of how to mediate the issue. Or maybe you’ve found yourself doing some or all of these at some point.  I have.

deGuzman’s video sent me back to Sherry Turkle’s 2011 book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. Turkle is concerned about the dynamics of “our networked life” and how it presents and precludes opportunities for genuine intimacy and community. She is an MIT social scientist and not anti-technology, but she certainly isn’t triumphalist either:

“I acknowledge the many positive things that the network has to offer–enhancing friendship, family connections, education, commerce, and recreation. The triumphalist narrative of the Web is the reassuring story that people want to hear and that technologists want to tell. But the heroic story is not the whole story. In virtual words and computer games, people are flattened into personae. On social networks, people are reduced to their profiles. On our mobile devices, we often talk to each other on the move and with little disposable time–so little, in fact, that we communicate in a new language of abbreviation in which letters stand for words and emoticons for feelings….We are increasingly connected to each other but oddly more alone: in intimacy, new solitudes.”

Some of Turkle’s book already feels like common knowledge just two years later (perhaps with the exception of her discussion of “sociable robots”–I’m still a little freaked out by that section): We are “always on.” We now grow up “tethered” to our technological devices.  Our preference for texting over speaking on the phone speaks to more than just a preference. Our brains are being rewired–affecting how we think, how we relate, what we value, how/what we confess, how much anxiety we feel, how we construct our identities. But Turkle’s weaving of analysis with the stories of her interviewees allows us to put some flesh and bones on the social effects of networked life. Does Turkle offer any solutions? She calls for conversation and suggests a disposition of “realtechnik,” which she explains as follows:

What I call realtechnik suggests that we step back and reassess when we hear triumphalist or apocalyptic narratives about how to live with technology. Realtechnik is skeptical about linear progress. It encourages humility, a state of mind in which we are most open to facing problems and reconsidering decisions. It helps us acknowledge costs and recognize the things we hold inviolate.

The paradox that Turkle captures is summed up nicely in her conclusion: “We have invented inspiring and enhancing technologies, and yet we have allowed them to diminish us.” There is a price we pay when left to our own devices, both literally and metaphorically. Longtime tech executive Linda Stone shared a similar concern in an Atlantic interview with James Fallows. Stone is no Luddite either, but she wonders if our technological distractions aren’t hindering the cultivation of empathy:

“We may think that kids have a natural fascination with phones. Really, children have a fascination with whatever Mom and Dad find fascinating. If they are fascinated by the flowers coming up in the yard, that’s what the children are going to find fascinating. And if Mom and Dad can’t put down the device with the screen, the child is going to think, That’s where it’s all at, that’s where I need to be! I interviewed kids between the ages of 7 and 12 about this. They said things like ‘My mom should make eye contact with me when she talks to me’ and ‘I used to watch TV with my dad, but now he has his iPad, and I watch by myself.’

Kids learn empathy in part through eye contact and gaze. If kids are learning empathy through eye contact, and our eye contact is with devices, they will miss out on empathy.”

Once again, ouch. But to return to Turkle’s framing for a moment, the answer isn’t to repudiate the triumphalist narratives with a polar opposite, apocalyptic take on technology. But the effects both individual and social, must be reckoned with. There’s no harm in beginning with an assessment of what our technological habits and practices reveal about what we value. For me, it begins with a small step: from the time I come home from work until my kids go to bed, they need to see me untethered from a screen.

View Dr. Connelly’s full blog here.