10/14 – Alone Together: Chapters 11, 12, 13, 14, Conclusion, & Epilogue

In this session we conclude our reading of Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together.

As a reminder, and for your review:

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9 responses to “10/14 – Alone Together: Chapters 11, 12, 13, 14, Conclusion, & Epilogue

  1. Turkle characterizes our relationship with technology as two-sided, and through this characterization, introduces the notion of “realtechnik”, which I wanted to better understand. She writes, “The realtechnik of connectivity culture is about possibilities and fulfillment, but it is also about the problems and dislocations of the tethered self” (243). Here, realtechnik is not yet explicitly defined, but I am able to gather at least the point she wants to put across. Essentially, the two-sided relationship is as follows: the web offers us the promise of companionship without the demands of a relationship. We turn to technology to feel connected in ways we can comfortably control. As in the case of Adam, “This is the sweet spot of simulation: the exhilaration of creativity without its pressures, the excitement of exploration without its risks. And so Adam plays on, escaping to a place where he does not have to think beyond the game….The games are reassuring, their payoff guaranteed. Real life takes too many steps and can always disappoint” (224).

    Adam’s situation was particularly alarming; he was so addicted to the game that he completely ignored his life and responsibilities outside of it. However, I do not think Turkle wrote about Adam in order to argue that we are victimized by the internet. Instead, I believe it underscores what she intends by “realtechnik”, namely, suggesting that “we step back and reassess when we hear triumphalist or apocalyptic narratives about how to live with technology. Realtechnik…encourages a state of mind in which we are most open to facing problems and reconsidering decisions” (294). Thus, what Turkle is really driving at here is that we should start developing a more self-aware relationship with our technology. Rather than letting ourselves be mindlessly drawn into it, we ought to take a step back and proactively reconsider some of the decisions we make with it.

    For example, consider the case of online confessions. “Here, statements may not be true, but true enough or writers to feel unburdened and for readers to feel part of a community….Something that is less than conversation begins to seem like conversation….We ask less of people and more of technology” (231). On an online confession site, the anonymity allows us a forum in which to confess but free of the potential disapproval that confessing face-to-face to a friend might have. While this disapproval may at first seem like something one should avoid, it’s an essential part of a friendship. Indeed, Turkle’s theme throughout has been that technology appeals to us most where we are most vulnerable. Lonely yet afraid of intimacy, we ask less of people and more of technology to provide the need for companionship, be it through the form of an avatar, a sociable robot, or even on an online confession site. However, realtechnik encourages us to keep in mind that while we might feel that life can be too much to handle, constant connection drives us not closer together but alone together.

  2. A. To

    In Chapter 12, Turkle discusses the “online confessions” phenomena. She argues “technology makes it easy to blur the line between confession and apology, … not only because online spaces offer themselves as ‘cheap’ alternatives to confronting other people, but because we may come to the challenge of an apology already feeling disconnected from other people” (234). I agree that online spaces are indeed cheap alternatives to confrontation, but I don’t think technology is blurring any lines between confession and apology. Those who use online confession tools are aware that they are not making amends for their actions. They are simply, as Turkle says, venting.
    Not every conflict with a friend or loved one needs a confrontation for resolution. I would argue that these users are acutely aware of what they are doing. After all, Sheryl “goes online to feel better, not to make things right” (233). Maybe online confessions enable people to not apologize, but they don’t do so deceptively. The evidence we are presented with that technology is shifting our concepts of apology comes from 18-year-old Larry. He doesn’t apologize in person anymore, he says, “I just put my excuses on as my status. The people who are affected know who I mean” (233). But I argue back that most 18-year-olds are not fully socially developed. I can think of plenty of situations in high school (for me when Facebook was still not used by the majority), when friends ignored conflict and fumbled apologies. Technology is not the cause of this bizarre social interaction it is just the current means.
    Without technology, we can achieve the same non-complete catharsis by writing in a journal or simply speaking aloud to pets or inanimate objects. These practices are commonplace. They also provide the same (or perhaps even higher) level of disconnect from other people. The new element, which is comment feedback, provides the possibility of more connection. You can use the comments as a sounding board and decide what course of action to take. But most importantly, this is optional. You don’t have to read comments. You can just send your confession out into the web and never look at them again.

