Alone Together

Alone Together, Sherry TurkleAlone Together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other
by Sherry Turkle
384 pages, Basic Books, 2011

Clinical psychologist and professor of social studies of science and technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sherry Turkle, (MIT) is an influential thinker. Her role at MIT isn’t to question what technology is doing for us but to instead question what technology is doing to us. Alone Together is the result of Turkle’s 15 year exploration into how the digital landscape is shaping us and is her most recent book to date, having been published this year.

The book has been written in two parts; the area of robotics and how we are being shaped by technology. Alone Together is extremely well written. The turning of each page clearly follows the train of the author’s thoughts and due to this, reading through all 297 pages was a pleasure. Throughout the book at least one profound thought exists on each page which makes for an intense amount of questions to arise. Fortunately, many of the answers I had created in my mind were quickly made clearer or shown to be incorrect through Sherry Turkle’s explanation of concepts, situations and behaviours.

FurbySherry Turkle begins the book by discussing how children interact with various robotic toys, going particularly in depth with regards to the Furby (a toy I proudly owned as a child). It was fascinating to read her experiences of sociological case studies concerning how she has witnessed children interacting with this robotic toy. Asking fundamental questions to children inquiring could their Furby be alive and witnessing the emotional attachment many children had with their toy. A characteristic she likens to the way humans become attached to their pets.

Certainly largely a book of opinion, one can’t help but feel an absolute truth joined by an certain irony when Alone Together by Sherry Turkle is read on the train to London. To take a snippet of thought from Turkle’s writing, when people are alone they feel most connected. An obvious example of this is through the use of smartphones, perfectly demonstrated when commuting to London each day. It is as if the world has taken your parents’ advice ‘Remember darling, don’t speak to strangers’, a little bit too seriously. When alone you have time to connect with your smartphone, time to review the host of social options (this includes texts and phone calls) your device features.

Turkle explores two questions; are we really connecting and what affect does this have on our social behaviour?

The basic premise of behaviour that encompasses the entirety of part two is the unquestioning need to be connected and the element of being interrupted, which accompanies this social trait. Case studies include teenagers revealing how they check Facebook notifications whilst driving, the strain of a young boy who feels burdened by the amount of mobile text messages he receives and underlying all of this the suggestion that leading a digitally connected life is usually coupled by an emotionally disconnected social life.

Social networking on mobilesWithin Alone Together, an emotional social disconnection is exampled through text messaging and Instant Messaging software (IM). At the heart of this concept is the word ‘attention’, an information overload to a single user will mean various social updates will be placed into a competitive situation. Quite unlike the beauty of a phone call which demands attention to one individual and emotion to be shared.

Beyond the need of having a sort of detached social life is the other peculiar trait which Turkle explores, the fact that some people feel the need to lead a completely separate virtual life. A life in which they can shape their ideal character and career profile. The two games which are explored is Second Life and The Sims Online (ended in 2008), both social simulation games which allows the player to lead the life they want. As with online simulations they demand the player to project their profile into the virtual character, occasionally with linked consequences in the real world. Such behaviour is often found in social networking as well, building online social networking profiles which you can shape to appear the person you want to be perceived as.

Alone Together is a book perfectly crafted to reflect my feeling on the matter of the digital age many ‘generation Y’ students have found ourselves born into. For the last 16 year of my life (now 21, I first used a computer when 5-years-old) I have been plugged into the internet. No greater need to connect socially has come than in the form of Facebook. A network which demands our attention, a company which owns our social life and a network I could no longer find myself comfortable to be on. In my spare time I was always alone together, now I occasionally just want to be alone – so I left Facebook after having been on the network since April 2007. That was 2 months ago and I have no regrets. Have you ever imagined what life was like before the interruptions of social media? Well, I’m beginning to find out.

If you are tired of the constant appraisal of social media and other online technologies, wish to find an intelligent view, then read Sherry Turkle’s book. It is loaded with information to help find that alternative view for an essay or dissertation, more importantly it may help you reflect on your own online behaviour. I will most certainly catch up with Sherry Turkle’s past books after my experience of Alone Together.

Michael White imageAlone together was reviewed by Michael White, a PR student at the University of Gloucestershire who is on placement at Microsoft. He regularly blogs and tweets.

If you’re interesting in writing a book or film review for Behind the Spin, get it touch with the section editor Clare Callery via email: cs.callery @ gmail.com (no spaces)

Comments

  1. I was genuinely interested to know what you would make of her argument, Michael. You are, as you say, an ideal subject for Turkle having been digital since the age of five.

    As a subject of an experiment, should you not be rather more dysfunctional than you are?

    My observation would be that digital media has given you a perfect forum for self-expression and personal development.

  2. A good review of what seems like an interesting book Michael.

    I have heard the subject of how social networking effects our lives raised quite a few times recently.

    I think the key is knowing when to switch off. I’m a frequent user of social networks, and enjoy using them. But I don’t feel the need to be online all the time.
    Much as there is a work/life balance, I think we all have an innate ‘life/life’ balance if you will; and I think the majority of digital media users maintain this balance well.

    I do know a few people who seem to be online almost all day, my only question is where they find the time!

    Interesting subject nonetheless, and I like Richard’s point about digital media offering a space for expression and development. I know of very few students/practitioners (certainly in PR) who are not closely connected to social networking and digital media in their day-to-day activities, whether academic or professional.

    Michelle

  3. @Richard Bailey

    In many ways this review is almost too short to warrant an in-depth analysis of Turkle’s arguments. It has been a while since I’ve read a book which has caused me to question certain online behaviours so much.

    There is no doubt that generation Y is the experimental generation. Not only in the way in which our behaviour will be changed by technology but also the health implications. Does high mobile phone usage cause health issues? Well, my generation are the lab rats!

    It could be argued that I am already dysfunctional in the sense that I feel that I need to quantify my existence through social tools. I’ve been using Twitter more than once a day since October 2008 – sharing personal information and views, it has become part of how I function now. It is completely unnecessary in many respects. My dysfunctionality is best presented through my past usage of Facebook, it is addictive. Many people (of all generations) use Facebook as their social hub and will spend many hours simply stalking friends. We truly are alone together in this respect and the art of a 1 to 1 conversation is almost over. Very little online conversation seems to be exclusive (like a phone call).

    Digital media has given me a voice which would have otherwise have been unheard. On a number of occasions people have said hello to me in Cheltenham simply through recognition of my presence on social networks and blog! So in my eyes the issue isn’t social media itself but instead how we use social media, Sherry Turkle is a good voice to be listened to in this respect.

    (My view on how to use social networks is really another article altogether!)

    @Michelle Allison

    Completely agree about your point of knowing when to switch off. A lot of time can be wasted through these information overload tools. The key is knowing how to use them and in the right quantity.

    Glad you liked the review. Highly recommend reading the book.

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