10/7 – Alone Together: Chapters 6, 7, 8, 9, & 10

In this session we move to the middle of Sherry Turkle’s book. If you have time, you might also want to check out this video of Cliff Nass’s talk to Stanford parents last year, about the effects of current technology and media multitasking on young minds.



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9 responses to “10/7 – Alone Together: Chapters 6, 7, 8, 9, & 10

  1. In these chapters, I noticed Turkle explored a common theme between having robots as companions and being attached to the network. Both involve the pursuit of companionship; the former involving companions who act “as if” they were sentient, and the latter involving virtual humans (“cyborgs”). One theme of Turkle’s which I will focus on was what she called the “ELIZA effect”, which is at the heart of why so many people might find virtual companionship interesting. Namely, “Why is the virtual so appealing even though we know that we are communicating only with an avatar (be it with a robot or on the network) – a representation of only some facets of a human personality?”

    At least when it comes to companionship with robots, Turkle’s main point was that the ELIZA effect takes place because, as interlocutors, we can “fill in the blanks”. As Turkle mentions, “It was often cited among early fans of the ELIZA program, who considered the program helpful because it was a way to “blow off steam”….When we talk to robots, we share thoughts with machines that can offer no such resistance….If there is meaning, it is because the person with the robot has heard him- or herself talk aloud” (113). Robots offer no meaning to the conversation other than that which we give it. Robots fill the human need to be heard. They are appealing because they can simulate listening, much like ELIZA, and offer no resistance like another human interlocutor could. I especially found the interaction between Rich and Kismet (a robot) an example of this vulnerability. Rich begins talking to Kismet about his girlfriend, and as the conversation continues, Rich does not want to leave – one reason being Kismet’s ability to mimic human prosody. We see that Rich tries to fill in the blanks by saying, ‘“I think we’ve got something going on here. You and me…you’re amazing”’ (129).

    When it comes to companionship on the network, the ELIZA effect happens for the opposite reason, so that we can “create blanks”. For instance, “on Facebook, Brad…hesitates to show people online other parts of himself (like how much he likes Harry Potter). He spends more and more time perfecting his online Mr. Cool” (185). Brad uses Facebook to create an online identity wherein he can literally “edit out” parts of himself and construct a virtual representation that he believes others will find more appealing. In this manner, he blanks out what he does not like. We also use the network to “create blanks” when it comes to more dynamic conversational settings. According to one girl, “a text, [Audrey] argues, is better than a call because…she could learn too much or say too much, and things could get “out of control”. A call has insufficient boundaries” (190). Thus, calling (let alone face-to-face conversation) is “too much” in the sense that there are no blanks to be filled. As a result, we are driven to create these blanks, in order to present a satisfactory representation of ourselves.

  2. A. To

    In the beginning of Chapter 8, Turkle finally explains, in more depth, the title of her book, Alone Together. She writes, “networked, we are together, but so lessened are our expectations of each other that we can feel utterly alone” (154). Turkle argues that the Network gives us dangerous options, but letting us view our relationships with other people as a function of utility, choosing, “only the parts we find useful, comforting, or amusing” (154). Being constantly plugged in, in her mind, leads to her proposed “lives of less.”

    Although I do agree that the Network presents this danger, it also proposes great possibility for connection. She prevents no proof, to my knowledge, that expectations of each other are lessened across the board. In The Great Gatsby, the character Jordan Baker observes, “I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy.” I would argue that, in a way, the same is true of the Internet. Absolutely the abundance of shallow interactions has increased due to the technology of social networks, but the ability for deep connection and relationship maintenance has also been significantly amplified with the development of the same tech. My best friend from home recently uploaded pictures of herself and her new fiancé. Without online photo sharing, social networking, etc. I would not have been able to experience this new development in her life. Now, even though we haven’t seen each other physically in 2 years, I can video call her to congratulate her and catch up on her life. You could argue that this interaction is more “shallow” than if I were to sit with her in a living room and look at photos together, but between the choice of our video chat and the severance of our relationship (which I know would happen without the tools we have today), I choose maintaining our now digital friendship. True, I may expect “less” by not expecting that we speak to each other every week or even every month, but her presence in my life is still a consistent one.

    Maybe Turkle is right, though. Perhaps this friend and I only do get in touch when we find each other “useful, comforting, or amusing,” but I don’t see that as different from how relationships functioned before social media and consistent online presence entered our collective lives. We keep people in our lives because they are “useful, comforting, or amusing” and I don’t think that is something to be ashamed of. Usefulness doesn’t mean that you discard someone the instant exhibit non-useful behavior. I don’t know how we could function without comfort and amusement, and desiring to optimize that doesn’t make us alone, it connects us.