  3. In Chapter 14, Turkle provides a fascinating look at the conditioning behind the way that modern teenagers and young people think about and engage digital communication. Turkle begins by observing that the digital communication creates its own demand: “The promise: the person you text will receive the message within seconds, and whether or not he or she is “free,” the recipient will be able to see your text. The demand: when you receive a text, you will attend to it…and respond as soon as possible” (255-256). Ironically, though we have learned in Turkle’s earlier analysis that much of the evolution of robotics and digital connection is tied to our desire to have more control over our interactions with other people, in this case the technology actually creates an even greater pressure for us to stay connected with others so that we don’t risk creating a precedent that might make us feel neglected later. Turkle pinpoints the source of this demand by looking at the psychological need behind it: “Longed for here is the pleasure of full attention, coveted and rare. These teenagers grew up with parents who talked on their cell phones and scrolled through messages as they walked to the playground” (266). This observation is essential because it reminds us that youth today have spent their entire lives in a very technological world, and thus have probably had their psychological development influenced strongly by its omnipresence. We live in a world where connection and presence appears more at hand but in reality can be very misleading, and as Turkle points out, “Previously, children had to deal with parents being off with work, friends, or each other. Today, children contend with parents who are physically close, tantalizingly so, but mentally elsewhere” (267).

    This observation is especially moving when Turkle tells us that youth really are sometimes starved for attention, and are even “willing to admit that they are often relieved when a parent asks them to put away the phone and sit down to talk” (267). It then makes sense that the vulnerability created by systems like texting and IM’ing, where users stay linked in because of a mutual obligation to be responsive and provide attention to each other, is particularly strong in young people. Yet the system makes it even harder for users to escape this vulnerability because it makes it easier for them to get distracted by other things, e.g. games and advertisements, and as Turkle points out in the case of teenager Roanne, she “says she is too weak to stay focused when she has the Internet to temp her” (272). I found Turkle’s analysis in this entire progression – from the roots of vulnerability in digital communication to the way that this communication undermines our ability to satisfy this vulnerability – to be fascinating and poignant. It seems that our digital systems of communication are almost like a sand trap, ensnaring us in a way that makes it increasingly hard to escape and changes our entire psychology in the process. Thoreau’s idea is telling: “Where we live doesn’t just change how we live; it informs who we become” (277).

  4. In the conclusion of Alone Together, Turkle writes of the concept of addiction:

    “It is, of course, tempting to talk about all of this in terms of addiction. Adam, who started out playing computer games with people and ends up feeling compelled by a world of bots, certainly uses this language. The addiction metaphor fits a common experience: the more time spent online, the more one wants to spend time online. But however apt the metaphor, we can ill afford the luxury of using it. Talking about addiction subverts our best thinking because it suggests that if there are problems, there is only one solution. To combat addiction, you have to discard the addicting substance.” -293

    In this conclusion, Turkle contrasts between human interactions with technology and addiction to technology. However, this distinction is confusing, as the majority of Turkle’s examples throughout the novel portray individuals with extreme compulsions to repeat habit-inducing behavior regardless of its ramifications. In many of these cases, the only way to stop the compulsion to play was to eliminate the facet of technology from that individual’s life.

    In the example of Hannah, her mom (whom she only sees a few times a week) is too addicted to her BlackBerry to greet her and talk when picking her up from school. “Today, children contend with parents who are physically close, tantalizingly so, but mentally elsewhere.” (267). Even with all the youth communicating in Hannah’s school, Turkle points out “Texting is too seductive. It makes a promise that generates its own demand.” (265). The addiction to texting and mobile technology is pervasive, and affects human interactions in a tangible manner.

    Turkle discusses Adam, an individual addicted to games both for his boost in esteem and for the games themselves. “Success in simulation tempers Adam’s sense of disappointment with himself.” (223). In face Adam himself calls his relationship with gaming an addiction. Turkle’s discussion of Jonas also demonstrates a different kind of compulsion: “Jonas, forty-two, admits to being ‘addicted’ to a range of confessional sites…He interrupts his work by ‘dipping in’ to one or another of them during the day.” (236).

    Referring to all the interviews in the book, Turkle writes, “As we try to reclaim our concentration we are literally at war with ourselves.” (296). She adds this to the statement that, “In this book I have referred to our vulnerabilities rather than our needs. Needs imply that we must have something.” (295). But all the individuals above need their connectivity, they live for their online and mobile interactions. By her descriptions, each individual discussed is struggling against their addiction to technology.

    All of these are examples that contribute to textbook definitions of addiction, and yet Turkle insists that these characters are not addicted. This distinction seems to weaken an implicit theme throughout the book – addiction to all these technologies makes us “alone together”. On page 263 Turkle writes, “We make our technologies, and they, in turn, make and shape us.” Now thus shaped by technology, it’s difficult to argue that we’re not addicted in some form, and that this addiction shapes our interactions with the world around us.

