Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology And Less From Each Other

Sherry Turkle

Created on Friday, September 2, 2011.
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So far the most revealing book I’ve read about the way people interact with technology and how our inventions are changing who we are and how we treat each other.


“I feel witness for a third time to a turning point in our expectations of technology and ourselves. We bend to the inanimate with new solicitude. We fear the risks and disappointments of relationships with our fellow humans. We expect more from technology and less from each other.”


“I was not shy about my lack of enthusiasm for [David] Levy’s ideas and suggested that the very fact we were discussing marriage to robots at all was a comment on human disappointments — that in matters of love and sex, we must be failing each other. I did not see marriage to a machine as a welcome evolution in human relationships.”


“Overwhelmed by the volume and velocity of our lives, we turn to technology to help us find time. But technology makes us busier than ever and ever more in search of retreat. Gradually, we come to see our online life as life itself. We come to see what robots offer as relationship. The simplification of relationship is no longer a source of complaint. It becomes what we want. These seem the gathering clouds of a perfect storm.”


“It is one thing to design a robot for an instrumental purpose: to search for explosives in a war zone or, in a more homely register, to vacuum floors and wash dishes. But the robots in this book are designed to be with us. As some of the children ask, we must ask, Why do people no longer suffice?”


“One way to look at Estelle and Leon, Edward and Shawn is to say that these children are particularly desperate for attention, control, and a sense of connection. And so, when the robots disappoint, they are more affected than other children. Of course, this is true. But this explanation puts the full burden on the children. Another way to look at their situation puts more of the burden on us. What would we have given to these children if the robots had been in top form? In the cases of Edward and Shawn, we have two “class bullies,” the kids everyone is afraid of. But these boys are lonely. As bullies, they are isolated, often alone or surrounded by children who are not friends but whom they simply boss around. They see robots as powerful, technological, and probably expensive. It is exciting to think about controlling something like that. For them, a sociable robot is a possible friend — one that would not ask for too much in return and would never reject them, but in whom they might confide. But like the insecure Estelle and Leon, these are the children who most need relationships that will model mutuality, where control is not the main thing on the table. Why do we propose machine companionship to them in the first place? From this perspective, problems aren’t limited to when the robots break down. Vulnerable children are not helped even when the robots are doing just fine.”


“Roboticists want us to consider a “best-case” scenario in which robotic companions serve as mentors, first steps toward more complex encounters. Even My Real Baby was marketed as a robot that could teach your child “socialization.” I am skeptical. I believe that sociable technology will always disappoint because it promises what it cannot deliver. It promises friendship but can only deliver performances. Do we really want to be in the business of manufacturing friends that will never be friends?”


“Computer scientists who work in this tradition want to build computers able to assess their users’ affective states and respond with “affective” states of their own. At MIT, Rosalind Picard, widely credited with coining the phrase “affective computing,” writes, “I have come to the conclusion that if we want computers to be genuinely intelligent, to adapt to us, and to interact naturally with us, then they will need the ability to recognize and express emotions, and to have what has come to be called ‘emotional intelligence.’” Here the line is blurred between computers having emotions and behaving as if they did. Indeed, for Marvin Minsky, “Emotion is not especially different from the processes that we call ‘thinking.” He joins Antonio Damasio on this but holds the opposite view of where the idea takes us. For Minsky, it means that robots are going to be emotional thinking machines. For Damasio, it means they can never be unless robots acquire bodies with the same characteristics and problems of living bodies.”


And then there is a moment of reconsideration:

“But maybe I’m getting it backwards. I’m not sure I would want a robot taking care of me when I’m old. Actually, I’m not sure I would rather not be alive than be maintained by a robot. The human touch is so important. Even when people have Alzheimer’s, even when they are unconscious, in a coma, I’ve read that people still have the grasping reflex. I suppose I want Natasha to have the human touch. I would want to have the human touch at the end. Other than that it is like that study where they substituted the terry cloth monkeys for the real monkeys and the baby monkeys clung to wire monkeys with terry cloth wrapped around. I remember studying that in college and finding it painfully sad. No, you need the real monkey to preserve your dignity. Your dignity as a person. Without that, we’re like cows hooked up to a milking machine. Or like our life is like an assembly line where at the end you end up with the robot.”


“Then Betty speaks about other “robotic things” in her life. She thinks of automatic tellers as robotic. And she is happy that in her suburban neighborhood, she has a local bank where there are still human tellers, coffee, and a plate of donuts on Saturday. “I love our little bank. It would bother me if I went in there one day and the teller was a well-trained robot. At self-service gas stations, at ATM machines, you lose the intimacy.”

For her husband, however, that neighborhood bank is only an exercise in nostalgia.

“The teller is not from the neighborhood. He doesn’t know you or care. There’s no point in talking to him because he has become a robot. If you do talk to the teller, you have become like the ‘old guy,’ the retired guy who wants to talk to everyone on line and then talk to the teller. Because that is the old guy’s social life — the bank, the grocery store, the barber. When you’re young, you’re okay with the ATM, but then, if that’s all we have, when we’re ready to talk to people, when we’re old, there won’t be anyone there. There will just be things.”

