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Sherry Turkle of MIT: The human cost of social technology

September 26, 2011 10 Comments

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?

ST: For the book, go to alonetogetherbook.com, or google Sherry Turkle and my web page with all my writings and research will be on that.

SM: Thank you for giving us the gift of all your thinking. A real pleasure to meet you, Sherry.

Do you believe technology is alienating us from ourselves and each other? Or do you feel closer to others for it?

 

READ MORE FROM SIMON MAINWARING!

10 responses to “Sherry Turkle of MIT: The human cost of social technology”

  1. Mark Volner says:

    Sherry, very interesting insights into social media and our behavior. P.S. I’m not good at faking or polishing myself on social media but I find myself filtering my true ideas on social media. 

  2. Thanks mark. Sherry is great.

  3. […] You have to remind yourself that it’s your life because you’re showing your best self. Sherry Turkle Share this:PrintShareRedditFacebookEmail This entry was posted in Technology and tagged Digital […]

  4. […] Sherry Turkle of MIT: The human cost of social technology | Simon Mainwaring […]

  5. […] week I shared Part 1 of my interview with Sherry Turkle on the ‘Human Cost of Social Technology.’ Here is […]

  6. Lisa O says:

    I hate the phone and avoid conversation with long distance friends and family. Time is the #1 issue – it’s normally an hour or more to ‘get caught up’. Out of guilt I will finally answer their 2nd or 3rd attempt to reach me or return the calls. Afterwards, almost always, I FEEL more connected and am HAPPIER because of the experience. It adds a richness that a text, e.mail, letter can never have. I am concerned with how connected we are becoming at a dangerrously superficial level. Great interview and insightful study.

  7. Thanks Lisa. I agree. We all have to find our own blend of media that serves us best. It’ll be interesting to see what kids do in the future. Best, Simon

  8. Lisa O says:

    My interest in Sherry’s work is not only on a personal but a commercial level. My business partner and i have created an ‘expert’ technology start-up (based on Harvard Dermatology skin analysis science) to aid Sales Associates to ‘expertly’ advise skincare consumers – a human collaboration. I read in the NY Times how retailers are providing shopper’s with in-store technology so they won’t have to interact with a sales person. A rush to technologies that do not foster ‘human’ interaction is disconcerting. I am not only concerned about the next generations inability to bond, nurture and truly be present ‘in the flesh’ – but ours as well.

  9. I agree, Lisa. Facial recognition and so many other technologies are writing human contact out of the equation. Like any trend, though, I’m sure it’s a pendulum and will swing back the other way when the balance becomes fundamentally unhealthy. That’s a fair way off though I fear. simon

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