  5. I’d like to know more about the intersection of two online behaviors Turkle presents in the text. The first is “acting out,” and the second is “working through.” Turkle briefly mentions, “In thinking about online life, it helps to distinguish between what psychologists call acting out and working through” (214). Turkle then briefly provides a description of each behavior, but didn’t go into too much detail. As I went on reading Second Life anecdotes, I read each scenario through with eyes to see “acting out” and “working through.”

    Turkle mentions a Second Life character named Rashi who “attended a Second Life wedding.” I couldn’t help but think that this situation on the screen was an example of “acting out,” despite its good nature. I do not know why I hold this view of a virtual wedding, but the lack of clarification from the author in the difference between the two behaviors has left me to my instincts.

    Another example of “acting out” behavior follows shortly after when she describes a human named Joel that “feels impatient and fidgety” when he is on the telephone. This seems to be Joel’s interaction with Second Life, where he is able to communicate with ease in a pressure free environment. While considering the nature of this behavior, I classified it into the “acting out” category. It seems that while Joel is able to communicate freely within Second Life, he is not working toward the goal of effective voice communication in real-life scenarios in the process. As such, it does not seem as though Joel is “working through” any particular trait of his and is instead becoming dependent on the virtual self. I think some clarity on the matters of “acting out” and “working through” with more specific examples would be helpful from the author.

  6. hramesh2013

    Sherry Turkle in the last few chapters of her book, Alone Together, discusses mass multi-player online games like Second Life and confessional sites like Post-Secret. On both platforms, users encounter the same dilemma of developing a relationship with an anonymous person and helping him or her solve a problem in his or her personal life. Though Turkle does not explicitly say this, these users feel a sense of emotional attachment at the risk of the other person faking his or her persona and situation.
    One of Turkle’s interviewees, Joel, helps an avatar named Noelle a depressed Frenchwoman who is contemplating suicide, “but since their entire relationship takes place in Second, Life, the questions of Noelle’s authenticity is unclear” (216). While Joel seems to be amenable to the idea that Noelle is not at all French, he feel that “to have spent hours offering counsel to a woman who says she is contemplating suicide, only to find out it was “just a game” – that would feel wrong (216). As Turkle points out, Joel himself is content to use his avatar, Rashi, as medium to live a virtual life that is perhaps more fulfilling than the real but he is averse to the idea of the people he interacts with faking serious situations in real life.
    This risk is also present on anonymous confessional websites like PostSecret where users have posted anything from sexual encounters to suicidal thoughts. These confessors seem to have a cathartic and empowering experience by sharing a deep, dark secret to a void without the burden of having someone physically berating them for online criticism is easier to escape. However, Turkle herself questions the sense of responsibility people reading these confessions should have. She asks:
    “If this is not a game, how do you not get anxious when a woman talks about letting her love suffocate her until she fears for her life? If this is not a game, how do you not get anxious when a mother talks about nearly uncontrollable desires to shake her baby”(239)?
    However, she is also cautious to believe these stories, as there is always the off chance that someone is writing to get attention or convey a universal experience rather than a personal one.

    The safety and anonymity that the Internet in any medium offers to its user must come with a price: the stress of carrying the depicted emotional burdens of those we interact with regardless of whether this stress is justified or not.

  7. Turkle describes the need for privacy in a world that archives everything. Turkle states, “You feel in a place that is private and ephemeral. But your communications are public and forever” (258). People are not aware that even their most private conversations online can be stored forever. However, she also explains how nothing is really permanent unless you make an effort to save it. When talking about saving communications with her daughter, Turkle explains, “the digital is only ephemeral if you don’t take the trouble to make it permanent” (299). I think these two points are seemingly at odds, and it’s worth it to exam how Turkle believes these beliefs can coexist. How can we have it both ways? One’s digital life is forever, but yet only temporary.

    I think we can start to understand the relationship between these points by looking at how the notion of forgetting changes in an archived world. Turkle remarks on an observation of a man that attempted to find a specific image and gave up, “You focus on whatever past is kept on the computer. And you learn to favor whatever past is easiest to find (301)” I think there is a disconnect between storing everything and being able to access everything. If things are not correctly indexed, you may not be able to retrieve them. This amounts to forgetting. Using this train of thought, I think Turkle would argue the two points can stand together because with vast amounts of information stored, things can be both lost and secured forever. Finding one specific item may require more effort than one is willing to give. However, for any item that is “forgotten” for you, there exists someone that may put in more effort to find it. Therefore, something can be “forgotten” but still retrievable.

