Each month, we ask a member of the Vanderbilt Divinity School faculty to recommend a book they are currently reading. Our March recommendation is offered by Evon Flesberg, Assistant Professor of the Practice of Pastoral Theology and Counseling.
This Month’s Book: Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle, (New York: Basic Books, 2011).
Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other will get under your skin. It will simmer on the back burner of your mind and will provide juice for lively discussions with folks of all ages. “Sherry Turkle is the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, the founder and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, and a licensed clinical psychologist” according to the book’s cover; however, her impressive credentials need not create the impression that this text will not be easily read. Quite to the contrary, Turkle’s experience in teaching and skill in writing create the feeling that one has sat down for coffee and is having a satisfying conversation about ubiquitous, but not inconsequential, realities of our shared lives. Turkle says she “tells two stories in Alone Together: today’s story of the network [Internet], with its promise to give us more control over human relationships, and tomorrow’s story of sociable robots, which promise relationship where we will be in control, even if that means not being in relationship at all.” (17)
We are drawn in by Turkle’s engaging narrative style as she relates the development of robots that are “alive enough” for us to be captivated. We are willing not only to be taught by smart machines, but we are enraptured by machine “creatures” that evoke emotions of attachment and the desire to nurture. What does it mean that we work to create robots that will nanny the children and care for those of many years, or custom create the perfect intimate companion? [I just wrote robots “who” and my computer program noted it should be “that”! How long will it be before robots will be the human “who” and the computer will insist on it?] Dr. Turkle was discussing with children the development of robots that will care for people. The children asked, “Don’t we have people for these jobs?” (108) Don’t we have people . . . . ?
Alone Together also shares findings about how we are shaped by online life–whether it is immersion in complex game playing, a virtual life, creating and tending a social media site—or by communication that takes place via digital print. When Turkle was discussing the primacy of soundless print with her friend, the friend responded: “We cannot all write like Lincoln or Shakespeare, but even the least gifted among us has this incredible instrument, our voice, to communicate the range of human emotion. Why would we deprive ourselves of that?” Even then, a student in my seminar pointed out that most communication is non-verbal. Turkle responds, “The beginning of an answer has become clear: in text, messaging, and e-mail, you hide as much as you show. You can present yourself as you wish ‘to be seen.’ ” (207)
Turkle’s gift of Alone Together is an invitation to stop and consider our connections. Are they real or virtually real? Who is behind the text that appears on our screens? Are we intentionally or unintentionally being deceived? Do we have the courage to risk deeply knowing others face to face in the fullness of each person’s life and suffering? Will we open ourselves to be more authentically known or will we settle for being a constructed self, guaranteed to garner envy or admiration rather than risk the possibility of radical acceptance of the self we, embodied and flawed, really are? We text or convert voice to type “I love you”s and keep our eyes on the screens—alone we are together. What are the ethical implications of excluding millions from communicating because they lack the privilege of having the devices or skills to use them? Do we really believe that it is right for sites we visit, or create, to own–and profit–from our data, our lives? What is the meaning of forgiveness in an era of permanent digital records? Is “efficiency” the highest value when connecting with other human beings? Robots for ministers, psychotherapists, caregivers of the vulnerable, perfect intimate companions, and virtual friends—with the children we might ask, “Don’t we have people . . . ?”