Review of Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other 2011, Basic Books

(Attention conservation notice: a rambling 1800 word book review in which I am rude about Sherry Turkle and psychoanalysis, and I tell you how to think properly about the psychology of technology)

This book annoyed me so much I wasn’t sure at page 12 if I could manage the other 293. In the end I read the introduction and the conclusion, skimming the rest. Turkle’s argument is interesting and important, I just couldn’t face the supposed evidence she announced she was going to bring out in the body of the book.

Psychoanalysts are conspiracy theorists of the soul, and nowhere is that clearer than in Turkle’s reasoning about technology. Page after page of anecdotes are used to introduce the idea that communications technologies such as email, facebook and twitter offer an illusion of intimacy, but in fact drive us into a new solitude. This might be true, its an important idea to entertain, but pause for a moment to think how you would establish if it really was the case or not.

For Turkle, the evidence is all around, discerned by her keen psycholanlytically-trained psychologist’s eye. A young woman chats to her grandmother on skype for an hour a week – touching example of a relationship deepened and sustained? No! Unbeknownst to the grandmother the young woman uses that hour to catch up on her emails, leaving her unsatisfied with the skype conversation, with vague feelings of guilt and a failure to connect. Turkle combines stories like these of people she’s met with sweeping generalisations about how “we” feel – increasingly disconnected, overwhelmed and unable to tell where the boundary between work and home life is. Text messages, originally a substitute of the phone call you couldn’t make, “very quickly…became the connection of choice” she announces. Really? For everyone?

Throughout Turkle seems to assume that this new age of communications technology has accelerated us into an age of dislocation and disconnection. This may be so, but a few anecdotes about people’s unsatisfactory relationships and yearning for deeper intimacy and authenticity don’t establish this. Here is the news: it was ever so. Now people wonder if their facebook friends are true friends, previously we wondered if our friends on the team, or in the pub, were our true friends. Now we wish for romantic relationships without betrayal and inconvenience, previously this is what we wished for too. Ambiguity, failure and fear of disconnection are not a novel part of online relationships they are part of the human condition and it is mighty irksome that Turkle assumes the novelty of these things. She is seeing what she wants to see in the world around her. There is also an inherent conservatism in her assumption that things were better before this anarchy of technology was loosed upon the world, the assumption that not only were things better before, but that this was the way they were “supposed to be”. The comic thing is that her historical benchmark is just as arbitrary – as if phone calls were a good and proper means of communication, a ceremony of innocence drowned by the destructive forces of text messaging and skype. When the phone was invented there was a moral panic about the what this technology would do for relationships, the same as there was a moral panic when printed books became widespread. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t invent a new form of communication, such as the text messasge, and it come to fill a niche in the ecology of how we relate to each other. People haven’t stopped making phone calls, they have augmented the way they communicate with text messages, not substituted texting for phoning.

Reading the book it is hard to shake the impression that everything Turkle says is in a slightly dismayed and hysterical tones “Oh no! The kids are using text messaging” “Oh no! People underestimate the distracting effect of checking their email!” “Oh no! The kids find face to face conversations threatening, the little dears can’t live in the real world”

Again: it was ever so. And of course, with anything new, you can always find some genuinely mislead and bewildered people. Turkle has some striking examples of people who wish for relationships – both romantic and sexual – with robots. This shows, she says, that we are in the ‘robotic moment’. It is not that robots are ready for our desires, but that our desires are now ready for the idea for intimacy with robots. A young woman yearns for a robot lover, wanting to trade her human boyfriend for a “no risk relationship”; an elderly woman saying that her robot dog “won’t die suddenly and abandon you and make you very sad”; the genuinely astounding argument of David Levy’s “Love and Sex with Robots” which proposes that soon we’ll be fighting for the right to marry robots in the same way we fought for the right to marry people of the same sex. Are we only discussing these possibilites, asks Turkle, because we are failing each other in human relationships?

The impression I get is of a very earnest anthropologist, speaking to the young people of a alien tribe, ready to be shocked and titillated by their revelations. Do the people speaking to Turkle really believe what they say, or are they egged on by her credulity, just as the tribespeople compete to tell the anthropologist say ever more outrageous things? Yes, yes I would prefer a robot lover. Yes, yes, real men are a disappointment – irritating, changeable – and the simulation of intimacy would be better than a risk on authentic intimacy.