    Another way to explain the connection is to consider relative accessibility. Turkle describes Brad, who was surprised by the fact that someone else was able to save all the conversations with him throughout his time in high school. He felt “shocked” and “upset” at what he believed as an intrusion of privacy (257). Brad did not make any effort to archive this digital life, so he did not have the ability to look back on his words. However, his friend was able to, and why? She decided to save those conversations. If we look at the digital world, most things aren’t saved on personal computers, but rather on servers hundreds of miles away. When looking at whether one’s digital life is forever or temporary, it’s a question of through whose eyes are we looking. You may control what you have access to later, but Facebook, Twitter, your friends, and the government also have a say what is stored on their end. That’s how we get confused.

  8. maggiesko

    In the epilogue of “Alone Together” Turkle poses the question “If technology remembers for us, will we remember less?” and later on adds “One of life’s pleasures is remembering the good and the bad. Will the fact of the archive convince us that the work of remembering is already done?”(p. 300) Throughout her book Turkle makes many valid observations about the ways technology has and is changing the way we interact, but I do not think the way we remember our lives is one of them.

    Even though people are prone to memory bias, remembering is not a voluntary action. We do not choose what to remember and forget; the events, people and object that impress us leave a trace in our memory no matter whether we want it to happen or not. And even if a computer archives our lives, it us, people to make sense of all the memories recorded there. Moreover, I do not think that computer archives will drastically change the way we remember mostly because the content of the archive albeit digital is very close to our physical objects we keep to remember (photographs, dairy entries, records). So the question “If technology remembers for us, will we remember less?” can easily be asked about photography or writing (as in documentary or journal keeping) in general: when we can have physical objects that contain more information than we can remember, do we remember less?

    After describing Bell’s unsuccessful attempt to find a particular photo in his archive and his subsequent loss of interest in finding it, Turkle concludes, “… when you depend on the computer to remember your past, you focus on whatever past is kept on the computer. And you learn to favor whatever past is easier to find. My screensaver, my life”(p.301). I find this conclusion to be a bit illogical as Bell remembers the photograph and the moment it depicts, he just cannot find it at that particular moment. In the same way the author could have concluded that her mother had forgotten an event simply because she cannot find a photograph in her disorganized archive.

    Similarly to their content, the archives are also not that different from the “real” archives we keep. We cannot have all our memories on display all the time, neither on our screensavers nor in our physical environment. We keep the ones that we cherish most on display (e.g. family photos in the living room) and put others away. But this does not mean we have forgotten them.

  9. Turkle’s examination of online behavior reveals a crucial paradox of our online identities. On one hand, scattered among the past couple of readings are examples that illustrate how an online presence allows us to explore different identities of the self with relative ease. Joel offers further evidence of this online advantage, exploring and creating and developing through his elephant avatar on Second Life (213). Turkle refers to Joel’s case in a largely positive light, claiming that acting through a small elephant online helps him come to term with his own vulnerabilities and develop a confidence in his abilities as both an artist and a leader. Turkle herself even enjoys the ability to cultivate a separate identity, naming her avatar “Rachel.” The online sphere is shown to be, above all else, liberating and empowering.

    On the other hand, “Anxiety” gives us a glimpse into the restrictive nature of our constantly connected lives. A persistence of technology demands a persistence of people, claims Turkle (260). An online presence that is visible to your old friends from high school, new friends from college, distant family friends and family members, and connections you never remember making can seem prohibitive in situations where one might otherwise explore and utilize several different versions of the self. No longer can one re-invent themselves when they move to a new school, or move on to college.

    Turkle’s insight is very telling, but also neglect models that deviate from the path of an all-encompassing social network such as Facebook. Internet users are increasingly drifting towards networks that offer some sort of segmented approach to sharing, or are niche social networks in themselves. Such networks, such as Path, Dribbble, or NextDoor, offer users an option to tailor their online presence to the different communities with which they interact. I believe Turkle would encourage the use of such networks, viewing them as a favorable alternative to Facebook that offer people a more comfortable way of preserving distinct identities rather than losing that ability in the physical world as a consequence of online persistence. Such networks further her thesis that “the Internet can play a part in constructive identity play, although…it is not so easy to experiment when all rehearsals are archived” (273).

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