Sherry Turkle has been on a journey. Sherry joined the faculty of MIT 30 years ago. As a licensed clinical psychologist, she was, as she acknowledges, “a stranger in a strange land” (anyone making a Heinlein reference immediately wins my heart).
In 1984, she wrote her first book on computers and people, "The Second Self," in 1984, a book she describes as “full of hope and optimism.” Over time, her focus shifted from the one-to-one relationship between computer and individuals to the role that computers played in shaping relationships among people. Her second book, "Life on the Screen", published in 1995, focused on “the new opportunities for exploring identity online”. It applauded the space that online environments afforded for us, especially as youth, to experiment with our identities and in the process to define more fully our true identity.
Fifteen years later she has published a third book, “Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Computers and Less From Each Other”. The title beautifully summarizes her growing concern that computers, rather than becoming catalysts for re-thinking identity, have seriously undermined our ability to connect in meaningful ways with each other.
The focus of "Alone Together"
This is a wonderful and thought-provoking book. It made me think in a way that few other recent books have. It will no doubt stir up great controversy with the digerati. But it will hopefully provide all of us an opportunity to sit back and reflect on what many of us have given up as we rushed headlong into an embrace (increasingly in a literal sense) with the machines around us. The book is full of engaging stories and delightful turns of phrases that make the reader stop and think.
Sherry’s goal is not just reflection, but to spark a conversation that will expand and sustain among all of us as we wrestle with the implications of the technology that increasingly shapes our lives. Ultimately, she hopes these conversations will prompt us to change our behavior, starting with small moves, in ways that help us nurture the many relationships that have frayed as we have become increasingly absorbed in the technology around us.
Sherry neatly summarizes her core thesis on the first page of her book:
Technology is seductive when what it offers meets our human vulnerabilities. And as it turns out, we are very vulnerable indeed. We are lonely but fearful of intimacy. . . . Our networked life allows us to hide from each other, even as we are tethered to each other. We’d rather text than talk.
Weaving narratives together
Sherry weaves together two narratives that play off each other in powerful ways. As she relates:
I tell two stories in Alone Together: today’s story of the network, with its promise to give us more control over human relationships, and tomorrow’s story of sociable robots, which promise relationships where we will be in control, even if that means not being in relationships at all.
Sherry later summarizes her narrative:
The narrative of Alone Together describes an arc: we expect more from technology and less from each other. . . . Overwhelmed, we have been drawn to connections that seem low risk and always at hand: Facebook friends, avatars, IRC chat partners. If convenience and control continue to be our priorities, we shall be tempted by sociable robots, where, like gamblers at their slot machines, we are promised excitement programmed in, just enough to keep us in the game. At the robotic moment, we have to be concerned that the simplification and reduction of relationship is no longer something we complain about. It may become what we expect, even desire.
Sherry repeatedly returns to this paradox: "With sociable robots, we imagine objects as people. Online, we invent ways of being with people that turn them into something close to objects."
The first section of the book describes the trajectory we seem to be pursuing with regard to robots: "In talking about sociable robots, I described an arc that went from seeing simulation as better than nothing to simply better, as offering companions that could meet one’s exact emotional requirements."
While I found this section intriguing, I was most deeply engaged by the second part of the narrative: the role of technology in diluting our personal relationships while seeming to enrich and expand them. Her message is simple: the very technologies that seem to offer more flexibility and scale in connecting with others – texting, online social networks and discussion forums – actually undermine the richness required for true intimacy to develop. While enhancing the appearance of intimacy, we are actually becoming more isolated and alone. There appears to be a Gresham’s Law of communication: weak forms of communication, left unchecked, can drive out strong forms over time.
Sherry drives these points home with deep stories of individuals wrestling with the consequences of these new communication technologies. Those who come to this book looking for rich statistical data will be disappointed. This is a powerful ethnographic study that makes its points come alive with individual stories and experiences. It is up to the readers to decide how representative these stories are in terms of their own experience and the experiences of the people they know. For me, the stories were powerful and rang true.
Sherry also uses wonderful turns of phrases that cause readers to stop in their tracks to reflect on their meaning. Here are just a few examples:
- "There but not there" (describing how we present ourselves in social situations)
- "Connectivity and its discontents"
- "Consumed by that which we were nourished by"
- "Moments of more may leave us with lives of less"
- "We have moved from multi-tasking to multi-lifing"
- "The notion of authenticity is for us what sex was for the Victorians – threat and obsession, taboo and fascination."
- "The ties we form through the Internet are not, in the end, the ties that bind. But they are the ties that preoccupy."
Going deeper to understand the causes
So, why are we using technology in ways that isolate while creating the illusion of connectivity? It would be too easy to say that technology makes it so. The technology has power because it addresses psychological vulnerabilities that many of us have. We want connection, but many of us fear the consequences of connection. True intimacy can be very scary. As Sherry points out, this is particularly true of the narcissists – those with “a personality so fragile that it needs constant support”:
[The narcissistic personality] cannot tolerate the complex demands of other people but tries to relate to them by distorting who they are and splitting off what it needs, what it can use. . . . a fragile person can also be supported by selected and limited contacts with people (say, the people on a cell phone “favorites” list). In a life of texting and messaging, those on that contact list can be made to appear almost on demand. You can take what you need and move on. And, if not gratified, you can try someone else.”
