Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Are we “alone together”? (Book Synopsis, Part II)

(Image from Amazon)

To conclude a book synopsis of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (check out Part I of the synopsis if you missed it), let’s look at Sherry Turkle’s concerns about replacing human relationships with technology.  As we spend more time texting, Tweeting, and playing video games, embodied human connections give way to digital ones, and interfaces get more attention than faces.  Is that healthy from a psychological perspective?  Turkle raises several concerns in Part II of her book (Chapters 8-14, which I summarize below).

In Chapter 8, she discusses what most experienced teachers and managers know about their students and employees: in general, we’re terrible at multitasking with technology.

“When psychologists study multitasking, they do not find a story of new efficiencies.  Rather, multitaskers don’t perform as well on any of the tasks they are attempting.  But multitasking feels good because the body rewards it with neurochemicals that induce a multitasking ‘high.’  The high deceives multitaskers into thinking they are being especially productive.  In search of the high, they want even more” (p 163).

Chapter 9 shows how adolescent solitude and rites of passage suffer when teenagers are constantly connected through cell phones and wireless networks.

“When parents give children cell phones . . . the gift typically comes with a contract: children are expected to answer their parents’ calls.  This arrangement makes it possible for the child to engage in activities—see friends, attend movies, go shopping, spend time at the beach—that would not be permitted without the phone.  Yet the tethered child does not have the experience of being alone with only him- or herself to count on” (p 173).

Chapter 10 discusses how emotional nuances of face-to-face and verbal communication get lost as we replace talking with texting.

“One of the emotional affordances of digital communication is that one can always hide behind deliberated nonchalance” (p 198).

Video games and second lives form the topic of Chapter 11.  In some cases, virtual games and simulations can prepare individuals for real-life scenarios, giving people practice and confidence.

“Laboratory research suggests that how we look and act in the virtual affects our behavior in the real.  I found this to be the case in some of my clinical studies of role-playing games.  Experimenting with behavior in online worlds—for example, a shy man standing up for himself—can sometimes help people develop a wider repertoire of real-world possibilities” (p 223).

South Park episode "Make Love, Not Warcraft"

satirizing video game addiction

(Image from South Park Wiki)

However, the real world is not necessarily like a virtual world, and this discrepancy can create disappointing expectations with daily life, leading people to take addictive refuge in video games.  (Indeed, many psychiatrists are considering classifying video game addiction as a disorder—here, I'm reminded of an episode from South Park that portrayed this 'disorder' by mocking World of Warcraft.)

“The gambler and video game player share a life of contradiction: you are overwhelmed, and so you disappear into the game.  But then the game so occupies you that you don’t have room for anything else.

When online life becomes your game, there are new complications.  If lonely, you can find continual connection.  But this may leave you more isolated, without real people around you.  So you may return to the Internet for another hit of what feels like connection” (p 227).

The next two chapters give insights about online ‘flaming’ and ‘electronic shadows.’

On ‘flaming’ - in Chapter 12:

“by detaching words from the person uttering them, it can encourage a coarsening of response.  Ever since e-mail first became popular, people have complained about online ‘flaming.’  People say outrageous things, even when they are not anonymous” (p 235).

On ‘electronic shadows’ - in Chapter 13:

“living with an electronic shadow begins to feel so natural that the shadow seems to disappear—that is, until a moment of crisis: a lawsuit, a scandal, an investigation.  Then, we are caught short, turn around, and see that we have been the instrument of our own surveillance.  But most of the time, we behave as if the shadow were not there rather than simply invisible.   Indeed, most of the adolescents who worry with me about the persistence of online data try to put it out of their minds” (p 260-261).

In conclusionand here's the bombshell in her bookTurkle suggests that AI and digital technologies don’t necessarily provide solutions to our desire to feel connected to other people.  In fact, they may be symptoms of our failure to connect to others:

“When technology is a symptom, it disconnects us from our real struggles” (p 283).

Agree or disagree with Turkle?  Her psychological observations resonate with what media gurus Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman said long ago: new technologies create new possibilities yet destroy existing ones, so we need to look at what we lose in addition to what we gain; otherwise, we may lose an important part of our humanity.

PS: Are there other book synopses, summaries, or reviews you'd like to see on this blog?  Email me or comment below with your requests.