When's the last time you blocked someone on Facebook? Or groaned through another tedious voice message from your mother? Or pretended you missed days of texts from that irksome friend?
"You can 'process' people as quickly as you want to," professor Sherry Turkle writes in her new book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.
The clinical psychologist explores how people are using social media to manage their relationships: "We look to the network to defend us against loneliness even as we want it to control the intensity of our connections," writes Dr. Turkle.
Our mobile Internet age, she argues, has produced narcissistic "digital natives" who expect "continuous connection," even as they shut others off when they don't have the time or the will. More troublesome may be the profound discomfort that both adolescents and adults experience in the rare moments when they are alone, between correspondences. Dr. Turkle, who is also founder and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, spoke to The Globe and Mail from Boston.
Online life, you write, suggests "the possibility of relationships the way we want them."
This notion that we bring the technologies of efficiencies into our intimacies, that's really stayed with me. We use this notion of "Please don't call" because in a conversation, you have to deal with me. The contingencies of the person - we've become intolerant of all of that. That's what used to be getting to know somebody.
Hasn't tech made us more demanding of each other?
In some ways, yes, but what we're expecting back is not necessarily depth but velocity. We're expecting back shallow and we're expecting it back fast.
You write about phone calls, now often deemed too "intrusive" by both the young and the old.
I was expecting that this would be a story of teenagers driving their parents crazy, but this is about grownups who don't want to talk to each other, who try to avoid telephone calls because they take too much time out of their schedule.
You have anecdotes about family members blogging news of a pregnancy or mass e-mailing an engagement announcement, which angers other family members.
We're not all on the same page with this. We're still in a world where some people think that's fine and efficient and some people think that efficiency is not the highest virtue here. Some say it's just a matter of etiquette and we'll all get used to it. But why should we get used to this? Aren't we denying ourselves something by informing our relatives about this kind of news on Facebook? Aren't we denying ourselves the pleasure of that conversation?
You describe Ellen, who e-mails while Skyping with her grandmother, who thinks she has Ellen's undivided attention.
Ellen was not happy. I was not talking to happy, arrogant, smug people. I felt a discontent. They were struggling with what they were losing as well as gaining. Mothers with their kids in the back of the car, and they see the little red light on the BlackBerry and feel compelled to answer it. Kids who feel overwhelmed to keep up with their Facebook account, that anxiety of performance. We should be thinking about where these technologies belong, in what context they belong. It's not a question of dropping out, it's a question of putting it in its place because none of us can drop out really. Going cold turkey is not an option.
You write about technology making it remarkably uncomfortable for young people to be alone, in between waiting for that text back.
It's a style that leaves you very vulnerable to groupthink. Obviously adolescents look to the group for validation, but it goes beyond that. To a point, it's "I share, therefore I am." It's impossible not to be continually sharing what you're feeling, as though it's intolerable not to be doing that. That's not good.
You argue that technology is facilitating narcissism, which as you point out is not "a self that loves itself, but one so fragile that it needs constant support."
Narcissism has to do with fragility of self and using other people to prop oneself up. We're not teaching ourselves to feel okay without constantly reaching for something. When you observe teenagers, and now increasingly adults, they can't not have that constant validation.
Can technology be "put in its place?"
Yes. Look at how magnificent these technologies are - look at what's going on in Egypt. We need to celebrate these technologies but if they're interfering with our ability to have dinner with our families, no. I literally went to two funerals - what's with the texting at funerals? Take a moment. This is a life. This isn't about manners - this isn't about my wagging a finger like some kind of Dear Abby of the Internet age. This is about losing our sense of what we're supposed to do for each other.
You write that the book is "today's story of the network, with its promise to give us more control over human relationships, and tomorrow's story of robots, which promise relationships where we will be in control, even if that means not being in relationships at all."
Think of a variety of digital companions for the elderly. [There is already Paro, a robotic baby seal used in seniors' homes.]I quote a guy who's visiting his mother and he says that leaving her staring at a wall is really painful. Leaving her staring at the television is a little less painful. Leaving her with a robot? That's not so bad at all. We fool ourselves that there's an engagement there and we can be comforted by that. With all due respect to my roboticist colleagues, they're brilliant and the robots pretend in brilliant ways, but robots don't know the meaning of a human life.
At the end of our lives we're trying to figure out the meaning, to put it together and talk to someone who can be an appropriate sounding board. Talking to a creature that is pretending to make eye contact and pretending to understand a word here and there is not appropriate. And the question that I pose is, why are we doing this? These are deceptions and will always be deceptions, no matter how well they enchant. They're just smart robots. It's not to put them down, it's just to put them in their place.
This interview has been condensed and edited.