On Being Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less From Each Other (2011)

It’s Friday evening. You had a hectic week. The kids are out, and your partner just poured you a big glass of red wine. Ah, its time to relax and forget about your annoying boss and the year-end budget. You collapse on the couch, kick off your shoes, close your eyes and . . . are jolted alert by the beeping of your cell phone.

Sound familiar?

According to Sherry Turkle, MIT technology and society specialist, the miracle of 21st century technology has created a deeply disruptive paradox in daily life. While our connection to others is unrelenting, we feel more isolated and alone than ever before. Our authentic self – the self that longs to share innermost feelings deeply with others – is buried under a vast network of interconnected personas. The superficiality of these connections distracts us from nurturing ‘real’ intimacy with partners, friends and family. The various ways technology shapes human connection is explored in Turkle’s book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.

While appreciating how technology has brought amazing benefits to Western society as a whole, Turkle’s 15 year’s of research finds that heightened connectivity often brings enhanced feelings of disconnect. Turkle shares the story of a young woman who spoke with her Grandmother by phone on the other side of the world each week. Conversations were short but treasured. When they switched to skype, they spoke twice a week for longer periods of time. The young woman recounts how this change in communication altered her relationship with her Grandmother, when she found herself multi-tasking on the computer rather than being with her Grandmother in that moment. Skype allowed her to maintain the illusion of connection without the reality of intimacy.

And this illusion is reflected in many aspects of our daily life – the texting while at a family dinner scenario, the amazing life that is captured in moment-by-moment selfies, the facebook creeper who shows up at our birthday party uninvited. Each of these situations suggests a misalignment between the depth of our connection to others, and the level of intimacy we actually share with them.

Turkle as a trained psychoanalyst sees a strong connection between this misalignment and personal feelings of anxiety. As expectations to connect and share private moments has increased with the ubiquity of texting for example, individuals experience a greater sense of vulnerability, and fear potential internet shaming by others who have no real awareness of the context of their judgments.

So, as we check our texts while driving or in mid-conversation, flip between several tv shows that we watch simultaneously, look for gently used patio furniture on kijiji that we don’t actually need, and browse through our ical, wondering where we can fit another yoga class in, we realize that all this busy-ness, all this information, shapes the quality of intimacy we share with others. Turkle’s book is a well-researched, good reminder to be mindful of how connectivity may disguise itself as intimacy, and to make room in daily life to value and nurture intimacy.

Sherry Turkle
On Being Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less From Each Other (2011)
Available from Amazon

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