  3. One subject Turkle addresses is the role of human vulnerability in our interaction with technology. I found myself drawn to this presentation, wanting to know more about my own vulnerabilities and for which red flags keep an eye out.

    A vulnerability I drew from the text came from the Turkle’s question,
    “Why do we believe that the next technology we dream up will be the first to prove not only redemptive but indestructible?” (104). This single-track focus is clearly a weakness if it is not recognized and addressed. Currently, We
    In relation to whether this is good for humans or not, Turkle states,
    “They depend on what we will be like, the kind of people we are becoming as we launch ourselves and those we love into increasingly intimate relationships with machines” (108). This observation shifts the conversation entirely from “how does X connect with Y” to “how does X morph Y as each is connected.” The cause and effect observation is then more complicated to measure, as there are two variables in the equation – the capabilities of technology, and the dynamic nature of human behavior. Even more so, how much impact does this morphing affect those who are most malleable?

    Turkle comments on the two specific age groups, “Children and seniors: the most vulnerable first.” (106) Along with this assertion that seniors are among the most vulnerable, Turkle presents an anecdote regarding Edna and My Real Baby. After definitively stating that the robot is not alive, Edna “turns to a crying My Real Baby and caresses its face, saying, ‘oh, why are you crying? Do you want to sit up?’” I found this to be particularly interesting when using vulnerability as a basis for this behavior. Relating this to the way children hold dichotomous views of “alive but not alive” regarding robot toys, it is now clear to me that there are certain common aspects of life in young and old age. I’d be very interested to find out to what extent old and young humans behave similarly.

  4. hramesh2013

    Sherry Turkle devotes a significant portion of the chapter Growing Up Tethered to discussing Facebook, rightfully so, since this social-networking platform is very much integrated in our daily lives. First, she contrasts the ritual of friend requesting to one “In the Victorian era” when “one controlled whom one saw and to whom one was connected through the ritual of calling cards” (Turkle 181). While Victorian social etiquette was more rigid, Facebook’s rules are less defined; users have to worry about who they friend and what impression a certain friend list creates since “Friending someone gives that person implicit permission to try to friend your friends” (181).
    Turkle emphasizes online social networks made possible by more advanced technology has blurred traditional social norms of what it is to be a friend. She mentions more than once that friends on Facebook have become more like fans. In one example, Turkle talks about a friend, an author, who attempted to use Facebook to garner more publicity. However, this friend “described the complicated anxieties about not having enough friends and about envy of her husband, also a writer, who had more friends than she”. She finally ended her sentiments with saying that the Friending process “took me right back to high school.”(182). By the two examples above, Turkle reifies two points. People can use technology to control how much intimacy they want to experience, and in the process of doing so, they are enamored with physical projections of humans (i.e. robots) and, in the example of Facebook, try to create distorted projections of themselves online.
    Turkle is point on about how Facebook has disrupted social norms regarding friendships but she could not have possibly anticipated how intrusive Facebook has become in terms of promoting projections years since she wrote her book. With the advent of Facebook Connect, activities from other websites (liking an article on CNN or buying something from Amazon) could be items that show up in one’s newsfeed. This feature, that users have come to accept, only furthers the idea of the distorted projection of self. One of Turkle’s subjects, Brad, worries that “You get reduced to a list of favorite things. ‘List your favorite music’—that gives you no liberty at all about how to say it. ” Facebook Connect activities, provided one did not change his or her privacy to limited view, complicates things, as it seems to go beyond mere lists and depict real time activities of the user. Finally, the ritual of Facebook-liking is an unofficial popularity contest that goes beyond just friend-requesting and allows friends and acquaintances alike to pass judgment on one’s online content.

  5. In the second half of Turkle’s book, she focuses on social networks and communication. Near the end of chapter 10, Turkle describes the effect technology has had on communication. People first wanted to be connected over long distances, using letters, telegrams, and the telephone. Then voice slowly was stripped from communication in favor of emails and texts (207). She makes intriguing points on this transition from voice to text, but I’m curious were communication technology platforms like Skype and FaceTime fit into her narrative.

