By Finn Butler
In seeking to simulate empathy, do we forget our own?
In the late 2000s, I made my first Tumblr blog.
As an anxiety-ridden teenager, the internet offered a safe space to explore elements of my identity I felt otherwise unable to handle, and several of the connections I made in the process developed into real-life relationships which abide to this day. Many friends, particularly from the LGBTQ+ community and other marginalised groups, have similar stories.
Indeed, Sherry Turkle’s early work celebrated the idea that we might “use what we learned in the virtual world about ourselves, about our identity, to live better lives in the real world.”
These days, I’m attempting a social media cleanse - who isn’t? - and Turkle is writing about the dangers technology poses to society. Alone Together is the culmination of years of psychological research involving over 450 participants, and seeks to answer the question: why do we ask more of technology and less of each other?
The first section of the book, titled The Robotic Moment, explores human relationships with various robots, from Furbies to mechanical nurses. I am moved by accounts of children who feel rejected by MIT robots designed to simulate emotions, and disturbed by the proposition of a sex doll whose programmed personalities, “from wild to frigid,” can be tried and discarded at the user’s will.
Above all, Turkle questions why we desire any of this. Have we already become “so immersed in technology that we ignore what we know about life?” Although Turkle does not present an outright political argument, one emerges naturally in regard to the ethics of nursing robots, when we realise this discussion is held as if “it has already been decided, irrevocably, that we have few resources to offer the elderly.” Instead of reassessing our allocation of resources, or questioning our lack of respect for the elderly and those employed in the caring professions, we look to technology for salvation. In Turkle’s words, “we give up on ourselves.”
The book’s second half, Networked, focuses on the place of technology in our daily lives, and how this affects the way we relate to one another. The accounts presented here no longer shock us: a man escapes his unhappy marriage through a digital relationship on Second Life; parents and children sit together without speaking, distracted by their devices. Turkle’s prose illuminates what it means to be together, but alone, and does not shy away from potential counterarguments. Yes, humans have always found ways to escape from ourselves. It is only recently that we have begun to live multiple lives simultaneously.
A running theme through this section is the expectation of 24/7 availability, which has particularly disturbing implications when applied to the workplace. One of Turkle’s subjects, who receives around 500 emails a day, explains that “it is fine to take time off for vacations but not to go offline during them.” Unsatisfied with our labour, employers now demand a monopoly on our time and attention. Another woman has been diagnosed with stress-induced eczema brought on by the demands of work email, but luckily there is a cream that can soothe the rash without having to address the root causes. Perhaps it is easy to envision robots in the workforce because we already treat employees like machines.
Again and again, Alone Together uses psychological studies to bring into focus overarching questions about our societal values. Email and virtual conferencing allow us to work from anywhere, but at some point anywhere becomes everywhere, and vacations are simply an opportunity to “put our bodies somewhere beautiful while we work.” Surrender of our personal data is the price we pay for our supposedly “free” apps. Digital assistants like Amazon Echo offer us convenience in exchange for our privacy and, by extension, our notion of intimacy. Alone Together illustrates a world in which one kind of freedom is traded for another.
At what cost do we welcome technological advances into our lives? We are, to paraphrase Turkle, living in a dystopia that is being classified as utopian.
Alone Together is published by Basic Books.