Sunday, September 03, 2017

Alone Together (2011)

Sherry Turkle is an MIT professor who has spent a career examining the blurry line between humans and the machines they build. I remember that her last book on internet culture also had a keen interest in artificial intelligence (Life on the Screen, from 1995), but it was more sanguine or even optimistic about where it was all headed. Sixteen years later, she is quite evidently troubled. The book is divided into two sections, one on "sociable robots" and the other more generally on recent internet developments, notably social media. The robot section starts with two toy fads of the late '90s, Tamagotchis and Furbies, probing children age 4 to 15 about the sense they have of the aliveness of the creatures. Turkle always comes back to the strange allure of intelligent machines, acknowledging the reality of the appeal and characterizing it as a kind of projection, triggered in many different ways. Humans are hardwired to see faces, for example, reacting sympathetically and emotionally. When Turkle meets the robots Cog and Kismet, a more serious foray into robotics in the early 2000s, she feels flattered when one glances at her. Almost in spite of herself she momentarily thinks she feels some connection with it—as if it could understand her. It's also how many users describe their encounters with various robotic pets, incidentally suggesting a certain unnerving potentiality of them as caregivers and even companions. The second half, when she gets into Facebook (along with Second Life, a range of confessional sites, and more), was even more interesting. She points out how our styles of communication are changing. Suddenly, very few people enjoy sitting around talking on the phone the way they used to, and increasingly a whole generation is rejecting email too. It's more and more about "checking in" various ways, monitoring screens. Now I'm old-fashioned enough that I still like email, but I also don't like to talk on the phone. A complaint Turkle hears more than once is that it's too hard to say goodbyes and hang up. At the last minute, people don't want to let go. I know that experience. The time-shifting approach—I drop you a text or email or even voicemail (no one likes that anymore either, but I'm not sure anyone ever did) and you respond when you can or want—which is usually quickly, in this day and age, one of Turkle's points. What started as a convenience for people on the go has somehow morphed into a new paradigm of understanding time and reality. We are in this together. We can be in touch instantly. Yet we are too busy to actually spend time together. But we can be instantly available, at least for a few seconds of scant attention. We are all in this separate boat at the same time, hence the title of her book. Along the way, Turkle offers lots of provocative anecdotes and discussion, always searching for the touch points of technology and intimacy.

In case it's not at the library.

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