    Many of the interview participants said they do not like calling people because they felt it was intrusive. “A call feels like an intrusion, as though I would be intruding on my friends,” describes a thirty-six-year-old nurse. It seems that video calling would be even more intrusive because no only are you taking up their time, but you are inviting yourself into their space, possibly uninvited. Turkle shares an interview in which a twenty-five-year-old man that describes the pressure that comes with intimate phone time. Phone calls “demand attention when [adults] don’t want to give it,” so people really have to plan time to talk on the phone with friends and family (188). He feels he needs to be discussing something substantial to justify his time on the phone. and this fear of calling sometimes forces people to “hold back” from sharing (204). I would think this barrier is even higher for video calls because the user must be stationary and one person and can tell if the other person is not paying full attention.

    Turkle might argue that age could play into the adoption of video calling. I know video calling is popular with people my age and older, but I’m not sure of the prevalence among teens. Turkle mentions that teenagers are more adverse to talking on the phone than adults (188). Turkle also talks about different generations being introduced to technology at different parts of their lives, and some from birth (201-2). Teenagers feel overwhelmed with “academic and sexual performance,” so texting allows them to filter communication to not feel as overwhelmed (202). If this is true, I think Turkle would say that we could see video calling tapering off as the younger generation ages. It’s interesting to think about how this very intrusive technology will play into the lives of teenagers who are trying to withdrawal from invasive communication.

  6. Throughout these chapters of the reading, I believe Sherry Turkle has stumbled upon or begun to develop an implicit thesis, this being that technology gives us increased connectivity, but diminished connection. By my use of the word, connectivity can imply literal connectivity (for example phones, internet, and social networks) or physical interaction and connectivity (such as with a Furby or AIBO). While she has yet to explicitly state this as her argument, each chapter and nearly every anecdote could easily fall under this point.

    For example, in the story of Edna in Chapter 6, a grandmother’s connection to a robotic baby (My Real Baby) trumps her connection to a real granddaughter. “Once coupled with My Real Baby, Edna gives the impression of wanting to be alone–’together’ only with the robot.” (117). In this example, connectivity with a robot more reliably demanding and mechanic is more soothing and suitable for the grandmother.

    In the case of Tim, whose mother has begun living in a nursing home, the connectivity the Paro he has given her allows him to more easily slip away from visits, as opposed to dragging along. In this case, the connectivity between robot and mother allow less focus on the connection between mother and son, making Tim’s life more simple. Turkle observes, “The Paro eases Tim’s guilt about leaving his mother in this depressing place. Now she is no longer completely alone. But by what standard is she less alone? Will robot companions cure conscience?” (107). Turkle disparages the lack of real connection between mother and son which is due to connectivity facilitatedbetween mother and robot.

    The most explicit realization of this proposed underlying thesis is in Turkle’s interview with Audrey. In the interview, Audrey comments, “Face-to-face conversations happen way less than they did before/ It’s always, ‘Oh, talk to you online.'” Rather than foster in person connections, Turkle observes that youth are equally satisfied with relying on their connectivity to maintain relationships. She discusses the phenomenon in her personal and professional life and observes that technology allows you to be in multiple places simultaneously, but not fully immersed in any of those places or to even be different people in those places. “We have moved from multitasking to multi-lifing.” (160).

  7. In this second reading, Turkle explores the omnipresence of our modern-day, well-connected selves. And she does consider both the merits of our “always on” society – such as the independence it offers adolescents, and the augmentation of our interaction with others through persistent technology (152) – along with potential downfalls – such as increasingly pervasive insecurity and isolation (157).

    However, I lose Turkle on her interpretation of some social norms around communication: most notably, the social architecture around cell phones. It appears as though Turkle defaults to interpreting certain observations as necessarily upsetting or negative conclusions. For example, the priority people assign to different phone functions is clearly a concept that leaves Turkle pessimistic about the future: she notices that people claim a phone call will be received as demanding, and thus actively seek other, more passive or mediums for most general communication (188). It is feasible that such an outcome could be viewed as suboptimal, in that it hinders true face-to-face communication where it would otherwise be more engaging for both parties involved. However, it is just as valid to claim that a system of passive communication for general correspondence, and more direct communication for sensitive or urgent matters, is more efficient overall. Especially in a world as connected as ours, it may serve our ends greater to be in contact with more people, albeit in a less engaging way, while still prioritizing communication with family or close friends who merit such attention.