My problem is not that people are seeking to escape human frailty and ambiguity with robots, but that Turkle seems to assume that there was ever a time when some people didn’t try to escape human frailty and ambiguity. It isn’t that we are newly dissatisfied with our relationships, that we are newly struggling for authenticity. Rather it is that the old struggle has found a new form, that the eternal uncertainties we have of ourselves and each other are given a new light by technology.

Turkle has a important point disguised by a boring pessimism. “Relationships with robots are ramping up; relationships with people are ramping down” she says “of every technology, we must ask, Does it serve our human purposes?” This later point is vitally important. The idea that Turkle has proven that human relationships are “ramping down” due to the current communications technology is the distraction. This is just a generational cry of despair, common to every age, when one age group realise they don’t understand or don’t like how their children behave.

True, we must ask how technology can be built to enhance our relationships, and true intimacy and authenticity are endangered, but it was always so and Turkle’s speculations of doom help only to muddy the waters.

I find myself wondering why Turkle has this pervasive pessimism about our ability to sensibly navigate these new technologies. Perhaps, it is related to the stance she seems to adopt to the characters that populate her anecdotes, which is of subjects under her microscope, an amorphous mass of “them” rather than as unique individuals with stories and weaknesses just like all of us. This may just be my knee-jerk dislike of psychoanalysts but her stance towards these characters in her argument always felt condescending and arrogant, as if she alone possessed the objective stance, as if only she, with her psychoanalytic training, was expert enough to discern the loneliness and feel what they themselves didn’t know they felt. Again, the tone reminded me of the naive anthropologist – aren’t they strange?! Isn’t their confusion fascinating?!

I would have had more faith in Turkle’s reasoning if she talked more about her experience, rather than relating this anecdotes from people she met at conferences and at Parisian dinner parties.

Turke’s underlying assumption is that technology is a thing separate from, or gets in between, authentic relationships. (There’s a comparison to those who diagnose an addiction to the internet, as if the internet were a substance, when it is just a medium). In fact, technology is part of relationships because it is part of our minds (see Andy Clark’s book Natural Born Cyborgs for an exploration of this idea). Technology cannot get in the way of some kind of natural detection of reality because we never have direct contact with reality – it is always mediated by culture, history, language, expectations, and the whole architecture of our minds for understanding the world. As every psychologist should know, the idea of “virtual reality” is a misnomer because reality has always been virtual. A concrete example of this confusion is when Turkle assumes that she (alone) can tell the real (flesh and blood) encounters from the fake (technologically mediated) encounters. “The ties we form through the internet are not, in the end, the ties that bind” she says solemnly. This is a ridiculous generalisation, and must be confusing to all those who met over the internet, or have had relationships deepened because of the internet. Can you imagine how ridiculous Turkle would sound if she’d made such a generalisation about another medium. “The ties formed through writing are not the ties that bind”, “The ties formed by those speaking French are not the ties that bind”. Nonsense! Again Turkle has been distracted by her pessimism and her conservatism. The problem of human bonds is not a new one, we’ve always struggled to find rapprochement with each other, the internet doesn’t change that. It does give the problem interesting new dimensions, and I’ve no doubt that we’ll struggle collectively with these new dimensions for decades, but I don’t see Turkle doing anything to make clear the outlines of the problem or advance any solutions.

New technology is easy to think about, partly because the novel always stands out against the background of the old, and partly because it is easier to think about the material aspects of things, and the material aspects of technology can be ubiquitous (like text messages and email) or particularly entrancing (like robots). But let me give an alternative vision to Turkle’s Cassandra wail. Rather than technology, a far more real threat to intimacy and authenticity in the modern world is the continuous parade of advertising which tries to hock material goods with the promise that they can give access to transcendent values. Cars which give freedom, cameras which give friendship, diamonds that which give love and clothes that give confidence. Here is a cultural force, with a massive budget and the active intention to make us dissatisfied with our possessions, our lifestyles, our bodies and our relationships. How about we worry a bit more about that, and less about the essentially democratic technologies of communication.