Alone Together

Summary Written by Susan Jaehn-Kreibaum
"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."

- Alone Together, page 17

The Big Idea

Online Technology and the Illusion of Companionship—Marriage to Robots?

"I suggested that the very fact we were discussing marriage to robots at all was a comment on human disappointments–that in matters of love and sex, we must be failing each other. I did not see marriage to a machine as a welcome evolution in human relationships."- Alone Together, page 7

Our cultural expectations of technology are shifting to accept that future intimacy with machines is not only a substitute for finding a person to love, but possibly even preferable! Many people are beginning to feel that by sharing an intimate relationship with a machine, we avoid all the messiness and frustratingly complex relationships in the world of people.

We are now seeing a world in which technology—robots—are capable of doing almost any task that a human can. One of the great fears for future generations is that we are already living in a world of instant gratification. We can have anything we want and we can have it now. Technology has given us that gift.

However, what once gave us a sense of purpose and fulfillment in our jobs was knowing that we had worked hard, and that we had done a good job. We benefit in one way from the advancement of technology, but at what cost? Rather than just accept these changes I think we need to make a conscious effort to keep the human and personal aspect in our lives, both in our personal relationships and our workplaces.

Insight #1

Caring Machines

"Twenty-five years ago the Japanese calculated that demography was working against them—there would not be enough young Japanese to take care of their aging population. They decided that instead of having foreigners take care of the elderly, they would build robots to do the job."- Alone Together, page 105

In many ways the creation of robots to do the jobs that people have always done can be seen as a solution. Perhaps there are not enough people and resources to do the jobs that robots are capable of doing. Some robots are designed to dispense medication to the elderly, reach items on high shelves and help keep people safe. This is all good.

However, I return to the “feelings” part of robots versus people. Our capacity for empathy and the ability to place ourselves in the shoes of someone else is what makes us human. Have we really arrived at the point in time where we will now outsource friendship and companionship?

The ability to Skype or FaceTime is a convenient way to engage with loved ones who are far away or scattered across different time zones. But, the feeling is canned and superficial: the connection not always clear, and we are staring at a screen, not a person.

Social media has made us feel more connected than ever—and we don’t even need to leave the house. Take the time to make a face-to-face connection. Schedule a coffee with your best friend, turn off your phone and make dinner for your family, or spend a few minutes chatting with a stranger in line at the grocery store—though machines are taking over some caring roles in our society, I believe that face-to-face connection is still worth pursuing.

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Insight #2

Always On

"Within a decade, what had seemed alien was close to becoming everyone’s way of life, as compact smartphones replaced the cyborg’s more elaborate accoutrements."- Alone Together, page 152

People love new technologies because they allow us to be connected at all times. Parents and children feel more secure, knowing that they are reachable at all times. These advancements have changed everything and made vast improvements in business, education, and medicine. We have a world of information, constantly, right at our fingertips. We are experiencing a level of connectivity like never before, and that has changed how we date, travel, and basically communicate with one another.

While all of these technologies allow us an unimaginable amount of freedom, and a feeling of connectedness, we are losing the traditional art of communication.

In order to thrive in this new world—in our homes, our workplaces, our relationships—we will need to make daily efforts to unplug. We may need to pick up the phone and call someone and have a real conversation. Rather than emailing your colleague, or getting your “bot” to deliver a memo, get up out of your chair and walk over to that person’s desk.Shut off your cell phone before entering a meeting room. Engage the person to your left or your right in conversation.

“We have to find a way to live with seductive technology and make it work to our purposes.”

We must train ourselves to turn off our devices when we interact face-to-face with another human being. Computers and cell phones cannot replace the building of real life relationships. Without relationships, and a live and personal connection to another human being, I feel we will become more isolated than ever before, despite having the world at our fingertips. I think we need to treat technology with respect but remember how we use it, how often, and when. It is still a choice–a choice that we can and should be making ourselves.

Read the book

Get Alone Together on Amazon.

Sherry Turkle

Sherry Turkle has spent the last 30 years studying the psychology of people’s relationships with technology. She is the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT. A licensed clinical psychologist, she is the founder and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. Turkle is the author five books and three edited collections, including a trilogy of three landmark studies on our relationship with digital culture: The Second Self, Life on the Screen and most recently, Alone Together. A recipient of a Guggenheim and Rockefeller Humanities Fellowship, she is a featured media commentator. She is a recipient of a Harvard Centennial Medal and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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