Sherry Turkle of MIT: The human cost of social technology
Reading Time: 5 minutes
In light of all the recent developments around social technology, from the launch of Google + to Facebook’s f8 conference launch of Timeline and Ticker last week, I felt it especially pertinent to share this interview with Sherry Turkle of MIT. What she invites us to consider is the human cost of our social media engagement which seems all the more relevant as networks like Google+ and Facebook arm us with new tools to become even more effective online storytellers inspiring us to spend more time there.
SM: Hi I’m Simon Mainwaring, here at the IVOH World Summit in the Catskills, New york, and I have the great pleasure of being here with Sherry Turkle, who is the professor of Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, and the author of the critically acclaimed book, Alone Together. It is such a pleasure to chat with you, Sherry. Thank you for your time. Now, one of the things I talk about when it comes to social media is that I believe that technology is teaching us to be human again, yet the thesis of your book might actually go against that proposition. Do you think that’s true or not?
ST: I think that’s a complicated story. That is to say, we are no using technology in some ways that are distancing us from each other, but I’m optimistic because I think so many of us are starting to realize that something is going amiss when we have dinner with friends and everyone has a phone on the table and interrupts conversations in order to take those calls. When I walked the dunes of Cape Cod that Thoreau walked, and everybody is walking those dunes with their heads down to those devices, something is going amiss. When everyone is answering emails instead of talking to colleagues at work, something is going amiss. So it’s good, but we need to make it good for us.
SM: What would you say is being lost, and what is the cost of that?
ST: Well, I’ve interviewed hundreds of young people and hundreds of older people and I think that one of the things that is being lost is the ability to tolerate solitude. In my own studies I call it, “I share, therefore I am.” That is to say, you go from a position where you say “I have a feeling, I want to make a call,” to a position where you say “I want to have a feeling, I need to send a text.” So what’s being lost is the ability to experience your thoughts and feelings without immediately sharing them and you lose the capacity to collaborate because collaboration is infusion. You need to come to collaboration with a sense of self, with your own ideas and confidence in yourself. You lose the capacity for certain kinds of leadership because, again, leadership requires an ability to lead, not just to poll.
SM: So you feel like we’re losing the ability to be present because we’re in such a hurry to pass on that experience that we almost cut ourselves out of the equation.
ST: Yes. And we’re substituting connection for conversation. I think that’s very important. This move from conversation to connection, and we’re almost forgetting how nurturing conversation is. Over and over I’ve interviewed people who basically tell me “Don’t call.” In Alone Together I have a chapter titled Please Don’t Call. The last thing they want is a telephone call. It would take too much time. It’s too dangerous. Too much might show. They don’t want to be interrupted. It’s easier to send an email or send a text and not have the risks of showing themselves in a conversation.
SM: Would you characterize this as a function of the need to now live in public at all times, to always be “on”? Is that the challenge that we’re all facing now, because, given the opportunity to do it with social media and these other platforms, we feel obligated to do so?
ST: There are several things. We’ve given ourselves an opportunity to hide. Social media, for all of it’s bounties—and I’m very enthusiastic of all the bounties of social media—it also gives us an opportunity to hide. We perform ourselves on social media, and that is different from being ourselves on social media. That ability to perform yourself is also an ability to hide. It leads to something that I call “Fear of missing out.” You’re always watching what other people are doing and you being to be jealous because their showing their best selves and you’re showing your best self. You almost become jealous of the life you live on Facebook. You have to remind yourself that it’s your life because you’re showing your best self.
SM: Let me ask you a question about that. How different is that to the version of ourselves that we present in the real world, albeit only to one or two or five people at a time? Is it worse because we can reach a mass audience?
ST: No, it’s worse because…we’re sitting here together and, of course, I’m in a role and you’re in a role, but because we’re here together, certain things show. We’re animals, we’re human beings and, really, by the fact that we’re here together, we show ourselves to each other, we reveal ourselves to each other. On the network, we can fake it. We can perform ourselves in a way where there is a more polished self. I interview people who really describe to me the time and the care they take on what they present in their social media presence. It’s like we’re playing avatars of ourselves.
SM: If you had to characterize it in two ways, the long term effects on this, what is the best case scenario, the upside, and the worst case scenario. Give us the spectrum of consequence.
ST: Best case scenario… My favorite line in my book is, “Just because we grew up with the internet, we think the internet is all grown up, and it isn’t, and it’s time to make the corrections.” I think we’re at a turning point now where we’re ready to reassess and live a saner and healthier life. I think the corporate world is ready to be more attentive to the social and emotional needs of both its consumers and its workers. I think that people are ready to be more attentive to living a saner life in their online presence. We don’t want to be interrupted. So the plus side is that we’re at a moment where we’re going to be able to enjoy the bounties of this technology and minimize its cost. The downside is that we are somehow, just like there’s a fog of war, there’s a fog of technology. Teaching at MIT for 30 years, I can tell you that technology can make us forget what we know about life, and one of the things that we’re forgetting right now is the importance of conversation and of truly being with each other in the ways that matter.
SM: Yet you’re still optimistic. Why are you optimistic? What gives you hope?
ST: I’m optimistic because I think human beings want to be with each other and realize the nurturance and the sustaining effects of being with each other and communicating with each other. I think that there’s a movement I see in the resonance in my work and in the work of other people who are starting to have this kind of message, including yourself actually, that there’s starting to be a convergence in the corporate world and consumer world of realizing that these two worlds have interests that are starting to come together by using this technology in more humane ways, in ways that are better for the social good.
SM: I can’t tell you how excited I am by the book. That fifteen-year study on the impact of science and technology is absolutely incredible. I highly recommend it to everyone. Where else can people find you online?