Social Technology and the Self: Sherry Turkle talks with Dartmouth Now

Sherry Turkle, author of the new book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. (photo by Peter Urban)

Sherry Turkle, the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT and the Director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, will present a public lecture on Thursday, February 10, at 4:30 p.m. in Kemeny 008 as part of the Digital Humanities Lecture Series, in cooperation with the Leslie Center for the Humanities and Computer Science at Dartmouth. An expert in mobile technology, social networking, social robotics, and the “subjective side” of people’s relationships with technology, Turkle recently authored Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. The book has received excellent reviews from The Wall Street Journal and Newsweek, among others, and examines the relationship between humans and social robots and the ways in which the Internet enables humans to construe others as entities similar to objects. Before arriving in Hanover, Turkle took time to answer a few questions from Dartmouth Now.

You have been studying human interaction with social technology for several decades. Could you have predicted our current dependence on it when you first began your studies?

What I did not adequately foresee—I like to say to my students “Call me not prescient!”—is that people would be tethered to technology. This means that wherever we are, whatever we are doing, we can essentially bail out and be “elsewhere.”

When parents and children sit down to dinner together and each member of a family is on a device; when we text while driving, endangering our lives; when we text at funerals . . . it is time to take stock and make the corrections. My favorite sentence in Alone Together, if an author may be allowed a favorite sentence, is “Just because we grew up with the Internet, we think the Internet is all grown up.” It is not. We are in very early days. There is still time to turn this technology to our human purposes.

What has been the biggest surprise to you with respect to social technology?

I thought that there would be more of a conversation around issues of privacy. In writing Alone Together, I wanted very much to contribute to this conversation. Mark Zuckerberg [the founder and CEO of Facebook] has recently said that “privacy is no longer a relevant as a social norm.” But what is intimacy without privacy? What is democracy without privacy? Privacy may not be convenient for the social network, but it may be crucial for both intimacy and democracy.

When I was a young girl, my grandmother took me down to the mailboxes at our apartment house in Brooklyn and said, “It is a federal offense to open a mailbox. In Europe, the government could spy on you by reading your mail. In America, it is a federal offense. That’s why we’re in this country. This is a democracy.” In my mind, democracy and privacy became inextricably linked. She made me a citizen and a civil libertarian at those mailboxes. Facebook does not teach these habits.

What do you think will happen with social technology in the future?

I do think people feel that something, and it is not always clear what it is in their minds, is amiss. I think a conversation is starting, that people are going to be more active in carving out new spaces for themselves.

What do you think is the most outstanding or important effect social technology has had on our psychology?

Teenagers go from “I have a feeling, I want to make a call,” to “I want to have a feeling, I need to send a text.” And we risk losing the capacity for solitude, the kind that refreshes and restores. There is a great saying in psychology: if you don’t teach your children to be alone, they will only always know how to be lonely. We risk loneliness if we always need to be connected. We run three risks: We are too busy communicating to connect; too busy communicating to think; and too busy communicating to create.