This can set into motion a vicious cycle. As Sherry points out:
. . . if we ask, “What does simulation want?” we know what it wants. It wants – it demands – immersion. But immersed in simulation, it can be hard to remember all that lies beyond it or even to acknowledge that everything is not captured by it. For simulation not only demands but creates a self that prefers simulation. Simulation offers relationships simpler than real life can provide. We become accustomed to the reductions and betrayals that prepare us for life with the robotic.
I think Sherry is right to point out that the explanation for our particular usage patterns of communication technology must begin with our own individual needs and vulnerabilities. But I would have liked her to go further in exploring how these patterns emerge and get reinforced by our broader social and economic contexts. She discusses increasing time pressure but does not really explore why this is occurring.
The impact of our business landscape
Many of the usage patterns she describes so compellingly have their source in the business world where globalization and digital technology infrastructures are increasing competitive pressure and leading to sustained erosion in performance. Rather than stepping back to reassess if the current way of doing business is still appropriate, the reaction of most business executives is to squeeze harder, demanding more output with fewer and fewer resources. In this environment, the basic assumptions of the business world take even deeper root: transactions trump relationships, short-term trumps long-term, multi-tasking trumps focus, predictability and control trump experimentation and initiative.
The new modes of communication enabled by technology fit right in to this mindset. They provide us with the illusion of control and predictability.
Our children are not immune. Parents, sensing growing pressure on themselves, demand more from their children earlier in life. The day of the average child is programmed from early morning to late at night. As children grow into teens, the pressure mounts. Our children are often the first to embrace the new technology as a way to cope with the growing time pressures and adults then learn from their children.
In this context, we might want to challenge the conventional wisdom regarding the “consumerization” of IT. Yes, individuals are rapidly adopting new forms of technology and drawing it into the enterprise. But perhaps they are adopting this technology in response to growing pressures from the workplace. Maybe they are using it in ways that are consistent with the dominant mindset in the business world.
In fact, there may be a long-evolving connection between our individual psychological needs and the evolution of our business landscape over the past 60 years. Sherry cites the work of the sociologist David Riesman who, back in the mid-1950’s, observed that Americans were turning from an inner- to an other-directed sense of the self (the title of his book, “The Lonely Crowd,” echoes the title of Sherry’s book). Riesman in fact tied this shift explicitly to the needs of the modern organization. More recently, Robert Putnam wrote his seminal book, “Bowling Alone”, a decade ago to draw attention to the significant decline in participation in civic organizations by the average American, blaming it in part to the rise of television and the Internet.
The rise of the push driven organization and its implications for the individual
Perhaps all of this has been playing out over a longer period of time in response to the rise of the 20th century organization, one built on a drive for scalable efficiency and the broad adoption of push programs to achieve this goal. Push programs, designed to mobilize people and resources in advance to meet forecasted demand, have many interesting consequences. Predictability becomes the highest objective.
To achieve predictability, people are treated as objects, or better yet, robots designed to execute detailed programs. They learn that their needs are not important but that their status and rewards hinge on being externally focused on the needs of the organization.
Relationships fall by the wayside as everyone becomes more tightly focused on short-term transactions specified by the push programs. Communication becomes instrumental, designed to achieve the task at hand as quickly and as efficiently as possible. As performance pressures continue to mount, it is not surprising that we embrace any technology that emerges that can help us attain the robotic ideal more effectively.
So what is the answer?
To address these mounting pressures and the impact they have on the relationships around us, perhaps we need something more than conversations and small behavior changes. In the face of mounting pressures from our work lives, perhaps we need something more fundamental. Perhaps we need to re-connect with our passion and find ways to integrate our passion with our profession.
In reflecting on Sherry’s book, I went through the exercise of identifying people that I thought were relatively immune from the technology-enabled behaviors that Sherry so eloquently identifies and criticizes. The outliers that came to mind all had one thing in common: they were deeply passionate about their work and had what I have described as the “passion of the explorer”.
Driven by a connecting disposition, these people deeply engage with others and rapidly build trust-based relationships, relying heavily on face to face meetings and lengthy phone (or Skype) conversations. They enrich these relationships by drawing people into shared quests where deep engagement is required to come up with the creative new approaches to succeed in the quest.
These individuals are not vulnerable to continued distraction by the myriad demands on their attention. While they explore actively beyond their comfort zone, they remain tightly focused on the domain that is the object of their passion. They also have a deepening sense of self as they become more and more aware of their current limitations and the potential within them that needs to be drawn out.
The business implications of "Alone Together"
But, how to reconnect this back to our workplace? Well, it turns out that passion is a key driver of sustained extreme performance improvement. As individuals in an increasingly competitive world, we are more likely to succeed if we are pursuing our passion because we will improve our performance more rapidly than we would if we simply remain in a 9-5 job. From a company perspective, companies will begin to realize that the old approaches are yielding diminishing returns and that the only way to remain competitive is to create environments that can help passionate employees to more effectively achieve their potential, including modes of communication that foster deep, trust-based relationships, both within the firm and outside the firm.
For reasons developed more fully in "The Power of Pull," Sherry’s book should not just be read as a plea to us as individuals struggling with fraying relationships. It needs to become required reading for business executives to ponder in the context of mounting performance pressure. Are the modes of communication described by Sherry the modes that will be most helpful in driving creativity, innovation and rapid learning from each other? We are not only paying a high social price for our current use of technology; there is a high business price being paid as well.