Tony’s review of the banal and the profound — of being young and wanting an ATM, of being old and bereft in a world of things — captures the essence of the robotic moment. We feel, as we stand before our ATM machines (or interact with bank tellers who behave like ATM machines), that they and we stand robotic among robots, “trained to talk to things.” So, it seems less shocking to put robots in where people used to be. Tony expands on a familiar progression: when we make a job rote, we are more open to having machines do it. But even when people do it, they and the people they serve feel like machines.”


“Online, like MIT’s cyborgs, we feel enhanced; there is a parallel with the robotic moment of more. But in both cases, moments of more may leave us with lives of less. Robotics and connectivity call each other up in tentative symbiosis, parallel pathways to relational retreat. With sociable robots we are alone but receive the signals that tell us we are together. Networked, we are together, but so lessened are our expectations of each other that we can feel utterly alone. And there is the risk that we come to see others as objects to be accessed — and only for the parts we find useful, comforting, or amusing.”


“Success in simulation tempers Adam’s sense of disappointment with himself. He says that it calms him because, in games, he feels that he is “creating something new.” But this is creation where someone has already been. Like playing the guitar in The Beatles: Rock Band, it is not creation but the feeling of creation. It suits Adam’s purposes. He says he is feeling “less energetic than ever before.” The games make him feel that he is living a better life. He can be adventurous and playful because the games present “a format that has already been established, that you don’t have to create. You’re creating something as you go along with it, but it’s a format that provides you with all the grunt work already, it’s already there, it’s set up, and you just got this little area — it’s a fantasy, it’s a form of wish fulfillment. And you can go and do that.” And yet, in gaming he finds something exhilarating and his.”


“There are important things to learn or be reminded of: Relationships we complain about nevertheless keep us connected to life. Advertising exerts a deadly tyranny. People reach out to strangers in kindness. Loneliness is so great that marriage to someone we have only met on a website can seem our best hope. On the electronic frontier, we forge connections that bring us back to earlier times and earlier technologies. We fall in love with twenty-first-century pen pals. Often their appeal is that we don’t know who they “really” are. So they might be perfect.”


“Anxiety is part of the new connectivity. Yet, it is often the missing term when we talk about the revolution in mobile communications. Our habitual narratives about technology begin with respectful disparagement of what came before and move on to idealize the new. So, for example, online reading, with its links and hypertext possibilities, often receives a heroic, triumphalist narrative, while the book is disparaged as “disconnected.” That narrative goes something like this: the old reading was linear and exclusionary; the new reading is democratic as every text opens out to linked pages — chains of new ideas.1 But this, of course, is only one story, the one technology wants to tell. There is another story. The book is connected to daydreams and personal associations as readers look within themselves. Online reading — at least for the high school and college students I have studied — always invites you elsewhere.”


“We have seen young people walk the halls of their schools composing messages to online acquaintances they will never meet. We have seen them feeling more alive when connected, then disoriented and alone when they leave their screens. Some live more than half their waking hours in virtual places. But they also talk wistfully about letters, face-to-face meetings, and the privacy of pay phones. Tethered selves, they try to conjure a future different from the one they see coming by building on a past they never knew. In it, they have time alone, with nature, with each other, and with their families.”


“There are no simple answers as to whether the Net is a place to be deliberate, to commit to life, and live without resignation. But these are good terms with which to start a conversation. That conversation would have us ask if these are the values by which we want to judge our lives. If they are, and if we are living in a technological culture that does not support them, how can that culture be rebuilt to specifications that respect what we treasure — our sacred spaces. Could we, for example, build a Net that reweights privacy concerns, acknowledging that these, as much as information, are central to democratic life?”


“What are we missing in our lives together that leads us to prefer lives alone together? As I have said, every new technology challenges us, generation after generation, to ask whether it serves our human purposes, something that causes us to reconsider what they are.”


“I experienced a moment of reframing during a seminar at MIT that took the role of robots in medicine as its focus. My class considered a robot that could help turn weak or paralyzed patients in their beds for bathing. A robot now on the market is designed as a kind of double spatula: one plate slides under the patient; another is placed on top. The head is supported, and the patient is flipped. The class responded to this technology as though it suggested a dilemma: machines for the elderly or not. So some students insisted that it is inevitable for robots to take over nursing roles (they cited cost, efficiency, and the insufficient numbers of people who want to take the job). Others countered that the elderly deserve the human touch and that anything else is demeaning. The conversation argued absolutes: the inevitable versus the unsupportable.

Into this stalled debate came the voice of a woman in her late twenties whose mother had recently died. She did not buy into the terms of the discussion. Why limit our conversation to no robot or a robotic flipper? Why not imagine a machine that is an extension of the body of one human trying to care lovingly for another? Why not build robotic arms, supported by hydraulic power, into which people could slip their own arms, enhancing their strength? The problem as offered presented her with two unacceptable images: an autonomous machine or a neglected patient. She wanted to have a conversation about how she might have used technology as prosthesis. Had her arms been made stronger, she might have been able to lift her mother when she was ill. She would have welcomed such help. It might have made it possible for her to keep her mother at home during her last weeks. A change of frame embraces technology even as it provides a mother with a daughter’s touch.”

That's all there is, there isn't any more.
© Desi Quintans, 2002 – 2022.