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Book Review of "Alone Together" by Sherry Turkle

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle is written in an engaging yet scholarly style easily accessible to a broad audience.

Turkle’s focus is the constant yet shallow technological connectivity of today’s youth culture (particularly high school and college students), and its significant impact on interpersonal relationships as well as the whole of our society.

In the book’s introduction Turkle makes the profound statement, “Technology is seductive when what it offers meets our human vulnerabilities.[1]” This strikes at the very heart of the matter: we humans crave intimacy but fear the risk and vulnerability that come along with it.

The author touches a nerve with both the young and the not-so-young in this work that is both incisive and insightful. Turkle herself admits to loving technology (in a 2012 TED talk she refers to getting an encouraging text from her daughter as being “like getting a hug”), but insists that too much can be problematic. Texts are convenient, and can be useful and even uplifting, but they do not work very well for truly getting to know someone.

In the internet’s early days, Turkle recounts that users would occasionally unplug, step back, and learn from the virtual world how they could be better human beings in the real world. With the more recent proliferation of mobile devices, she says that we are now allowing these technologies to take us to places we never wanted to go. 

Real life human relationships are rich, as well as messy. In our high-tech age of constant connection through the web, we assume the make-believe persona of avatars interacting in a virtual world. On-line we can edit and re-touch the thoughts and images of the versions of ourselves that we present to others. We hide behind our profiles, showing each other only the attributes we want others to see, rather than the real, whole person that each of us is. This absence of vulnerability results in a world lacking in true intimacy: a world in which one neither knows nor is known by anyone else.

We are fearful of being alone, but also fearful of the risks associated with intimacy. Turkle implicates the sense of control offered by technology in masquerading as the antidote to our fears and vulnerabilities. Even as we complain about the distractions of multi-tasking and never having anyone’s full attention, our mobile devices offer us a façade of control. They allow us to control exactly where we put our attention; to make sure we always have an audience (via our texts, posts, shares, etc.); and to always be connected, however superficially. Additionally, technology offers us distraction from a sometimes painful present reality, allowing us to postpone or even completely avoid contemplation or self-reflection. Turkle revises Rene Descartes’ famous line, “I think, therefore I am,” into the more contemporarily descriptive, “I share, therefore I am.”

The author points out that this controlled virtual connectedness gives us the illusion of companionship without the demands of real world friendship. A step beyond on-line communities and social media, robot pets and companions appear to fill the need for someone who listens and shows compassion, but it is merely the clever pretense of programmed artificial intelligence.

Ironically, our technological ability to satisfy the need to be heard has turned us into very poor listeners and friends to anyone or anything other than what we selfishly find attractive and interesting. Turkle observes that it is in listening to the boring and imperfect parts of real human conversations that we really get to know each other.

Turkle worries that this pervasive craving for constant connection exacerbates our inability to be alone, asserting that if we are not able to be alone we are only going to end up more lonely.

Prescriptively, the author asserts that we need to create the time and space for greater awareness, reflection and conversation about how technology is changing us individually and as a society. Furthermore, we must insist that technology lead us back to the real world and our real lives.

As Christians, we have an even higher calling to make sure that our use of technology demonstrates love for our fellow humans, rather than exploiting our fellow humans through our love of technology.

This book is a very well written, thought provoking and enjoyable read. 

- Leslie Wickman, Ph.D., Center for Research in Science, Azusa Pacific University.

[1] Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011), p. 1.

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