    I do understand Turkle’s argument, and could envision her responding to my point by claiming that the pursuit of communicative efficiency is not a nobler goal than the preservation of face-to-face communication, a sentiment Hugo feels in his inability for others to make time for him (204). And while I would concede that Hugo and many others would agree with Turkle’s wariness, I would also revisit Tony’s resolution to his apparent contradiction: “Lack of authenticity is an acceptable trade-off for services needed” (145). Many would agree. The cost of losing some degree of authentic communication, or face-to-face interaction, is perhaps outweighed by the ability to speak to all your colleagues and all your family members in a single day. Perhaps that efficiency of communication makes us more productive, keeps us more engaged with our broader community than in-depth phone conversations with each acquaintance would achieve.

  8. maggiesko

    In chapters 6 and 7 Sherry Turkle focuses on the relationships between sociable robots and elderly individuals. A slight shift of the author’s tone can be noticed regarding the role of the robots in the lives of vulnerable individuals. In one of the closing paragraphs of chapter 5 (the last one to focus on children) Turkle remarks on talking with a robot “I find no comfort here. A machine taken as a friend demeans what we mean by friendship. Whom we like, who likes us-these things make us who we are” (p.101) She asserts the importance of the human connection between people in both everyday life and the individual’s development as a whole. However, the time spend in nursing homes, talking to the lonely elderly makes Turkle feel content at times “if they had something to talk to” (120)*.

    Although she never revokes her opinion that relationships with sociable robots cannot be a viable alternative, I was left with the impression that Turkle finds the idea of machines taking care of the elderly a bit more acceptable than their carrying of children. Both children and adults who have bonded with the robots find it difficult to part with their new companions. atto1120 notes in her comment from last week “Not all children bounce back from severance of that kind of connection”. The same notion hold true for seniors. Turkle finds it difficult, if not impossible, to make her subjects part with their robots and whenever possible would decide not to reclaim the robots and just buy more. The reasons for those decisions can be purely financial (perhaps she just could afford to do so at that stage of her research), her descriptions of the loneliness and sense of desperation in some nursing homes however make me think this might not be the case.

    In many respects children and seniors who do not receive enough human attention are equally vulnerable in their loneliness. But children have a whole lifetime ahead to interact with fellow humans, build new relationships and get over severed ones. But life does not offer such opportunities to the elderly ones in nursing homes. So perhaps imagining a sociable robot take a role unoccupied by a “real” human can be easier to accept than having one substitute a human. And sometimes the companions available might just not be suitable enough for the elderly to spend extensive periods of time with. Edna and Jonathan for example find confiding to a robot preferable to doing so with a human. After describing Edna’s experience with My Real Baby where the eighty-two old woman pays more attention to the robot than to her own granddaughter, Turkle concludes “We will certainly make our peace with the idea that grandchildren … may be too jumpy to be the most suitable company to the elders.” (p. 119)

  9. In Chapter 6, Turkle draws an important distinction between the experience and authenticity of care. She brings back the example of Miriam and her Paro, explaining that “Paro took care of Miriam’s desire to tell her story – it made a space for that story to be told – but it did not care about her or her story” (106). Turkle reasons that we use technology to “perform what used to be “love’s labor”: taking care of each other” (107), pointing out that technology makes it possible for us to “transfer” certain aspects of our human relationships to robots that are easier to control and program to our liking. On its own, this realization is striking but not necessarily troubling – if we still need human relationships for other important aspects of our lives, then robot and human relationships can be complementary. Yet Turkle suggests that our robot relationships make create a certain comfort that reduces not only our want for human relationships but our desire to provide them. When Tim gives his mother a Paro, he sees that it gives her a certain satisfaction, and it “eases Tim’s guilt about leaving his mother in this depressing place. Now she is no longer completely alone” (107). For people with family members and friends that seem sad, the robot fills a void that they can’t because of whatever other commitments and priorities they have in their lives.

    Yet that same relief that a loved one has a source of company gives a rationale for them to maintain these priorities, and as Turkle points out, the “feel-good” moment can “deceive people into feeling less need to visit” (125). On the side of the person receiving “care” from the robot, Turkle sees deception once again, proposing that the robots might “deceive the elderly into feeling less along as they chat with robots about things they once would have talked through their children” (125). The convenience of robots may begin to condition people on both sides of a relationship to give less and expect that robots will feel the void. In the process, as Turkle predicts, “as we learn to get the “most” out of robots, we may lower our expectations of all relationships, including those with people” (125). Turkle’s point is nuanced. It suggests a course into the future that may not completely erode relationships but may gradually take a little bit away from each one. How that will affect human contact on a personal and social level is yet to be seen, and justifiably is hard to predict. Yet being aware of how easy it might be to lapse into a world where robots perform the most tasking part of our relationships is essential if we are to understand what we might lose in the process.

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